In the early 1980s if you’d told a Leither that one day the Royal Yacht Britannia would be permanently berthed in Leith they’d have split their sides laughing at such a ludicrous suggestion.
Back then the port of Leith was in decline and was one of Edinburgh’s less genteel neighbourhoods. This was Trainspotting not Royal Yachting territory.
Fast forward to the late 1990s and the area has undergone a programme of mass regeneration. Suddenly it’s fashionable to dine in Leith. A whole host of trendy wine bars and restaurants have appeared and property by the shore has become desirable. The notion of the Royal Yacht Britannia moving into the neighbourhood no longer seems quite so absurd.
So when Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 Leith seemed like the perfect place for her to reside. Having been built in 1953 at John Brown’s Shipyard on the Clyde it seemed fitting that she return to Scotland to retire.
Edinburgh’s bid beat six other to secure Britannia and on 5 May 1998 she arrived in Leith and into the care of the Royal Yacht Britannia Trust.
She opened to the public at her shiny new home in Ocean Terminal during October 2001, having undergone extensive work to convert her into a visitor attraction.
A mere 18 years after she arrived in my hometown I finally got round to paying her a visit.
Before we left the house Mr G and I had our usual debate about who would wear their Harris Tweed jacket. Having owned mine well before he entertained the notion of buying one I won and he grudgingly pulled on his Barbour. He fails to see the problem with us leaving the house together decked out in tweed and looking like two ghillies on an urban adventure!
Any notion that I may have had of a visit to Britannia being stuffy or staid quickly vanished when we arrived. The staff were friendly and relaxed and I was delighted to find out there was a Corgi treasure hunt on that day. I might not have had the Wee White Dug in tow but it seemed there would be lots of wee dugs around to keep me happy. All we had to do was count the cuddly Corgis hidden throughout the yacht for the chance to win a Christmas hamper.
When we were told our self-guided audio tour would take around 90 minutes to complete I wasn’t convinced that a yacht, albeit a famous historical one with five decks to explore could capture my attention for that long – I was wrong.
No sooner were we onboard than we spotted our first cuddly Corgi – yay, one down.
It was a gorgeous bright day so we stood on the upper deck admiring the view and snapping photos.
The tour was fascinating and the audio guide pitched perfectly. Peppered with interesting and at times humorous information, it was easy to listen to and far more engaging than shuffling round in a mass mob listening to a tour guide.
The yacht had a really relaxed feel to it. I’d expected it to be glitzy and grand like a floating palace but instead it was homely and understated.
Commissioned as a royal yacht in January 1954 it’s easy to see why a plush floating palace wasn’t deemed appropriate in a post-war Britain still reeling from the after effects of war. Times were hard and 14 long years of rationing wouldn’t end for another few months yet.
The Royal bedrooms were a surprise to me. I don’t know what I expected but I thought I’d pressed the wrong button on my audio guide when I heard that the modest single bedded room I was looking at was in fact the Queen’s bedroom. It was more homely, country cottage than palace.
Prince Philips adjoining single room was equally simple and unfussy.
Only the Royal Honeymoon Suite had a double bed in it, brought on board for the honeymoon of Charles and Diana in 1981.
I’d never have imagined that my own honeymoon suite in Nairn would have turned out to be far grander than a royal one.
We soon lost count of the cuddly Corgis we’d spotted and any chance of us winning the hamper went right out the window or should that be porthole? It didn’t stop us from shouting ‘there’s one’ each time we spotted a new one though.
As we passed through the Sun Room, the Queen’s favourite room onboard I spotted a bottle of Moët et Chandon chilling on ice and pictured myself lounging there, anchored off the Hebrides, glass of chilled champagne in hand and not a care in the World – Ahhh if only.
I contented myself with a visit to the stunning Royal Tea Deck for a late breakfast instead.
The tea deck which was added in 2009 is a perfect addition to Britannia. With floor to ceiling windows it’s light and airy with lovely views across the Firth of Forth.
