Many of the tourist attractions around the country are closed during the winter, particularly those with parklands or gardens attached, and for many of them the final weekend occurs at the end of October. With the previous weekend having been quite overcast, Meg and Wayne had determined that, if the weather was good, we wanted to go somewhere. Both Brock and Quinn had organised to see friends on the Saturday, however when morning dawned fine and sunny and the radio reports said that this weather would potentially change on Sunday, they were given the option again of going travelling instead, both declined.
We set off up the A10 heading north toward Cambridge and commented on the last time we had made this journey, one of the first times that we had gone out after we had arrived here in England back in January. On that day there was quite a lot of fog in the early part of the journey and this was replicated again today but, as before, it had receded by the time we had reached the turn off to Bishop’s Stortford. Before the A10 merges with the M11 it narrows down as it goes through the villages of Royston and Melbourn and we were frequently pointing at various landmarks saying ‘I remember that’. One of those sights is a large boulder of red millstone grit at the northern end of the High Street. It bears a square socket which was supposed to be the base of a cross, Roisia’s Cross, which changed over time to give the village the name Royston.
Royston was, briefly, the site of a royal residence. After the death of Elizabeth I, when James VI of Scotland was travelling down to London in order to become James I of England he stopped near Royston and saw that the area was suitable for hunting. He came back the following year and demolished two of the local pubs (possibly not making him very popular) in order to begin building a hunting lodge. It was completed in 1607 and in 1613 was the site used by James to sign the dowry contract for the marriage of his daughter, Elizabeth to Frederick V, Elector Palatine. After the wedding (St Valentine’s Day, 1613) James came back with Prince Charles and his new son-in-law in order to enjoy a spot of hunting. When Charles eventually inherited the throne he did not spend as much time at Royston but after the parliamentary revolution he was brought through as a prisoner in June 1647. Subsequently, the buildings fell into disrepair and were sold off altogether in 1866.
Not long after Melbourn (where the railway line crosses and we had to wait for a train) we reached the Lotus Auto Retailer that you might remember from our first journey (which still looks like a garage). Wayne wanted to stop once again, this time to take photos of all the wonderful cars, but was dissuaded of this fancy. Instead we continued to drive past the Cambridge Science Park (home to various corporations and scientific enterprises, as the name suggests) and the interestingly named Waterbeach.
We had not been further north than Cambridge along this road, so once we had skirted the city and the A10 and M11 had parted once more it was fascinating to see the changes in the countryside as we approached the Cambridgeshire border with Norfolk. Cambridgeshire is famous for its windmills and we saw a few more examples of this at Stretham and West Winch. This part of England is known as ‘The Fens’ and is very flat, low-lying, and criss-crossed with canals and rivers. Some of the barges we passed were very colourful and there were lots of signs marking the turn offs to places such as Bury St Edmunds, Sutton, Ely and March. A river known as the Great Ouse flows out to The Wash from this part of the world and we passed over more than one bridge across that fetchingly named body of water.
After a surprisingly long journey (it was only when we returned home that we looked more closely at a map and realised just how far we had travelled) we reached the outskirts of King’s Lynn and were able to make the turn off to our destination for that day, the village of Sandringham and the holiday home of the most famous inhabitants, the Windsors. Betty, Phil, their children and grandchildren were not in this day, which was sad from the point of view that it would have been interesting to see them, but good because if they had then the house would not have been opened for visitors. However, the place was amazingly popular and the car park was very full and both inside and outside the estate there were picnickers, dog walkers, and other people of all shapes and kinds and from a multitude of different countries.
We could tell that we were getting close when we started to see large walls surrounding the properties on either side of the road. All up the property is just over 7 000 acres and various bits of it have different uses. The Duke of Edinburgh likes to come hunting up here and we saw numerous pheasants in the fields and woods as we drove along. There were also signs warning us of the possibility of deer, however we did not espy any. We suspect that the family may have fallen on hard times, because there are also a number of areas given over to orchards, horse breeding, and farms of various sorts. Some of the produce (everything from sausages to jams) from these are sold at the souvenir shop at Sandringham itself.
We actually stopped just before we arrived at the property proper when we spotted the beautiful Norwich Gates. At some stage these were the front entrance to the property and are similar to the Canada Gates near Buckingham Palace, without quite the flashy ornamentation. They were originally a gift to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, and his new wife Alexandra of Denmark on the occasion of their marriage in 1863. The property had been purchased the year before (for £220 000) when the prince turned 21, which would have been quite a nice birthday gift. As the property developed over time the gates were moved to their present position in 1908, the year Sandringham was first opened to the public by Edward, who had succeeded his mother, Queen Victoria, and was now King Edward VII. It is well worth the little extra mileage to take the slightly longer route to the property in order to see them.
