The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A look inside Sandringham House, site of the royals’ annual holiday retreat

Sandringham House, Queen Elizabeth II’s country residence in Norfolk, is about 100 miles north of London, near the North Sea. (Shutterstock)

In the public imagination, Queen Elizabeth II lives in Buckingham Palace. But by all accounts, it is at Sandringham House, about 100 miles north of London in Norfolk, near the North Sea, that she feels most at home. The house is perhaps best known as the setting for the royal family’s annual Christmas celebration. The royals traditionally stage three days of festivities there, a Windsor tradition that dates from 1870, when the queen’s great-grandfather, King Edward VII, built the house on land given to him by his mother, Queen Victoria. It also has its own place in Yuletide history: The first Royal Christmas Message, a holiday staple in Britain, was broadcast from Sandringham by King George V in 1932.

Of course, there’s nothing quite like the holidays for bringing family tension to the fore. For this reason, Sandringham is often the backdrop for dramatizations of royal life, most recently Pablo Larraín’s “Spencer,” which came out last month. The film is a surreal take on Princess Diana’s struggles during Christmas 1991, the year before she and Prince Charles separated. The family customs so prized by the queen were, it seems, stifling to her daughter-in-law. Both the house and the holiday make an appearance in Season 4 of Netflix’s “The Crown” for much the same reason. Even this year, as Prince Harry makes tabloid headlines for missing the annual Christmas gathering, the house is synonymous with family drama.

Far grander homes stood in for Sandringham House in both “Spencer” and “The Crown,” but those who want to see the real thing can do so seven months of the year, when the house and grounds are open to the public. The relatively small private house is part stuffy Edwardian museum piece, part down-to-earth family retreat. It’s the latter aspect that makes it easy to see why Sandringham is said to be the queen’s favorite place to kick off her shoes. When I visited the house in September — it’s about two hours north of London by train — I felt more like I was genuinely experiencing something of the queen’s life than I did when I toured official royal properties such as Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle.

In the Royal Borough of Windsor, attractions ancient and modern

That feeling began shortly after I climbed into a taxi at the Kings Lynn train station, about 20 minutes from the Sandringham gates. I asked the driver about the queen’s visits, wondering whether she came by royal train, or at least a regular train with a special car attached. “Oh, no, ma’am. The queen comes in a train exactly like the one you just took,” I was assured. A bit of Googling confirmed that my driver was correct. I thought back to my rundown passenger car and the graffiti I saw from the window on the ride up from London; I expect that the Great Northern rail does some sprucing up when Her Majesty is expected.

When visitors walk through the entrance to Sandringham — the same door the queen walks through — they find themselves in what Brits call the saloon, an all-purpose sitting room. The first thing the tour’s accompanying audio guide tells them to do is look to their left. There sits the 1872 jockey’s scale used by King Edward VII to make sure that his shooting party guests — who were commanded to sit on it as they arrived and again when they left — gained weight after eating the 12- to 14-course meals typically served in the household. (A jockey’s scale looms large in “Spencer,” because Diana, who’s suffering from bulimia, is tortured by the family’s seemingly endless Christmas feasting.)

Around the fireplace at the far end of the two-story saloon are comfortable sofas and chairs and a television hidden in an ordinary wooden cabinet. According to the audio guide, the family gathers here in the mornings for coffee and in the evenings to listen to music, read newspapers and watch their favorite shows. It mentions a felt-covered table against the wall, with a jigsaw puzzle on it. “When the queen is here, there’s always a jigsaw in progress,” it says. But don’t think this TV room is anything like yours — unless yours includes a minstrels’ gallery, ornamental swords and Flemish tapestries displayed on soaring walls.

The house is long and narrow. On the first floor, across from the saloon, are two drawing rooms. One is small and delicate, full of decorative porcelain. But the main drawing room is vast, extending the length of the house, with embossed white walls, huge windows and several conversation groups of white sofas and French chairs. The audio tour draws visitors’ attention to a large bay window by the marble fireplace at one end, where the house’s main Christmas tree stands. The family’s gifts, it notes, are opened here at tea time on Christmas Eve.

Many published accounts describe a long-standing family tradition of the adults exchanging gag gifts or homemade ones. Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is said to have given Prince Harry a “Grow Your Own Girlfriend” kit when he was single. After his marriage, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, reportedly gave the queen a toy singing hamster. And Harry is said to have once delighted the monarch with a shower cap that read, “Ain’t Life a Bitch.” Her first Christmas at Sandringham, Diana reportedly didn’t know the gifts were supposed to be gags and gave everyone cashmere.