We both had scones, Mr G a fruit one and me a cheese one. I had coffee but he decided it had to be some frightfully British tea. If truth be told he was secretly hoping for a silver teapot so he could show off. He got his wish.
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a wee bit fixated by soup. What you won’t know is that I also have a thing for cheese scones. For the past 18 years I’ve eaten one for breakfast five days a week without getting bored. That’s a hell of a lot of scones, so when I say that this was the best one I’ve ever eaten, it’s quite some accolade.
Mr G made short work of his scone too but seemed way more excited by his silver teapot.
I’d always imagined Britannia to be a huge, luxury yacht that toured the far-flung corners of the World and to a degree it was but I wasn’t prepared for so much of the space on board to be dominated by her Royal Naval crew or ‘Yotties’ as they were known.
At times it felt like a floating barracks with tightly packed sailors bunks, shower blocks an onboard NAAFI and several bars for the crew to unwind in.
I loved the story of Wombat tennis being played in the Officer’s Wardroom Ante-Room. The game began when a cuddle Wombat toy, gifted to the officers by one of the Queen’s Ladies-in-Waiting was thrown up into the ceiling fan before being batted from side to side across the room. You just can’t beat a bit of pre-dinner hilarity.
Having just eaten breakfast we resited the temptation of the delicious looking fudge on sale as we passed the NAAFI shop but the lure of shortbread and mulled wine was too hard to resist.
As it was Britannia’s annual Christmas Weekend they’d gone all out to make the yacht look festive. I even heard a rumour that Santa was onboard with some real Corgis but sadly I missed them. Santa and wee dugs, what could be better.
If I’d been surprised by the amount of space taken up by the ‘Yotties’ on board I was even more surprised to find a post-room, large laundry, doctor’s surgery, sick bay and even an operating theatre. I never for a minute expected the interior of Britannia to be so diverse and contrasting.
The authentic smell of the laundry took me back to happy childhood days spent with my wonderful wee Nana who seemed to fill her days with washing, hanging washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning. The smell of old fashioned soap powder and furniture polish always stir fond memories of her. She’d find that an absolute hoot.
We had great fun in the Verge Inn where we got to lark about with fake pints of lager and dress up in naval hats and jackets.
Despite the modest sleeping quarters and living areas occupied by the royal family and the amount of space taken up on board by the crew you couldn’t fail to be impressed by the magnificent table in the State Dining Room.
A large room decorated by gifts given to the Queen from around the World the table setting was a work of art with beautifully polished cutlery and glistening crystal.
The roll call of famous diners was impressive too – Churchill, Reagan, Clinton, Mandela, Yeltzin a real who’s who of World leaders.
In the State Drawing Room where the Royal Family relaxed before and after dinner sat a piano that Noel Coward once played. I could almost picture him sitting there, captivating the room with his music.
A yacht which travelled a staggering 1,000,000 miles around the World while in service.
It’s safe to say that Britannia surprised me. My visit began with me doubting I’d stick around for 90 minutes, yet two hours later I reluctantly left having spent a wonderful morning on board. I also left knowing it wouldn’t be long before I returned, lured back to enjoy some lunch or afternoon tea on the Royal Tea Deck.
You don’t need to be a Royalist or a boat geek to enjoy a visit to Britannia as there’s so much more to her than that. Sure fans of the Royal Family will love getting an intimate glimpse into their lives and boat geeks couldn’t fail to be impressed by the impeccably well maintained engine room but I’m neither and I loved my visit.
My day was made when browsing around the gift shop on our way out I spotted Wee White Dug Christmas tree decorations – hooray for the Wee White Dug. They’ll take pride of place on my Christmas tree this year.
Mr G became more than a little attached to a china mug emblazoned with ‘His Lordship’ but he’ll just have to wait to see what Santa brings him in a couple of weeks time!
Although we were very kindly given free entry to Britannia all information, opinions and musings shared in this blog are accurate and entirely my own.
Until next time ……