Towns / Cities Visited: 176
Countries Visited: 30
Steps Taken Today: 17,373
Steps Taken Around the World: 4,294,845
Another lazy lie in saw us rolling out of bed mid-morning, lingering over a little breakfast, then stepping out the door in search of the day’s nearby singular activity, the Royal Yacht Britannia. Clear skies meant there was a fresh chill in the air, but the gentle morning sun helped to keep it at bay as much as possible as we sauntered down to Ocean Terminal and the mall which houses the entrance to the second storey exhibit you must pass through before you can board the ship.
Stepping into the sea of information held here, we buckled ourselves in for a crash course on British royal boat ownership. You see, the now decommissioned ‘Britannia’ may have been the last royal vessel to ferry the monarchy on their official and unofficial ocean jaunts, but it is certainly not the first. In fact, the first royal ship was named ‘Mary’ and was built all the way back in 1660. Yep, that’s right, British taxes have been paying for this family’s maritime needs for almost 400 years. Britannia was the 83rd royal vessel and served a surprisingly long stint from its maiden voyage, ironically enough to Malta, in 1954, all the way up to its retirement some 43 years later in 1997 when it became a tourist attraction. After that the decision was made to not replace the yacht with a new one, I’m assuming because the royal’s just fly everywhere now. Throughout its employment, Britannia sailed more than a million nautical miles far and wide across the British empire, even making a few journeys all the way around the world to Australia. It was used for official visits, but also more private leisurely trips, like Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s honeymoon. Not only does the exhibition here provide a well-rounded background on the boat, it also houses pristine displays of the formal Royal Navy uniforms of the higher ranked crew members. It’s all a bit stiff if you ask me, but then the royal family has always been a massive supporter of pomp and ceremony.
Given the VIP status of the passengers aboard the Britannia during its use, it is unsurprising to learn that when in use for royal duties, it was accompanied by a Royal Navy warship. It was also crewed exclusively by Royal Navy servicemen and women. The most interesting factoid lurking amongst the swathe of information here though, is actually that the ship was designed to be capable of converting into a floating hospital in times of war within twenty-four hours. Luckily, there was never a need for it to do so, but it was, in 1986, used to rescue 1000 refugees from Adan in Yemen during the civil war there. The fact this was considered in the design says a lot about how Queen Elizabeth II, a queen who herself served in WWII as a then Princess, viewed her duty to her people, especially during times of crisis.
With the formalities out of the way, it was time to step out onto the gangway and board, although unlike most boats, we would be exploring this bad boy from the top down, as the second storey exhibition delivers you to the upper level, which houses the bridge, although due to high winds we were unable to explore it. Now, I know the term yacht tends to invoke images of small to medium sized boats, decked out in sails and bikini clad celebrities, but try and put that image aside if you can. Britannia is basically a large steam powdered boat with a few almost inconsequential masts which sit sail-less.
Top level off limits, we instead took our audio guides with us to the next level which held the quarters of the higher ranked crew members in the front area close to the funnel. Here you can peak into the glassed off, rather plush living quarters of the captain, complete with comfortable sofas, large dining table, study, spacious bedroom, and an ensuite sporting a bathtub. Aside from the weight of responsibility in ferry around royalty, it looked like a pretty sweet deal to me.
Looking over the railings here, you can catch a glimpse of the also retired royal racing yacht Bloodhound, one of the most successful ocean racing yachts ever built. This little speed racer is also the vessel on which Prince Charles and Princess Anne learnt to sail.
Towards the stern of the boat on this level, you reach the Sun Lounge and the Verandah Deck, where the Royal passengers were able to relax and enjoy some privacy. Here, unsurprisingly, the decor is noticeably nicer, and it sports the kinds of details I’m sure we’d all love if we were rich enough to have a giant pleasure boat; things like a hidden bar full of top shelf spirits and crystal glassware, and other hidden cupboards housing a record player, and even a selection of board games. It’s hard to imagine a family so often seen at formal engagements all sitting round a game of scrabble, but I guess underneath it all they’re just people too. In fact, apparently, they all get so competitive during a round of Monopoly that it’s basically been unanimously banned as a family past time. Seriously, can you imagine a family which owns ridiculous amounts of land and money squabbling over the rent on Old Kent Road, or flipping the board because they’ve landed on a hotel topped Mayfair for the third time and are now bankrupt.
This floor also plays host to the royal bedrooms, which are actually not as lavish as you would probably expect, although that’s not to say they aren’t comfortable and thoughtfully decorated. The Queen and Prince consort’s separate rooms sit furnished with single beds; the Queen’s room having only ever been used by Queen Elizabeth II in the entirety of its existence. The Honeymoon Suite here holds a simple double bed to offer more intimate couples accommodation, and was used by four different royal couples over the decades. I will say, I find it comical that despite being one of only a handful of actual queens, Elizabeth II does not actually opt for a queen-sized bed but instead prefers the smaller standard double. Although given her petite stature I suppose it’s more than large enough to accommodate Her Majesty’s needs.
