Stuart Forster finds the Royal Yacht Britannia floats his boat on a visit the Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Royal Yacht Britannia is moored at Leith Docks in Edinburgh and is one of the United Kingdom’s most popular tourist attractions.
A red-topped flyer caught my eye in the Visit Scotland tourist information centre (3 Princes Street) in the Scottish capital . ‘VISIT SCOTLAND’S BEST ATTRACTION’ it urged in white capitals on a red background, above the word BRITANNIA and a stylised picture of the royal yacht looking much like a liner on an advertising poster from the 1920s.
Minutes later I was on a bus heading towards Leith.
Winston Churchill was the UK’s Prime Minister when the Britannia was launched at Clydebank on 16 March 1953. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II a little more than a month later.
Decommissioning of the Britannia
The royal yacht sailed more than a million miles before being decommissioned during a ceremony at Portsmouth on 11 December 1997. She docked at more than 600 ports in 135 countries while in service that saw 968 official visits.
During those intervening 44 years much changed. The United Kingdom has granted independence to several former colonies. Britannia’s last official mission was to bring Prince Charles and Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, back from the territory after it was handed back to the People’s Republic of China.
A place of royal relaxation
It’s said the Queen felt that Britannia was a place where she could relax while sailing between official engagements. They took her to Great Britain, the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world.
Her Majesty would, in all probability, have travelled from central Edinburgh to the Ocean Terminal at Leith in a Rolls-Royce rather than on the upper deck of the number 11 bus. After all, a royal Rolls-Royce is displayed on the deck of the 412ft 3in (125.6 metre) long yacht. For me the number 11, from Princes Street, was more accessible.
I bet the Queen never tucked into a burrito from Taco Mazama before boarding. Hunger, though, had me firmly in its grasp as I wandered through the Ocean Terminal Shopping Terminal, the waterfront mall through which the royal yacht is now entered. Ultimately grabbing a bite to eat was an act of respect—I didn’t want my tummy to rumble as I explored a ship that has held banquets for numerous heads of state, royal visitors and entertained Frank Sinatra. If I’d been going for a more immersive experience perhaps I should have waited and visited the ship’s Royal Deck Tea Room.
Audio guides in 27 languages
A staff member in neatly pressed tartan trews passed me an audio guide as I boarded. While visiting tourist attractions there’s always that underlying temptation to skip the occasional snippet of information but I found the information about Britannia genuinely engrossing.
The recordings conveyed a sense of the rhythm of daily life on board the vessel, which has five decks. Nine different admirals and a commodore commanded Britannia, which had a crew of 220 yachtsmen.
On deck they did not wear caps, so, technically, were not in uniform. This meant they did not have to salute members of the royal family. The crew did, however, need to stand still in their presence and complete tasks, such as the scrubbing of the teak-surfaced deck be 8.00am each morning. Orders were never shouted, to maintain a sense of calm and decorum.
A lot of different uniforms
On days with formal engagements, the commander of the royal yacht was required to change uniform as many as 12 times. That may sound a lot but members of the Royal Marines Band Service had up to 22, hence the sizable laundry, which operated up to 24-hours a day.
Until 1973 the crew slept in hammocks—the Britannia was the last ship in the Royal Navy with that type of bedding.
Perhaps surprisingly, the yacht is the only place where members of the public can see a bedroom of a living British monarch. The Queen and Prince Philip slept in single beds that were three feet wide and had separate offices for working during voyages. They would relax in the sun lounge or drawing room, which holds copies of newspapers such as the Racing Post and a baby grand piano at which Noël Coward once performed.
Rooms on five decks
The dining room exhibits some of the many artefacts presented to the royal family during state visits, including a pig killer from Papua New Guinea.
Even visitors who are not technically minded are likely to be impressed by the pristine state of the engine room. With polished chrome and white enamel it is reputed to have prompted General Norman Schwarzkopf to say, “I’ve seen the museum piece. Now, where’s the real engine room?”
A tribute to British engineering and maintenance, it could generate 12,000 horsepower and a top speed of 22.5 knots (just under 26 miles per hour).
Britannia impressed. Heading back into Edinburgh I couldn’t help but wonder what the future holds for the good ship Britain and who will be at the helm as she sails away from Europe.
Visiting the Royal Yacht Britannia
See the Royal Yacht Britannia website for up-to-date information regarding opening times and admission prices.
Getting to the Royal Yacht Britannia
The Royal Yacht Britannia (tel. +44 131 5555566) s permanently moored by the Ocean Terminal at Leith. Lothian Buses (numbers 11, 22 and 35) run regular services to and from Edinburgh city centre.
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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