A Christmas fit for a queen

16:00, Nov 28 2013
Sandringham House Landscape
ROYAL RETREAT: Sandringham House, the Queen's country residence near Kings Lynn, Norfolk.

I am looking at the Queen's cushions. Scattered on to a sofa, comfy with wear, the majority are exquisite, hand-sewn by Queen Mary apparently.

But there, incongruously in one corner, is a joke pillow. It features a cartoon of a pheasant and the words: "Good shots never grow old, they just pick up less birds" .

"We think it was a Christmas present given to Prince Phillip," a guide confides.

I'd always thought the royals exchanged Faberge eggs and other horribly expensive flim flam at Christmas but apparently not.

There's a strict limit on gift-spending and a stipulation that they provide a laugh or are eminently practical - a splendid dog's lead, for example. Who knew?

The Queen's house at Sandringham in north-west Norfolk, England, is where the entire Royal family - the Queen and Phillip, her four children, Princess Margaret's children and all the various offspring and partners - traditionally gather for Christmas.


And if you ever wondered how the richest family in the kingdom kick up their heels during the festive season, it's worth a visit.

For a start, the Queen loves a good Christmas tree. She loves several in fact, erecting one in every room and having them specially treated so they can remain there until February when she leaves.

She doesn't decorate them all personally but she does like a few baubles to be left for her to unwrap and arrange.

The Christmas table seats 24 and the family always uses the same set of place mats - each featuring the Queen's racing winners. Some are looking a bit tatty but the collection is renewed every Christmas when her racing manager gives her a gift of new mats featuring that year's winners. No winners? He gives her a jar of honey instead.

Since it's one of the few occasions when The Firm gets together informally, they meet before dinner to discuss their day's activities.

For the Queen, says our guide, it might be visiting her horses, the kennels where she breeds labradors or the loft where she takes a keen interest in her racing pigeons.

Other members of the family may ride through the fabulous Sandringham grounds or go for walks along the local north Norfolk beaches.

And if you ever wanted to get a good look at the entire family close up, there is no better place than Sandringham on Christmas morning when they all squeeze into the tiny but ornate local church for the festive service.

If they want to catch up on the Christmas movies, security dictates it's too hard to transport the lot of them to the local multiplex in King's Lynn.

So, instead, the movies are brought to them and a big screen set up in the ballroom. One year the Queen got an advance copy of the latest Harry Potter and invited some local school children to watch it with her.

The ballroom is the setting for a variety of changing exhibitions. During my visit it was a series of photographs officially said to be commemorating the Queen's Jubilee.

Personally, I'd have renamed it the Queen's Jubi-glee. In every photo she was beaming hugely at small children, dogs and especially Prince Phillip.

They seem to share a number of jokes and after touring an exhibition of some of the gifts they're given on official visits, I wondered if some of those had been the butt.

Sure, it's hard knowing what to give a woman who has everything but it would be hard to look excited over a portrait of yourself in beads, an eel trap or a corgi-shaped cookie cutter.

They should have known she'd prefer a splendid dog's lead.

To check opening times and entry fees for Sandringham House and its gardens see: sandringhamestate.co.uk.