Our journey had come to a fork in the road at this point. In one direction sat the continuation of the tour, in the other the tearooms. Given that it was solidly into lunchtime, we opted for the latter. Sitting down in the airy dining room, we were soon digging into hearty bowls of soup, pea and ham, and Cullen skink being shared between my partner and I; the perfect remedy for this chilly winter’s day. Of course, we followed this with a round of fruit scones with jam and cream, and a pot of tea, because are you really on the royal yacht if you don’t have a spot of tea?
Next up on the agenda on this ship which is so clearly divided into two different worlds, we were back into the behind the scenes staff areas, as we passed through the higher officers’ living areas as well as the kitchen and storage spaces for the immense swathes of crockery, glassware, and silverware required for the next room.
Stepping through the door back into the Royal Apartments, we were met with the most grandiose of the rooms on board, the State Dining Room. In this spacious midship room, the Queen has hosted numerous important guests, from Winston Churchill, to Ronald Reagan, and even Nelson Mandela. Apart from holding a smattering of fancy tables and chairs, the room also displays a number of traditional and rare gifts to the royals from their overseas commonwealth nations, from a nephrite jade mere from the Maori peoples of New Zealand, to a ceremonial longsword, and even a narwhal tusk.
From here you can tour the other spaces in the royal apartments, from a study cutely donned with family photos, to the spacious drawing room which appears to be some sort of cross between a retiree cruise lounge, and an expensive nursing home day room. Maybe it’s just me, but there is something about plush, floral upholstered sofas coupled with Persian rugs which screams old fashioned; doubly so when the patterns clash. If nothing else, I will grant them that the grand piano adds a tough of class to the whole affair.
As above, so below, doesn’t really apply to this place, and as we descended to the lower decks, we were delivered into the cramped confined of the sailor’s quarters. Here roomy elegance gives way to regimented bunk beds, assigned lockers, and a fairly comfortable lounge area with a bar offering tap beer and cheap spirits to the crew, although why they had Foster’s on tap, I don’t know. I don’t think there is a single Australian who actually drinks the stuff, and yet, much like the show Neighbours, Brits seem to view it as the epitome of Australiana. Honestly, I’m pretty sure Fosters is just the shittiest bits from the bottom of the tanks of all of our cheapest beers mixed together and exported far away.
Down here you will also find the domain of the medical team, complete with office, sick bay, and operating theatre, depending on the direness of the medical emergency. Just down the hall you also find the frankly impressive laundry, with its massive washing machines, and the largest collection of ironing and pressing machinery I’ve ever laid eyes on. Seriously, they had something for everything. Need you collar and cuffs pressed? Right this way, sir. Shoulders of your jacket need shaping? We’ve got you covered. Sheets need a once over in mere seconds? Yep, we’ve got that too. Do you think the royal family have ever even seen a crease?
Coming down the gangplank and off the vessel momentarily, we passed the Royal Barge, which is, of course, another small fancy boat used to ferry the royals from land to their larger fancy boat. From here we re-entered the yacht at a different point for the last part, the glassed off viewing area which looks down over the pristine inner workings of the engine room. There are more gauges here than Henry VIII had wives, and all of them appear far more cared for to boot. Aside from the engine, this bottom level of the boat also houses an exhibition detailing the royal families generational love of sailing, and the lower crew members facilities in all of their military-esque glory.
By the time we emerged out through the gift shop in the mall, we had managed to while away the entire afternoon, but we couldn’t dally, and were soon home, getting all jazzed up for a night out. Dressed in our best, that being the best clothes we had tucked away in our suitcases, and wrapped in our rain jackets, because of course it was now raining, we headed out into the night. Now, I know when I say night it makes it sound like we were going out for a late evening dinner but given that the sun goes down at like 4pm in winter here, it wasn’t quite like that; we were scurrying into town to make our 5pm reservation at an upmarket gastropub. ‘Why on earth were we eating dinner at that time?’, I hear you ask. Good question. So, you remember how yesterday I had sent my partner on a secret mission while I distracted my mother. Well, as we shook off our jackets, sat down at our table, and swiftly ordered some drinks, it was finally time to reveal our dastardly plan. As an early Christmas present, and to thank my mum for forking out for our Rome accommodation, we had secretly purchased tickets to see Motown at the Edinburgh Playhouse. I know, I know, favourite child by far right here. There hasn’t been many times in my life where I have managed to surprise my mum, both because she’s fairly onto things and because I’m the absolute worst at keeping surprises to myself because I get so excited and just want to tell people, but I had managed it well and truly in this case.