Having left Kylie comfortably ensconced between a Jaguar and an Aston Martin we walked the few hundred metres over to where the main gates were. It was at this point that we realised another of the similarities between this day and our visit to Cambridge so long ago; despite the sunny weather it was quite a brisk day and Meg began to regret the wearing of ¾ length jeans. There is also a lot of public art outside, including a memorial cross to the dead of various wars and a giant wooden squirrel. This had a young boy transfixed as he gazed up at a nut the size of his head. We were glad that Brock had not elected to come with us, as he has developed an antipathy toward squirrels since he and his friend Ryan decided that a squirrel outside our house was trying to kill them.
We paid our entrance fees to the House, Garden and Museum and entered the grounds. They are certainly well maintained, there are wide expanses of beautifully manicured lawns surrounded by trees and gardens featuring an enormous variety of bushes and flowers of different types. The autumnal colours were on display, as were the berries of variegated and non-variegated types of holly. Wayne spotted some fabulous fuchsias (one of his favourite plants) while we were waiting for the tractor-pulled, land train which would take us up to the house itself.
The house itself was visually familiar, having been seen on various television shows and broadcasts over the years, as it is the one at which the Queen and family regularly spends their Christmases. The reality is even more magnificent than the pictures. While it is not a palace, it is certainly palatial, and the three stories of the main house are obviously filled with many, many rooms. The gravelled paths and hedging do a brilliant job of drawing both the eye and the pedestrian up to the gabled entrance and we were met by a variety of servants who asked us about our heritage and commented on Wayne’s football shirt (St Etienne of France).
Inside the house we noticed a significant difference between this house and others we had visited, such as Audley End. As Meg commented, despite the opulence of the furnishings and the incredibly historic displays that we saw throughout the building, it was clear that this was a building which was lived in. You could imagine small children running through many of the rooms, even though the walls were covered in tapestries a century and a half old. The dining room was set up with the very crockery set that will be used at Christmas lunch this year, even though the table was not extended out to seat the extraordinary number of people that will be there.
Ultimately, only a very small percentage of the rooms (and only on the ground floor) were opened, but there were some amazing displays in many of them. One of the early rooms had a display of hunting rifles and hand guns from the last, almost 200 years. Another had various swords, knives, spears, and other blades from not only the United Kingdom but other parts of the Empire (now Commonwealth). In the bookcases there are over sixteen hundred volumes of first editions which were bequeathed by George Mitchell to the Princess of Wales in 1878. Much of the artwork (statues and paintings) is portraiture of various of the Royal Family which have been gifted to them over the time the house has been in their possession.
Many of the female members of the Royal Family, beginning with Princess (later Queen) Alexandra up to and including the late Queen Mother, have been collectors of miniatures and dolls house furniture and some of this collection was also on display. It has also been a project to adopt a local school and bring back artefacts from some of the countries of the world which they visit and donate them to the school. At times they have also set up schools themselves on the estate, where local people were able to come and be trained in skills that might help them find employment.
Sadly, we were unable to take photographs inside the house itself; however the book that was available contained many, many photographs which will be an invaluable reminder of the experience. Many of the objects could not even be touched (in fact you sometimes felt uncomfortable even breathing near them) but there were enough items that you could run your hands over and gain a sense of just how old and valuable some of them were. The final display, of linen used within the royal household (much of which was only discovered, in some rooms which had been shut up, when the new housekeeper took over in 2006) was also extremely interesting and reminded both Meg and Wayne of the linen mills that they had seen while in Ireland, some of which were responsible for the tablecloths etc. that we were seeing.
After leaving the house we walked through some more beautifully manicured gardens to the Museum which is set up in the old stables. It was interesting to note that, under some of the trees around the grounds, there were small gravestones commemorating the lives of some of the royal family’s pets. While now a museum the buildings have also acted as the headquarters of the Sandringham Fire Brigade, a local police station, and a wood carving school. Another section of the museum is also the garage area, which is very busy whenever the family are staying.
On the outside of the building were a couple of hunting carriages that are still occasionally used during hunting expeditions. There were gigs and traps and carriages and other horse (and elephant) related paraphernalia. Inside was a car lover’s paradise, with some of the most beautiful (and beautifully maintained) vehicles since the age of the motor vehicle began. Not only were there full sized cars, but also child-sized model cars that had been donated to the royal family for use by various princes over time. Some of them had been custom built; others were special models which had been donated because of the advertising value of being able to put ‘Supplier to the Royal Family’ on your material. When we thought about it, it made sense, but we hadn’t expected to see a private filling station on the premises as well.
