Exploring The Queen's Royal Yacht "Britannia" in Edinburgh, Scotland

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

I have to admit, the last tourist site that I was interested in visiting when I was in Edinburgh, was the former Royal Yacht Britannia. 

It was well off the beaten path, and as far as I knew was just a boat.

What was the big deal? 

Well, my travel companions convinced me to make the trip to its permanent mooring at Ocean Terminal in Leith, and I am really glad that they did because it is a piece of royal history that is actually pretty darn cool. 

What is the Royal Yacht Britannia?

Now, it is no Buckingham Palace, but what makes the Britannia so interesting is that it served as the Royal Family's floating home during foreign travels from its launch in 1953 until it was decommissioned in 1997.

It was one of the few places where the family could have complete privacy (well as much privacy as you can have with a full staff around you) and offers an intriguing look at the queen's private, traditional, and unfussy British taste.

Here are some technical facts about the yacht: 

  • Launched on April 16, 1953, by HM Queen Elizabeth II
  • Length overall: 125.65m or 412ft 3in
  • Gross tonnage: 5,862 tons
  • Shaft horsepower: 12,000
  • Speed: 22.5 knots maximum 21 knots continuous
  • Range: 2,196 miles at 20 knots (burning diesel fuel)/2,553 miles at 18 knots (burning diesel fuel) 

The photos below show some of the most interesting rooms on display to the public. 

I know it's hard to believe, but this simple, old-fashioned looking room was the Queen's private apartment.

Yes, that is a simple single bed that you see there! 

The Duke's private apartment also contains a single bed and simple furnishings. 

The Dining Room walls are covered in treasures that the Queen was gifted during her travels.

It used to take over three hours to set the room for a State Banquet, as each place setting was measured with a ruler! 

The drawing room is decorated like a charming country home and was the gathering place on the yacht. 

Princess Diana's ties to the Britannia 

The boat has had many famous guests from all over the world and was also the vessel that took Princess Diana and Prince Charles on their honeymoon. (I would never describe myself as a "royalist", but like a lot of the world, Princess Diana has always fascinated me.)

There is something amazing about walking in the same place that some of history's biggest movers and shakers have walked. 

The only room on the boat with a double bed is where Princess Diana and Prince Charles stayed and, more recently, where the Clintons slept while they were guests on the yacht. 

Running the Queen's Royal Yacht

The ship's company was made up of an admiral, 20 officers, and 220 yachtsmen who kept the five tons of luggage organized, the Rolls-Royce ready to go, the beautiful teak decks scrubbed, and the ship running smoothly! 

According to the website, "HMY Britannia was unique in that her Commanding Officer was always a Flag Officer, generally a Rear Admiral (although the first two were Vice Admirals and the last a Commodore). Having such a high ranking Officer as HMY Britannia's 'Captain' reflected the gravitas of the duties he had to undertake. In this respect, all crew (20 Officers and 220 Yachtsmen), were personally selected by the Commanding Officer.

Around half the ship's company were appointed for a two-year tour of duty. The rest were hand-picked for permanent service and remained with Britannia throughout their naval career. Promotion on Britannia was slow as so many Yotties turned down their natural promotion on to other Royal Navy ships to stay in their existing rank on board Britannia. Therefore promotion for the Yotties became known as 'Dead Man's Shoes,' waiting for the post holder to retire. 

Duties ranged from ensuring the slope of the royal gangway was never steeper than 12° to arranging the royal flowers; from daily diving to search the seabed beneath the Yacht to polishing the silverware. In temperatures of up to 120°F, they manned Britannia's 'state of the art' Laundry, yet were as pristine as the ship herself at all times; the Royal Yacht was one of very few Royal Navy ships that did not have a Chinese Laundry service. The junior Yachtsmen also had the arduous task of scrubbing the two-inch thick teak decks each day to keep them in pristine condition. They were also called on to work at the many prestigious state banquets and dinners held on board."

Planning your visit to the Britannia

All levels of the yacht, from the engine room up, can be visited by the public, and there is even a tea room to enjoy (I didn't hit that up, but I hear that the food is amazing!).

LOCATION: The Royal Yacht Britannia, Ocean Drive, Leith, Edinburgh
HOURS: January, February, March, November, December 10 am - 3:30 pm; April, May, June, July, August, September 9:30 am -4:30 pm; October 9 am - 4 pm.
TICKETS: You can purchase your tickets online or in-person. An Adult ticket costs £16.00. TOURS: Free audio or private tours are available

For more info on the yacht click here

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The Queen's Royal Yacht "Britannia" in Edinburgh, Scotland

Drinking Champagne Out of Marie Antoinette's Breast (or, the history of champagne glasses)

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

The history of champagne glasses

The small bowl, or saucer shaped champagne glass (called a coupe) is often claimed to be modeled on the left breast of the famed French aristocrat Marie Antoinette (1721-1793).

Known as the extravagant wife of King Louis XVI, and the women who shouted "let them eat cake" (losing her head soon after), it is said that she had these delicate glasses made so that her courtiers could drink to her health from them. 

