Where corgis walk and time stands still
The royal family's Norfolk home is a handsome Victorian country house, large but hardly imposing, attractive but hardly beautiful. There are connections with four royal generations but quite the most fascinating is with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who owned and enjoyed Sandringham for 49 years. He made Sandringham House, which he was given as a coming-of-age present, a glittering retreat for members of high society and people blessed with fame. A dividing screen in one room is decorated with photographs left behind by his visitors. There are theatre people, musical hall stars and opera singers, army generals, nobles and two unnamed photographs said to show Alice Keppel, the Prince's long-time mistress. A desk in another room carries an inscribed photograph of Czar Nicholas II, the last Russian Emperor.
Wandering around the house gives a tremendous feeling of being close to the rulers of an empire and to people who influenced the direction of history. A local folk myth, if myth it is, tells of a bedraggled, bearded Russian monk turning up one night and demanding to see King Edward on urgent business. In actual fact, bombs were dropped quite close to Sandringham by a German airship when King George V was in residence.
The opportunity for studying family trees cannot be bettered. Photographs are everywhere of ancestors of the present royals and distant second cousins who formed long-forgotten royal dynasties in Europe. The family likenesses, dating back to the middle years of the last century, are so apparent.
Sandringham has an admirable education service, offering scrupulously researched material and thoughtful suggestions - and not all of them are confined to history. The Sandringham Estate is vast and filled with the type of woodland to encourage imaginative exploration and glorious but safe adventures. The entire estate is within a coastal Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and almost 600 acres have been set aside as a country park with nature trails. The grounds around the house are brilliantly coloured and invite slow discovery, with every walker hoping they will, by chance, come across a certain someone out walking the corgis!
A museum close by the main house offers visitors the chance to look closely at some smashing examples of royal limousines and "everyday" estate transport and the estate's magnificent fire engine. There are sections devoted to items collected, or rather donated, on the royal travels around the world.
I am pleased to record that the royal family's potentially embarrassing big-game trophies have at last been put to a sensible use, having been formerly hung on walls or displayed in glass cases. The stuffed animals, including many exotic species, are now in appropriate display settings, such as an African water hole, with tapes of animal sounds in the background.
All the main rooms in Sandringham House are open to the public and the guides, who are mostly local people, are helpful and considerate with youngsters.
Prince Philip has often called Buckingham Palace "the family office". The chance to look around it is high on the agenda of foreign tourists and English grandparents but it really is long on disappointment. Not much more than a walk along several long picture galleries, a chance to see where limousines disgorge ambassadors, a look at the garden-party lawns and precious little else.
The attendants are quite helpful but there is a heavy emphasis on hurrying through. Pausing is not encouraged, take one step back and you have a guard coming forward to tell you that turning back is absolutely forbidden.
At the risk of spoiling my chances of a knighthood, I would say a visit to Buck House is too irksome in the planning, hideously expensive and not really worth the effort. The men in suits seem only interested in numbers.
Sandringham. Open April 1 to September 30. Admission to house, grounds and museum is Pounds 2 for children, discounts available. Tel: 01553 772675 * Buckingham Palace. Restricted opening. Tel: 0171 930 4832. Pounds 4.50