After we came out from the museum we walked back through some more gardens to the pick up site for the land train to take us back toward the tea rooms and souvenir shop as we were both getting quite hungry. This also gave us the opportunity to see the Church which the Queen will attend on Christmas morning. This was one of the fabulous things about visiting Sandringham, knowing that later on this year we will see these places featured on the news or in some form or another. There are also other houses on the premises, originally built so that visitors could stay. One of these, Park House, was rented out to Lord Fermoy, the local Member of Parliament at the time. His daughter Frances was born there and later married Viscount Althorp the son of Earl Spencer. Consequently, they came to live at the house in 1955 and were living there when Lady Diana Spencer (later to be Princess Di) was born. Park House is now rented out to the Cheshire Homes Foundation for people with a disability at a peppercorn rent.
It is an interesting conundrum, visiting something like a stately home set on enormous grounds. There is a sense in which both Meg and Wayne felt that nobody should own so much valuable stuff. That it isn’t fair that some people own these enormous properties while even not far away in this country there are other people living on almost nothing. There is something extraordinarily inequitable about the situation, particularly when the source of this obscene wealth is simply birth privilege. However, that it gives the public the opportunity to enjoy seeing some of these beautiful things and preserves them is positive. That we also came to understand that there is an extraordinary amount of charitable work which goes on is also a benefit. Even the display of animal heads in the museum, largely hung on the wall in one room, has been altered in other rooms to become a means by which people are educated about the lives of these creatures and the habitats in which they live. This didn’t make it any easier for Meg to view it however. Overall we came away with more of a sense of the Royal Family as real people, and even some warmth toward certain of them.
Although it was mid-afternoon we made the decision to drop in to the city of Ely on the way back. Ely is the third smallest city in England (after Wells, Somerset and the City of London, both of which we have also visited) and once again has city status on the basis of it being the Cathedral city for a diocese of the Church of England. The city was originally an abbey, built in 673AD, a mile (1.6 km) to the north of the village of Cratendune on the Isle of Ely in the middle of the Great Ouse. The abbey was destroyed in 870 by Danish invaders and not rebuilt for over a hundred years. Once it was it became a formidable place. The site was one of the last holdouts in England to the Norman Conquest: Hereward the Wake did not surrender until 1071. After William took control he began the building of a cathedral on the site in 1083. Amazingly, it was not completed until 1351 in part because of the collapse of the main tower in 1322, which was then rebuilt as an octagon.
Ely Cathedral is an impressive building and nicknamed the “Ship of the Fens” because it can be seen from an substantial distance around. It has also featured in a surprising amount of popular culture, being used on the cover of the Pink Floyd album, ‘The Division Bell’. A wonderful children’s book named ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ also makes references to Ely Cathedral (which explains why Wayne was certain he had heard the name before). Recently, both the films ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’ and ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ have had scenes filmed within the cathedral. A major novel, ‘Floodland’ by Marcus Sedgwick is set in a period where the fens are flooded and Ely becomes an island in the midst, a return to a situation that no doubt has occurred at some time in the past, although without the cathedral standing out in the centre.
We were able to find a convenient (and amazingly free) park right in the centre of the
city and get out to stretch our legs and look at a number of the sights. We purchased some mobile phone credit, to make it possible to call Wayne’s son Callum on his birthday a day or so later (sadly we have had problems with BT again and are without a functioning landline phone at the present moment). As well as the Cathedral we were also able to take a look at the house of Oliver Cromwell, who inherited the position of tax collector in the city in 1636 and lived there for a number of years. His house is now the local tourist information office. No doubt if we had waited around long enough we might have encountered some of Ely’s more recent residents who include Sir Clive Woodward (formerly of the English Rugby team) and Guy Pearce (formerly an actor on ‘Neighbours’ and more recently in a variety of films).
As it was getting late we had to set out for home, This time we motored down the M11 (which has the advantage of being multiple laned as well as not really near any grounds where football had been played this afternoon). This brought us to Harlow, where we were able to stop at the local Tesco’s and pick up the food which we able to go home and prepare for dinner for both ourselves and Brock and Quinn. All in all, it had been a wonderful day, and we are quite determined that we will go back to Sandringham again, this time with the boys, so that they can experience some of the things that Meg and Wayne did.