Though there is no way that she was actually the inventor of this type of glass (champagne was invented in the 17th century and the coupe was created in England in 1663), there is historical evidence that she did have porcelain bowls molded from her breast to drink milk out of.

Even though there is no evidence for it, it isn't too far of a stretch to think that champagne may have been drank out of other breast shaped vessels if milk was... is it?

Ms. Antoinette is not the only famous historical lady that has been rumoured to be the source of some shapely drink-ware.

Two of King Louis XV's mistresses (Madame du Pompadour and Madame du Barry) are said to have created glasses from their breasts for the King's lips only. Napoleon's wife, the Empress Josephine is rumoured to have created bosom glassware for her own personal use, while Helen of Troy allegedly allowed Paris to make wax molds of her breasts to turn into coupe's for his own pleasure. 

Whether these rumours come from truth, drunken observations, or men's champagne-induced fantasies, is something we may never prove (but that doesn't mean it isn't a fun bit of trivia to share at dinner parties!)

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Stephenson, William Stephenson: Did you know that James Bond was based on a real person?

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

Who was the real James Bond?

James Bond may not be as fictional as you thought... 

Who was the real James Bond?

Often considered to be the inspiration for the romanticized, over-sexed spy, and credited with being a key player in the creation of the CIA, Sir William Samuel Stephenson was an inventor, real-life master spy, and businessman. 

Born in Winnipeg, Canada in 1896, he was a fighter pilot in WWI and was then placed in charge of the British Security Coordination (counterespionage) in the Western Hemisphere, headquartered in New York City during WWII.

He is most well known for his wartime intelligence codename Intrepid.

What did he do during the war? 

During the war (amongst other things) he intercepted coded letters from the enemy, passed secrets between Roosevelt and Churchill, and trained allied agents who were later sent to Nazi-occupied Europe. 

His awards and accolades

He was knighted by King George VI in 1945 and awarded the US Medal for Merit from President Truman (only the second non-American to receive the award at the time), but very little was known about what he did during the war until the publication of The Quiet Canadian, A Man Called Intrepid, and Intrepid's Last Case. Though, the claims made in the books have long been disputed and will probably never be proven (that whole national security thing...). 

In 1979 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, and he died at his home in Bermuda on January 31, 1989. 

In May 2000, the CIA Executive Director made this statement:

"Sir William Stephenson played a key role in the creation of the CIA. He realized early on that America needed a strong intelligence organization and lobbied contacts close to President Roosevelt to appoint a U.S. "coordinator" to oversee FBI and military intelligence... Although Roosevelt didn't establish exactly what Sir William had in mind, the organization created represented a revolutionary step in the history of American intelligence. Intrepid may not have technically been the father of CIA, but he's certainly in our lineage someplace."


Sounds like a pretty cool guy. I wonder if he liked martinis? 

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Fact or Fiction? The Great American Streetcar Conspiracy

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

Like most big cities, the one that I live in used to have an efficient and elaborate street-car system that was dismantled long before I ever came along, and the streets were overtaken by cars.

The hot conversation now however, is how to expand and create more efficient public transit options (like extending the light rail transit services) so that people have to use their vehicles less.

If only we hadn't dismantled those streetcars. Which raises the question — why were they dismantled in the first place? 

A streetcar in San Francisco, California

Some say that as vehicles became more popular, people chose to drive directly to their destination rather then cramming into a sweaty streetcar and being dropped only "nearby". Other's claim that busses were cheaper to run because no additional track was required to reach the ever-growing suburbs. 

Another theory however, and one that has been explored over and over again by scholars, researchers, journalists and conspiracy theorists, is that General Motors (GM) and other car companies conspired to systematically purchase and dismantle streetcar and electric train systems. 

Known as the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy or the Great American Streetcar Scandal, this theory examines the actions of National City Lines and Pacific City Lines (both invested in by GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks and the Federal Engineering Corporation) from 1936-1950. During this time, the two companies purchased more than 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 major cities and converted them into bus operations. 

Some theorists claim that this was a business strategy created by GM to expand auto sales and maximize profits — rather than walk, people would buy Buicks. 

"In 1921, GM lost $65 million, leading {GM} to conclude that the auto market was saturated, that those who desired cars already owned them, and that the only way to increase GM's sales and restore its profitability was by eliminating its principal rival: electric railways. 

At the time, 90 percent of all trips were by rail, chiefly electric rail; only one in 10 Americans owned an automobile. There were 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways, a thriving and profitable industry with 44,000 miles of track, 300,000 employees, 15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income. Virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system." (source)

Sensationalized in movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, sources claim that this competition was reduced through the use of bribery, freight leverage and a pack of notorious mobsters. 

In 1949, many of the companies involved were convicted of conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce, but many still don't believe that an actual back-room, behind closed doors conspiracy actually took place amongst these powerful companies. 

No matter what you believe, there is no denying that North Americans live a life of automobile dependency, and the hearts of many of the largest cities on the continent are completely devoid of life after the workday because of a lack of reliable public transit. 

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