H.M. The Queen once said that the one place where she could truly relax was on her yacht. The royal family used the yacht for state visits abroad, for honeymoons and also for their annual summer holiday to the Western Isles in Scotland. At Britannia’s decommissioning in 1997, the Queen was moved to tears. She was subsequently berthed in Leith and since 1998 has had nearly five million visitors, currently being Britain’s third most popular tourist attraction.
The yacht is owned by a non-profit making charity, The Royal Yacht Britannia Trust, and the revenue from visitors goes towards the maintenance of the vessel.
Leith is roughly half an hour’s journey by bus from the centre of Edinburgh and the visitor enters through a rather charmless shopping centre. Happily the way public access has been handled has preserved the dignified aura of this amazing floating palace with entrances from the dock on five levels to different areas of the ship. This is well planned for the visitor and the tour of the ship and its five main decks is comprehensive. An audio handset guide, which is available in 27 languages, is essential to fully appreciate it.
The vessel is packed with fascinating mementoes of its 44 years and over one million miles in service. We see the royal family’s sleeping quarters and lounge. The splendour of the rooms, which the spaciousness of the yacht permitted them to use for entertaining, is memorable. The effect this had on foreign dignitaries and business figures boosted Britain’s prestige abroad.
Britannia’s ships complement had an unusual structure being headed by an admiral and including the band of the Royal Marines. We can see some of the quarters, bars and facilities used by the crew. To allow the royal family to relax, duties were carried out in silence, orders were given by hand signal and there was no saluting. The vessel also contained a round the clock laundry service and its own post office. One can also visit the engine room and the sick bay.
I need not have been concerned as to how well it was being maintained. The royal seal of approval was surely given when the reception before the marriage of Zara Phillips, daughter of the Princess Royal, and Mike Tindall was held there in July 2011.
Britannia undertook 968 official visits, with the role of doubling as a hospital ship until 1993, and was used for four royal honeymoons. There is a fascinating display of gifts received by the royal family on tour as well as photographs and memorabilia linked to her history in service.
The State Apartments and Royal Deck, as well as the Officer’s Wardroom, can be hired for events and is the ideal venue for an occasion requiring a prestigious setting.
The Royal Yacht was of enormous financial benefit to Britain. The Overseas Trade Board estimated that Commercial Days on board Britannia during her foreign visits brought in £3 billion to the Exchequer between 1991 and 1995 which is a huge amount. The Duke of Edinburgh helped with her design and this is a truly majestic vessel with a cachet that was unrivalled. She is a sad loss to the nation but, displayed as well as this, she remains a magnificent symbol of the projection of soft power at which Britain, partly through its monarchy, excels.
By Richard Fitzwilliams