As we pay tribute to the remarkable life and reign of HM Queen Elizabeth II, we look back at the homes and landscapes Her Majesty has returned to most over the years
Words by Natasha Foges
Every year, the Queen heads to her private estate at Balmoral for her summer holiday. In a stunning rural setting in Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire, this baronial castle is surrounded by glorious landscapes, from the Dee river valley to craggy mountains. Balmoral has been a favourite of the Royal Family since 1852, when it was bought for £32,000 by Prince Albert on behalf of Queen Victoria.
Although grand – a turreted castle with 52 bedrooms – it is less opulent than the royal palaces. Set in 50,000 unspoilt acres, this beautiful expanse of Scottish Highlands provides a refreshingly rural contrast to the splendour of the Queen’s homes in London and Windsor.
The Queen has for decades spent two months here over the summer, with other members of the Royal Family coming up for ‘their’ weekend. “I think Granny is the most happy there,” Princess Eugenie said in 2016. The Princess described how the family spend their time at Balmoral: “Walks, picnics, dogs – a lot of dogs, there’s always dogs – and people coming in and out all the time.” A devotee of country pursuits such as horse riding and grouse hunting, it’s no surprise this is a summer tradition that the Queen loves.
Balmoral is open between April and August each year. The Ballroom – the only room accessible to visitors – can be visited on a guided tour, along with the gardens and grounds. You can even immerse yourself in the one of the Queen’s favourite places by staying on the estate: the Royal Family rents out holiday cottages in the grounds.
While the pandemic has disrupted plans in the last two years, in a normal year the Queen retires to her Norfolk home, Sandringham, from Christmas to February. This country house was bought by Queen Victoria in 1862 for her son (later Edward VII) and has been the retreat of four generations of sovereigns. Sitting at the heart of an 8,000-acre estate, Sandringham has long been used for royal shooting parties.
Edward VII, who was fond of hunting, once decreed that the clocks be set half an hour early in order to increase the amount of daylight for hunting. This came to be known as ‘Sandringham time’ and was kept from 1901 to 1936, when the clocks were returned to Greenwich Mean Time by Edward VIII.
The house is open to visitors, and the eight rooms that you can enter have a cosy, unpretentious feel. Squishy armchairs abound in the Saloon, where there’s a jigsaw table (the Queen is reportedly fond of puzzles), and the house is dotted with family portraits. George V called it “dear old Sandringham, the place I love better than anywhere else in the world,” and his grandson, George VI, wrote, “I have always been happy here and I love the place.” Sandringham still feels like a much-loved family home.
The royal parkland is open all year, the gardens at weekends in February and March, and the house between April and October.
In years gone by, the Queen would commence her annual Scottish holiday with a cruise around the Western Isles aboard The Royal Yacht Britannia. The Queen and the Royal Family would make impromptu stops on remote Scottish beaches, picnicking and swimming in privacy. When Britannia was decommissioned in 1997 this beloved family tradition ended – for a few years at least.
The Queen clearly held fond memories of those summer days, and in 2006, the year of her 80th birthday, she revived the tradition. She chartered a former car ferry which had been transformed into a luxurious cruise liner, the Hebridean Princess, and enjoyed a nine-day cruise around the Scottish islands with her family, stopping at many of the places they had visited in the Britannia days and rekindling happy memories of holidays past.
The Queen chartered the Hebridean Princess for a second time in 2010, departing from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis for a two-week holiday with her family. The holiday on that occasion concluded at her late mother’s home, the Castle of Mey. A nostalgic choice perhaps, as the visit took place around the time of the 110th anniversary of the Queen Mother’s birth.
The Hebridean Princess is one of the smallest luxury cruise ships a oat, with room for just 50 guests. Its all-inclusive cruises sail from Oban and travel round the Scottish Highlands, islands and beyond.
For many decades Windsor Castle was a weekend home for the Queen; within easy reach of London, it was a place to retreat from the demands of the capital. During the coronavirus pandemic and especially since the death of Prince Philip, the Queen has chosen increasingly to spend time at the more secluded Windsor Castle, and it is now considered her main home.
The Queen has spent much time here since her childhood and it is dotted with framed photos of family members.The magnificent castle overlooks the gardens of the East Lawn Terrace. The then Princess Elizabeth spent most of the war years at Windsor Castle and grew vegetables in the gardens.
Also in the grounds is Y Bwthyn Bach (‘The Little House’), a miniature thatched cottage, complete with running water, electric lighting and handmade furnishings, which was given to Princess Elizabeth on her 6th birthday by the people of Wales. A favourite of the young princesses, it went on to be used by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Windsor Castle is currently open to visitors Thursday to Monday. You can explore the Chapel (Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday) and the State Apartments, and see the Changing the Guard ceremony (Thursday and Saturday).