This drawing room is far brighter than it was when Prince Edward and Alexandra, later king and queen, had the house built in 1870. At the time, its rooms were paneled in dark wood and the furniture upholstered in dark colors. Yet much of the decor dates from that era, including a round, off-white card table and six chairs with oval backs that feature the Prince of Wales’s signature three feathers bound by a blue love knot. The chairs were designed by Alexandra before Edward’s mother, Queen Victoria, died in 1901. Also original are two large ceiling paintings that depict blue skies and the birds of Sandringham perched on trompe-l’oeil ledges. At the far end of the room, a Brinsmead grand piano sits in another large bay window. It is here that Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Princess Margaret, played during World War II.

In London, eat your way through the history — and future — of fish and chips

The house’s dining room, originally paneled in dark oak, is now pale green, accentuating the tapestries on the walls. A docent stationed in the room said that Queen Mary, widow of King George V, and Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother, wife of the future King George VI, conspired to paint the oak during the period when King Edward VIII had inherited the throne but not yet renounced it. Edward, he said, “didn’t care.” (When Edward did eventually leave the throne, his brother George VI had to buy Sandringham from him, because it was an inherited property.) The dining table was Queen Victoria’s at her home on the Isle of Wight and can expand to seat 22, as it does at Christmas. The centerpiece is the trophy won in 1900 by King Edward VII’s horse, Ambush II, at the Grand National; according to the audio guide, the queen wants it on the table, filled with fruit or flowers. Place mats feature pictures of the queen’s race horses.

Christmas dinner, preceded by drinks, is served at 12:45, immediately after the family walks back following the 11 a.m. service at St. Mary Magdalene Church, on the Sandringham estate. In recent years, the queen has gone by car. Television crews and residents of nearby villages line the road near the church. The tiny 16th-century building, with Victorian-era renovations, is sometimes open for visits; I was lucky to be able to go inside and see the many memorials to the queen’s family members housed there.

Most of the family leaves the estate after Boxing Day. But the queen has traditionally stayed on at Sandringham at least until Feb. 7. Her father, King George VI, died there on Feb. 6, 1952, while Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, were in Kenya, an event portrayed in “The Crown.” Her grandfather, King George V, also died at Sandringham.

On the house tour, after the dining room comes a long corridor leading to a ballroom. In the corridor is a display of 98 guns; “shooting is a passion shared by the four generations that have lived here,” the audio tour notes. Indeed, until King Edward VII died, the many clocks in the house were set at “Sandringham time” — a half-hour fast, so more daylight would be available for shooting.

Sandringham House sits behind a wide lawn with formal gardens to one side and two small lakes on the other. Out of sight on the approximately 20,000-acre estate are farm fields and several other properties, including Anmer Hall, the country home of Prince William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Indeed, William recently walked the grounds of the estate in a special holiday episode of the Apple Fitness Plus series “Time to Walk.” Another house was used by the late Prince Philip in recent years, and it’s near the site where he was involved in an accident while driving his Land Rover in 2019.

But the most fascinating of the estate’s properties, until recently a charity retreat for the disabled, is where, as a 1996 guidebook published by the Sandringham estate put it, “by a quirk of fate” the baby who would grow up to be Princess Diana was born. “Spencer” includes a scene in which a haunted Diana flees the Sandringham Christmas celebration and makes her way across farm fields toward the house where she spent the first few years of her life. Indeed, quite a quirk of fate.

Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.

More from Travel:

From the archives: Up not-so-close to the royal wedding

A local’s guide to London

In England, a trio of stately homes illuminates a bygone age

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at washingtonpost.com/coronavirus

Sandringham

Sandringham, Norfolk

011-44-1485-544112

sandringhamestate.co.uk

Sandringham is the private home of Queen Elizabeth II. It is a retreat used by the queen and other members of the royal family and has been owned by them since it was purchased by Queen Victoria for her son and heir, the future King Edward VII, in the 1860s. The gardens have been open to the public since 1908, and the queen opened the house in 1977. The house is open for tours April to October; check the website for 2022 dates and times. Admission to the house and gardens, which includes an audio guide, is about $30 per person for adults; those under 17 free. Gardens-only ticket about $17 per adult. The visitors center includes a shop, restaurant, cafe and tea room; restaurant and cafe open daily year-round 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and shop open daily 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Afternoon tea, which requires reservations, served in restaurant 3 to 5 p.m.; from about $40 per person.

Loading...