It was reassuring on Sunday to see the Queen, in her stylish headscarf, heading to Wood Farm, Sandringham, following a quick helicopter trip from Windsor Castle. Having sacrificed her traditional family Christmas on the Norfolk estate, a last-minute cancellation due to surging Covid cases, she has finally made it back.
Certainly, it takes a lot to keep her away. Sandringham combines many of the Queen’s favourite things – memories of her father and husband, closeness to the sea and her horses. The chance to check in on her top-class racehorses in the estate’s Royal Stud is sufficient attraction in itself.
But this latest visit shows a return to pre-pandemic normality for the monarchy – and to the ritual of Royals staying at Sandringham in the winter.
Much has been made of the poignancy of Her Majesty returning to the house where Prince Philip spent much of his retirement, between 2017 and the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when he was brought in to the bubble at Windsor Castle. But it has long been customary for the Royal family to stay in Norfolk until the beginning of February, partly because of the poignant anniversary of King George VI’s death at Sandringham House on February 6, 1952. This year, that anniversary takes on even greater significance for Her Majesty, hailing the achievement of the Platinum Jubilee – 70 years on the throne.
As Princess Elizabeth, she was up a tree in Kenya when the King died – as a result, many heard the sad news before she did. The day before, the King had enjoyed a day out in the open air, and a happy dinner with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. During the night, a watchman heard him open his ground-floor bedroom window. The next morning, when his valet brought in his breakfast, it was discovered that he had quietly died.
In the decades since, private services of remembrance for George VI have been held in the house, notably 20 years ago, in 2002, when the Queen Mother became unwell during her final stay.
Like George VI, his father died at Sandringham, in 1936. So too did George V’s mother, Queen Alexandra, in 1925, and his elder brother, the Duke of Clarence, in 1892.
It is at Wood Farm that Prince John, George V’s youngest child – the so-called ‘Lost Prince’ – lived with his nurse, Lala Bill, away from his family, due to his epileptic condition. He regularly went from the brick cottage to visit his grandmother, Queen Alexandra, at Sandringham.
When Prince John died at Wood Farm in 1919, Queen Mary, his mother, wrote in her diary: “The news was a great shock tho’, for the poor little boy’s restless soul, death came as a great relief. [I] broke the news to George and [we] motored down to Wood Farm. Found poor Lala very resigned but heartbroken. Little Johnnie looked very peaceful lying there.”
Prince John with Lala Bill at Sandringham Credit: SUPPLIED BY ALPHA
Prince John’s funeral was held the next day at St Mary Magdalene Church, Sandringham. Queen Mary wrote: “Canon Dalton & Dr Brownhill [John’s doctor] conducted the service, which was awfully sad and touching. Many of our own people and the villagers were present. We thanked all Johnnie’s servants who have been so good and faithful to him… Every single person on the estate went and stood around the gates and his grave was absolutely covered in flowers.” Prince John was buried in the churchyard with a handsome, modest Celtic cross as a memorial.
After Prince John’s death, Wood Farm was rented out to various tenants. And then, 50 years ago, Prince Philip had a few free days and thought it would be nice to go the ‘Big House’ at Sandringham. He was horrified to look out of the window and see a busload of people getting out – an entourage of telephonists, cooks and staff that were required when a member of the Royal Family was in residence – so he decided to run the vacant cottage with minimal staff.
Right down by the coast, it’s quite remote and very ungrand – the perfect bolthole for Prince Philip, and now the Queen, when there are no other family members around or guests to entertain.
In fact, Wood Farm is still a substantial, attractive five-bedroom farmhouse in its own land, built in the local Norfolk style with reddish-brown bricks and beige roof tiles. It has a big, L-shaped stable block and yard right next to the house, with big lawns on all sides.
To get to Wood Farm, you drive through Sandringham’s magnificent Norwich Gates – given to the Prince of Wales in 1863 by the City of Norwich as a wedding present. You keep going for several miles, towards the village of Wolferton. Just outside the village, you’ll find Wood Farm, only a short stroll from the sea and the church of St Peter’s, Wolferton.
Wood Farm will be a quiet refuge for much of the Queen’s stay Credit: Shutterstock/Terry Harris/Shutterstock
The Sandringham estate has 27 properties, including the main house. But, for all its grandness, it doesn’t have the sort of imposing dower house you find on lots of Britain’s greatest country estates – a secondary home to which a dowager duchess, say, retires after the death of a duke.
At Sandringham, there is the Folly – a small, turreted shooting lodge built for the Prince of Wales in 1874; and, perhaps most famously of all, Anmer Hall, the sprawling Georgian house given to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as a wedding present.
So, apart from the main house at Sandringham, there are few places where the Queen can take refuge on the estate other than Wood Farm.
Her Majesty will not be surprised by the considerable – but unroyal – levels of comfort there. She and Prince Philip often stayed there, for a week at the end of October. In autumn 2020, she was there for a fortnight with Prince Philip – a memorable break together before his death the following year.
Many members of the Royal family have found refuge there. The Duchess of York would go there after her divorce from the Duke of York, when Prince Philip couldn’t countenance having her in the main house. Kate Middleton stayed there with Prince William before their marriage.
Disparaging remarks are routinely made about the décor and modest furniture at the farm, which could be described as “suburban” – a contrast to, or perhaps even a relief from, the grandeur of other Royal residences.
The Queen and Prince Philip at Sandringham on the 30th anniversary of her Accession Credit: https://www.alamy.com/PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Prince Philip’s life at Wood Farm was relatively modest – but only by Royal standards. His staff didn’t wear Royal livery. And, although the Queen will have a cook on call at Wood Farm, she will know the kitchen well from previous visits.
“I was once at a shooting lunch,” a long-dead Royal courtier once told me. “At the end of lunch, I heard someone say: ‘I’ll do the washing-up.’ I turned round and there was the Queen in her yellow washing-up gloves.”
Sandringham was bought as a shooting estate, and the Queen is a keen picker-up of birds on Royal shoots. But the pheasant and partridge shooting season ends on February 1, so Wood Farm will be a quiet refuge for much of the Queen’s stay.
In fact, the anniversary of her father’s death, on February 6, is a Sunday, when there isn’t any shooting, even during the season. Instead, she may go to St Mary Magdalene Church for the 11am Matins service – and remember her father.
Ever dutiful, the Queen will continue in her constitutional role during her time at Sandringham. Her private secretary, Sir Edward Young, will be on hand. Her weekly audiences with the Prime Minister – which, during the pandemic, she began to conduct by telephone – will continue.
Should the impending report into Downing Street’s Partygate scandal force Boris Johnson to resign, the Queen will be on hand to ask a new prime minister – the 15th of her reign – to form a government.
The Queen’s work – the red boxes, the papers to be signed and the decisions to be made – continues wherever she finds herself. As she has done throughout her 70 miraculous, faultless years.
Additional reporting by Hugo Vickers
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English. Buy your copy from Telegraph Books for £10.99