Last Updated on 7th January 2022 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Sandringham is the private Norfolk home of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Unlike the monarch’s other properties, such as Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, which are owned by the Crown Estate, Sandringham is one of two residences that the Queen personally owns – the other being Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire. She inherited Sandringham from her father, George VI. George loved the place and died there on 6 February 1952. His father, George V, loved it too – and also died there. “Dear old Sandringham,” he wrote, “The place I love better than anywhere else in the world.”
In researching some background for this piece, I came across a gushing article on the ‘Town and Country’ website, which describes Sandringham as ‘an ancient castle’. It is this kind of piffle that helped inspire the creation of A Bit About Britain, for Sandringham is neither ancient, nor a castle. It is, however, perhaps the most famous stately home in Norfolk and is at the heart of a 20,000 acre estate, which includes Sandringham Royal Park. There is certainly evidence of prehistoric and Roman activity nearby and Sandringham itself is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Sant Dersingham, the sandy part of Dersingham. Dersingham (I knew you’d ask) is ‘the homestead of the family or followers of a man called Deorsige’; I wonder what happened to him? The recent royal connection came in 1862 via Queen Victoria’s son, 21 year old Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who was looking for somewhere to escape to and bought an estate, which came with an 18th century house. The house was too small for him and his new wife, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, so he had it demolished and replaced with the current enormous brick-limestone semi-Jacobean thing, which was completed in 1870. That, too, provided insufficient space (he was a big chap, was Edward), so he had a new wing added, the Bachelors’ Wing, for guests. The author Simon Jenkins believes that “the purple bricks of this extension give it the grim institutional appearance of an Edwardian boarding school, detracting from the softer exterior of the main house.” Personally, I suggest Sir Simon is confused; the main house is an ugly over-dressed elderly Victorian aunt, whereas the extension, with its decorative brickwork, chimneys and Dutch-style dormers, is youthful, neat and attractive. I knew I should have attended an Edwardian boarding school; I would have liked it very much.
Sandringham is closely associated with the Royal Family’s Christmas. George V made the first ever Sovereign’s Christmas radio broadcast from there in 1932 and, twenty-five years later, Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas Broadcast in 1957, transmitted live from the Long Library at Sandringham, was the first to be televised. There is a transcript of the speech on the Royal website.
The Royal Family celebrated Christmas at Sandringham every year from 1988 to 2019. In 2020, the Queen and Prince Philip spent Christmas on their own at Windsor Castle, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 2021 was the first Christmas for the Queen without Philip, her “strength and stay” for so many Christmases before. On 20 December 2021, due to concerns about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the Queen announced she would be celebrating Christmas at Windsor Castle for a second year, rather than at Sandringham.
In happy times, after decorating the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, the Royal Family take afternoon tea at 6pm and then play games and exchange Christmas presents, a tradition begun by Queen Victoria. It is also a tradition in Germany, so maybe this is a hangover from her German relatives, or her beloved husband, Prince Albert. On Christmas Day at Sandringham, the whole Royal Family usually took a walk to St Mary Magdalene Church for the morning service and then returned to the house for lunch.
Sandringham House was opened to the public by Her Majesty in 1977, her Silver Jubilee year, but the gardens were first opened to the public by King Edward VII in 1908 and it is the gardens that feature in this article. In any event, the house was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic when the ABAB team visited – as was the interesting looking museum, which features various vehicles used by the Royal Family (including the children) over the years, and, sadly, the handsome church of St Mary Magdalene. Nor was it possible to get a clear shot of the church without clambering into a neighbouring field. I did briefly consider doing this, but, weighing up the benefits against the possibility of being nabbed and carried off to The Tower, decided to give it a miss. Suffering for my art has limits.
The gardens at Sandringham are pleasant rather than spectacular. There are formal beds and borders close to house and the rest is a mixture of well-tended shrubbery and parkland, with some wonderful trees. We certainly spent a happy few hours wandering around in the autumn sunshine, although next time I’d like to explore the wider Royal Park – which is free to visit. The views of the house peeking through the foliage around the upper lake have an appealing fairy-tale like quality and there are a number of features that deserve a mention, in no particular order.
At the front of the house is a life size bronze statue by Tessa Campbell Fraser of 2013 Ascot Gold Cup winning horse, Estimate, commissioned by Her Majesty the Queen. Estimate was a gift to the Queen from the Aga Khan and the statue is a reminder that Sandringham is home to the Royal Stud, established in 1886. The term does not refer to Edward VII, but to a place where racehorses are bred.
At the main entrance to Sandringham is an impressive pair of wrought-iron gates, made in Norwich in 1862 for the International Exhibition in South Kensington, London. For some inexplicable reason they are known as the Norwich Gates. The people of Norfolk bought them by public subscription in 1863 as a wedding gift for Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, and Princess Alexandra. I suppose it makes a change from a toaster or cutlery set; I wonder if they were wrapped.
There is a 17th century bronze statue of a Chinese god, referred to as ‘a Buddha’, at the end of a formal garden near the Norwich Gates. It has an unpleasant little smirk on its face and was apparently known to Royal children as ‘Laughy’, or ‘Goddy’. I’m surprised they didn’t call it ‘slightly creepy’. The statue was acquired for Edward in 1869 by Sir Henry Keppel, commander-in-chief of the China station. Nearby is a rather fetching statue of Old Father Time, believed to date from around 1800. It was purchased by Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, for £100 in 1951.
Unfortunately, we did not see Her Maj while we were there. It is sad to think that she probably never sees her Sandringham gardens at their best, because she normally only visits in winter. God bless you, ma’am.
Of course, you know that A Bit About Britain lists 97 British monarchs, even the dodgy ones, with a bit about each one. Of course you do.
Here is the link to the official Sandringham website.