Single beds and a baby grand

Despite the hours I’ve whiled away watching docos about the royals, I’ve never seen Princess Anne with her hair down before. If I ever have reason to imagine The Princess Royal (a rare occurrence), I picture her on horseback: posture straight, bouffant impenetrable, expression dour.

It’s a surprise, then, to come across a photograph of Liz’s only daughter with her hair loose, and her mouth curved into a relaxed smile. She looks much more like her nieces Beatrice and Eugenie than the matronly figure I’m used to seeing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

In the photograph, a young Princess Anne stands at ease on the edge of a row of royals. The group is lined up in the sunshine, on the teak Verandah deck of the Royal Britannia  — the oversized yacht the Windsors holidayed and worked on for much of the last century.

I find the framed image inside the Britannia, which was put to rest in 1997. (The yacht’s decommissioning service is one of very few occasions when the Queen has cried in public — sorry, Diana.) Lining the boat’s walls are many other pictures of royals on deck and off duty. Even the Queen is shown at leisure, laughing with abandon rather than her characteristic politeness.

Though still impressive, the yacht feels less grandiose than any other royal palace I’ve visited. Perhaps this is because of its size — both the Queen and Prince Philip’s respective bedrooms are fitted out with single beds, with the sole double installed by Prince Charles for his first honeymoon (sorry again, Diana). The furnishings, too, are modest by royal standards. The drawing room is like a larger version of my grandparents’ living space, with chintz sofas and glass-panelled cabinets but not an ancestral portrait in sight.

Imitation ephemera furthers the lived-in feel of the boat: an untouched slice of (presumably plastic) cheesecake, dog-eared copies of Country Life, an easel in the sitting room. But from time to time, the illusion of intimacy is broken by an elderly woman whose audioguide is turned up to 11, or a young boy squirming his way out of a sailor’s cap and jacket, much to his mother’s chagrin. Classical music is piped through to certain rooms, poorly simulating the presence of a naval band at a family dinner.

I’m surprised to learn that, when the boat was in use, a single laundry would cater to both royals and staff. For some reason I’d imagined that even aboard a small floating palace, royal collars would be starched separately to naval shirts. My assumption may not have been logical, but then the Britannia houses the usual oddities and excesses that one expects of a royal residence: a room devoted to jelly-making, a baby grand bolted to the drawing room floor.

The Britannia’s curious features also betray its dual usage, for politicking as well as pleasure. Along the bow stands a navel-high wooden partition, formerly used as a windbreak to prevent gusts from lifting royal skirts during official ceremonies. A telephone line connects Her Majesty’s office to that of the her husband, alleviating the couple of the need to cross a carpeted hallway to communicate.

Although I probably know more about the Windsors than about my neighbours, touring the Britannia reinforces how much I don’t and could never understand about the way the family live. The Royal Yacht gives the illusion of normalcy (“they play Scrabble? I play Scrabble!”). Its rooms contain images that, for a family like mine, would simply be called “photos” — but in the case of the Windsors must be prefaced by words like “intimate” and “private”. And it’s only in such images that one would ever expect to see a smiling Princess Anne, sans bouffant.

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