In Depth

Inside Sandringham: the Queen’s favoured place to mark accession day

Her Majesty will stay in Prince Philip’s cottage on the estate for landmark anniversary

After cancelling Christmas at the Sandringham estate for a second year in a row, the Queen has returned to north Norfolk to celebrate accession day. 

A “number of royal traditions have gotten shuffled since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic”, but paying homage to her father’s death and her accession to the throne on 6 February 1952 at Sandringham is one “that the Queen won’t be changing up this year”, said Town and Country magazine

Nevertheless, some things will be a little different this year. The Queen, who arrived by helicopter on Sunday and is expected to spend several weeks on the estate, won’t be staying in the main house as is customary. Instead, she will be staying at Wood Farm, “a modest property on the estate” that belonged to her late husband, said the Daily Express

Though the Express described the cottage as “humble”, it is “still a substantial, five-bedroom farmhouse with its own land”, said The Telegraph. “Right down by the coast, it’s quite remote and very ungrand – the perfect bolthole for Prince Philip, and now the Queen”. Of the estate’s 27 properties, it’s one of the “few places where the Queen can take refuge”.

The Sandringham estate “has particular significance for the Queen at this time of year”, said Town and Country. It is where her father King George VI was born and where he passed away, and the tradition would “seem to hold special importance” this year. 

The 70th anniversary will “herald the start of the Platinum Jubilee Celebrations”, said the BBC. But it is likely to be “a more reflective moment”, said the broadcaster’s royal correspondent Sean Coughlan.

Compared with the public Jubilee celebrations planned for later in the year, “this will be a more private moment, marking the virtues of a lifelong duty and understated service, and to think about how much has changed in those seven decades,” said Coughlan.

Grounds for celebration

The 8,000-hectare estate contains the Sandringham Royal Park, which is open to the public free of charge every day of the year. On Father’s Day last year, Prince William surprised runners taking part in an inaugural half marathon in the grounds by turning up to cheer them on, accompanied by Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

Sandringham is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Sant Dersingham”, the estate’s website reported, and there is evidence of a house on the present site as early as 1296.

Royals throughout history have both lived in and had a strong affinity with the home, including Edward VII, King George V and today’s Queen Elizabeth, who opened the house to the public in 1977, her Silver Jubilee year.

King George V once described Sandringham as “the place I love better than anywhere else in the world”, said the website, and his grandson, King George VI, the Queen’s father, wrote that he was “always” happy at Sandringham and “I love the place”.

Long before meeting and marrying the Prince of Wales, Princess Diana also had a “huge royal connection” to the residence, Hello! magazine said. She was born at Park House, a property located on the Sandringham estate. The house was offered by the monarch to the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity in 1983, and became a hotel for disabled guests and their companions to enjoy together.

How the tradition began

The tradition of the Sandringham Christmas party was begun by the then future Edward VII in 1864, and was “adopted enthusiastically by the present Royal Family”, the Daily Express said.

During the 1960s, when the Queen’s children were young, the Royals generally spent Christmas at Windsor Castle. But in the 1980s, they transferred the festive celebration to Sandringham because the Berkshire property was being rewired. They enjoyed the change of venue so much that they then opted to return in following years.

The tradition is held dearly by the Queen. In her 1992 Christmas broadcast, the monarch said: “I first came here for Christmas as a grandchild. Nowadays my children come here for the same family festival. To me, this continuity is a great source of comfort in a world of tension and violence.”

However, for the past two years the tradition has been derailed by Covid-19 restrictions. Though the Queen had hoped to resume hosting duties at the estate in 2021, concerns over surging infections and a new variant meant she stayed in Windsor for the second consecutive year instead.

Step inside

According to The Telegraph, the house was once described as “the most comfortable in England” and “boasted a shower and flushing water closets far earlier than many others in Britain”.

The main ground-floor rooms are regularly used by the royals but are also open to the public. The decor and “contents remain very much as they were in Edwardian times”, according to the estate’s website.

In 2013, the Daily Mail reported that the house was not large enough to accommodate the 30 guests invited to the Christmas celebrations that year. “Despite being set in 600 acres of woodland, the house is small by royal standards and quarters are said to be ‘cramped’,” the newspaper said. Guests were invited instead to stay in the servant’s quarters and other nearby cottages.

More than 200 people work at the estate, including gamekeepers, gardeners, farmers and employees in Sandringham’s sawmill and its apple juice-pressing plant, according to Town and Country magazine. 

“The estate places a huge emphasis on recycling, conservation and forestry, and is a sanctuary for wildlife,” the magazine added. Sandringham is also famed for hosting royal shooting and hunting parties.

Christmas celebrations

Typically the Queen travels to Sandringham by train, arriving at the nearby King’s Lynn Station. However, she has more recently taken helicopters to the estate, following advice from doctors not to travel by rail. 

At Christmas, the dining room is decorated with “a large silver artificial tree”, on which the Queen and her great-grandchildren put “the final touches” together, said Norfolk Live.

It’s tradition, according to the Royal Household, that the family lay out presents for one another on Christmas Eve and exchange at teatime. The Queen also hands out gifts to some members of the household at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, while staff in all the palaces, the Court Post Office and the Palace police receive a Christmas pudding and card from the monarch.

Once the children are tucked up for the night, “the adults enjoy a glitzy black-tie evening”, Norfolk Live continued. “A four-course meal and a lot of champagne” are enjoyed, and the Queen’s favourite cocktail - a “Zaza” - features too. 

On 25 December, after attending a private service at 9am, the family make their way to St Mary Magdalene Church on the estate for the 11am Christmas Day service. Later, the Queen delivers her Christmas broadcast, and “the whole family is said to watch it together”, the news site continued. After the traditional lunch, it’s onto “charades, jigsaw puzzles, or a movie projected onto a screen in the ballroom”, said Good Housekeeping

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