London - This is the year of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday and although the two official celebrations have come and gone, the atmosphere in England is still festive.
Every tourist’s London itinerary includes the must-see spots. You simply have to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, take a spin on the London Eye, pose with Johnny Depp at Madame Tussaud’s, sip afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason, or ogle the spectacular Crown Jewels at The Tower of London.
On a recent trip to England and Scotland, I spent time at several castles and palaces to get a more in-depth sense of history. Walking through these grand homes offers a peek into what life was like for the monarchy and how they live today.
Buckingham Palace is a great place to start. Offered daily until next month, a walkabout takes in 19 state rooms, where the queen and royal family regularly receive guests and visiting dignitaries.
The interior, designed by John Nash to King George IV’s taste, is grand, with gorgeous candelabra, fine furnishings, sculptures, paintings by Van Dyck, and porcelain pieces by Svres.
A drive to Windsor, about an hour by car from central London, is well worth it. The castle, the oldest and largest inhabited one in the world, has been the family home of British kings and queens for almost 1 000 years. It is a fully functioning palace and an official residence of Queen Elizabeth, whose standard flies from the Round Tower when she is present, which is most weekends.
The town of Windsor is a popular destination for families and tourists and there are special events on most Saturdays. The gardens of the Great Park are expansive and kids can play games and go on activity trails. At the castle they can take part in multimedia tours, dress up as knights, princes and princesses, and learn more about the monarchy and Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago.
In the castle, Queen Mary’s doll’s house is a major attraction. An exquisitely crafted miniature palace, it stands just under a metre high and was built between 1921 and 1924. It’s filled with tiny replicas - even the library shelves are lined with original works by the top literary names of the day, and there is a fully stocked wine cellar.
The doll’s house also includes a miniature set of the Crown Jewels and 1 000 artworks. It even has electricity, hot and cold running water, working lifts and loos.
Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, only an hour and half from London by air, is Queen Elizabeth’s official residence in Scotland. It was built in about 1678 in the baroque style by Sir William Bruce during the reign of James V, and is the seat of the monarchy in Scotland.
Every year, at the beginning of summer, the queen spends time there to fulfil a number of royal obligations. The Palace of Holyrood house is open to the public all year, except when the queen is there. The palace was originally home to Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded.
You can take a tour and wander through the historic apartments, the Great Gallery with more than 100 portraits of Scottish monarchs, imposing towers and turret rooms, and the Augustine Abbey ruins. There are four hectares of gardens, set against the backdrop of Arthur’s Seat - which is the highest point in adjacent Holyrood Park and has an excellent view of the city.
Running until October 16 is Fashioning A Reign, an exhibition on the nine decades of the queen’s wardrobe, showing outfits from her childhood to today. A similar exhibition is on at Windsor Castle this month and another was held at Buckingham Palace in July -making it 150 royal outfits that have been on display this year.
At the opposite end of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, a fortress that presides majestically over the city. Built on a 700-million-year-old volcano, Castle Rock, it has been a royal home, garrison and prison, and in its 1 100-year history it has withstood 26 sieges - the most of any place in Great Britain.
The castle has many legends and superstitions. Edinburgh University students tend to leave visiting the castle until after they have graduated as it’s believed those who enter the gates while studying are sure to fail.
The Lonely Piper ghost apparently haunts the fortress, roaming the subterranean tunnels beneath the castle, playing his bagpipes mournfully.
And what about the laird’s lugs or lord’s ears? These are the eavesdropping holes King James IV had cut in the walls, and which had the KGB in a flat spin in 1984 when Mikhail Gorbachev was about to hold a conference at the castle.
Every August the military tattoo, with the Scottish regiments on parade in their kilts, takes place in front of the castle on the grand esplanade.
On Mondays to Saturdays at 1pm sharp, in keeping with a ritual that began in 1861, the Mons Meg cannon, a medieval supergun, is fired by someone called Shannon the Cannon. Back in the day when the cannon was operational, it could fire solid iron balls three times the size of a man’s head almost 2.5km.
About 2.3km out of town by car is Balmoral Castle, near the village of Crathie. It’s surrounded by ancient Caledonian pine forests, moors, lochs, brooks and an abundance of wildlife, so it’s no wonder that Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, fell in love with the Scottish Highlands when they first laid eyes on it in 1842.
When the royals are in residence at the castle, their privacy is paramount, so the public has access only from April to July. Guided and audio tours are available.
The ballroom is the only part of the castle interior the public may visit and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s the largest room and what it lacks in ostentatious glamour it makes up for in history, heritage and good taste, with a hand-painted ceiling, paintings by masters such as Landseer and Carl Haag, traditional dress displays and cabinets of silver artefacts.
Here the queen receives honoured guests and, twice a year, she hosts the Ghillies Ball, at which residents and staff mingle with royalty.
Outdoor activities at Balmoral for those who want to explore include salmon fishing, hiking, running and ranger-guided tours. Accommodation is available in self-catering cottages.
Last, Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia is berthed at the Ocean Terminal Shopping Mall in Edinburgh harbour.
Britannia served the royals for 43 years before being de-commissioned in 1997.
The interior is elegant, stylish and comfortable, a home away from home, with a 1950s feel to the decor, influenced by the queen and Prince Philip.
You can end your maritime tour with afternoon tea in the Royal Deck Tea Room or, even better, a glass of champagne. Rule Britannia!
If You Go...
VisitBritain, www.visitbritain.org.uk for all UK tourist information
Airport transfers London: Chirton Grange, www.chirtongrange.co.uk
The Rubens at the Palace Hotel in London, www.rubenshotel.com
The G&V in Edinburgh, www.quorvuscollection.com/gandv-hotel-edinburgh