Secret unburdened from my shoulders, we settled in for what turned out to be a pretty delicious meal, especially given it was the express theatre menu which can at times be questionable in places who see it as easy fast money where people don’t have time to complain. The potted beef and bacon with Yorkshire pudding entrée hit all the right notes with me, and the steak and chips was simple but well-executed. Despite it being really busy in this massive venue, service was prompt. So prompt, in fact, that we even had time for dessert and cocktails to round off the meal; peanut butter shortbread with caramel ice cream, sticky date pudding sundae, and pavlova with vanilla ice cream and berries filling our dessert stomachs nicely.
Fed and watered, we tottered off to the Playhouse, glad to be in out of the cold and settling into our seats with plenty of time to spare. The show was spectacular, and for those of you not lucky enough to have seen it, tells the true story of Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown records, the record label which brought the world the amazing talents of some of the greatest African American musicians of all time, from Diana Ross, to Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, and some of the groups which became household names from the Jackson Five, to The Supremes, The Marvelettes, and The Temptations . As you would expect, the soundtrack was hit after hit, generally not in their entirety but as a medley in order to display as many as possible. It was not all music though, and the play part delves deep into Gordy’s childhood as well as his relationships with a number of the artists. The whole story culminates in the famous Motown Records 25th Anniversary concert in 1983 which saw many of the artists come back together, including Diana Ross reuniting with the Supremes, the falling apart of which is followed closely during the play. All in all, it was a perfect way to show thanks to my mother, a woman of whom I spent many an evening at the theatre with growing up.
The warmth of the theatre and the great meal beforehand had rendered us all rather lethargic by the time we left, but stepping out into the frosty night air woke us up quick start and we hot footed it home to settle into bed before our last day exploring the city.
As I lay in bed, I thought about how the theatre has played a constant role in my life. For starters, it was at a theatre that my parents first met. That’s not to say that they were seeing a show, but rather they were working at a local community theatre, my father building sets and my mother working backstage. Although their relationship was not destined to last, my connection to the theatre did, and I have childhood memories of going back to that same theatre when I was only eight or so and running round with my brother as my father built sets on his weekend with us. I remember scurrying around the costume department trying on bits and pieces and laughing hysterically when my brother emerged from between the racks clopping along in stiletto heels about five sizes too big for him and wrapped in what can only be described as a pimp coat; I remember poorly playing the piano in the wings until I’m pretty sure we almost sent my father insane; and I remember venturing into the depths of the basement dressing rooms with their foam heads sitting wigless on the vanity tables.
In my teen years, my mother and I used to buy season passes to the local theatre in our small country town, breaking our monotonous year up with everything from the Melbourne Opera Company, to an illusionist’s show, multiple tribute shows, a plethora of concerts, several plays of varying quality, and even a hilarious improv show we accidently attended because we had got our dates wrong and the usher seemingly didn’t notice when we flashed our tickets. I’ll be honest, on that last one we spent the first twenty minutes wondering when they’d finish and the main show we had come to see would start. That being said, to this day it is still one of the funniest things I’ve been to.
In later years, when I’d moved out of home, I would still catch a show every year or so with my mother in Melbourne, whenever something caught her interest enough to make the two-hour journey down. Despite the hassle though, this meant bigger and better, albeit more expensive, productions were on the cards, far greater than our regional theatre could ever provide. From Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies, to King Kong and My Fair Lady, some of my favourite memories with my mother were made in the bustling foyers and hushed auditoriums of theatres.
Then, when I met my partner, we made theatre going our yearly anniversary tradition. An amusing fact given that the man swore blind that he hated musicals then proceeded to attend and thoroughly enjoy: The Lion King, Matilda, The Book of Mormon, and Phantom of the Opera. Our celebration of love and commitment has only been solidified by the dimming of house lights and the wave of applause as the curtain rose. Interlaced fingers on armrests and knowing squeezes when the bits you’ll be nattering about at the interval happen are the small unspoken gestures that the best relationships are built on. The tiny displays of love we cling to, valuable by virtue of their sheer fleetingness.
There are threads we all sew through our lives. Some strings we stretch seamlessly from birth to the grave, others we tie off in neat little knots to be secured but discontinued, and others still break when we least expect it, leaving behind fraying ends and weak points which threaten to unravel us. At times, these threads are ours alone; at others, they tether us to the tapestries of those we love. For me, the thread of the theatrical arts binds me to so many I hold dear; a strong bright thread which began before my conception and will, I hope, continue until I leave this earthly plain. Some argue that the arts are optional, unnecessary to life, but what they fail to see it that a life without art is but mere existence. To express oneself, to create from within, this is what it is to truly live.