Royal Yacht Britannia carries a million miles of history

Linda Ray polishes the ship's bel. Picture: Neil Hanna
Linda Ray polishes the ship's bel. Picture: Neil Hanna
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AS she marks her 60th anniversary berthed on the shores of Leith, few would argue the Royal Yacht Britannia hasn’t fulfilled her duties.

But after more than four decades of serving the royal family, travelling more than one million miles, her now idle appearance masks a hive of activity needed to keep this five-star attraction shipshape.

Voted Scotland’s Best Visitor Attraction for the seventh time by VisitScotland, her role is to welcome aboard the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come annually, eager for a glimpse into what makes her so special that she caused the Queen to cry when decommissioned.

During peak season, 150 staff work tirelessly to ensure everything aboard is still fit for a Queen and – now even more importantly – the expectations of the paying public.

“We treat her as though the Queen is still in the next room,” says Linda Ray, head housekeeper, as she takes out an elaborate silver salt cellar, and gives it a thorough polish.

Linda’s day starts at 6am when she immediately sets about washing all the floors, giving them the chance to dry before the other staff traipse their feet along the 411ft vessel, as they too get ready for the 1000-plus daily visitors.

Maintaining the cleanliness of a ship of this size and grandeur is no easy feat with daily vacuuming and general cleaning interspersed with periodic silver polishing, crockery dusting and crystal washing by the team of just seven.

Curtains and light-shades are taken down every few months to be cleaned and rehung and the seemingly endless railings, along with the famed Britannia bell – the only feature to bear the ship’s name – regularly being brassed by the team.

Even the massive brass furnishings in the now-defunct engine room are tended to twice-yearly so they sparkle as visitors gaze into what was once the ship’s heartbeat.

“There’s always work to be done but I find it very rewarding,” says Linda, 59.

Keeping on top of things is vital for other workers too, and perhaps none more so than those charged with maintaining the now old lady of the seas.

As a charitable trust, all proceeds made from ticket sales go into the long-term maintenance of Britannia to ensure she is still around for generations to come to enjoy.

Tony Smith, like many on his crew, served with the Royal Navy before embarking on a career that encapsulates much of his passion – minus the time spent away from family.

He heads a team consisting of mechanical and electrical engineers, electricians, a bosun and deckhand, painters, joiners and a plumber, which means they seldom have to go to outside contractors, thus keeping costs to a minimal.

“There’s always parts that need painting, handrails that need removing, sanding and several coats of varnishing,” the old mine-spotter says.

“When you think the vessel is 411ft long, there must be 2000ft of handrails to refurbish so there’s always something getting removed to be worked on.”

Last year the team were tasked with getting the royal barge ready for the flotilla as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. It hadn’t ran since 1997, so the engines were reconditioned, it was repainted and readied for royalty.

Aside from the big projects,Tony’s work is often determined by the day-to-day necessities to keep up appearances. Every morning, before doors open to the public, a walk-through is conducted by the visitor experience manager to make sure every lightbulb is working and not a cushion is out of place.

Elsewhere, food and beverage service manager Bruce MacBride, who has previously worked on the Orient Express, will accept nothing but exemplary service from his staff in the Royal Deck Tea Room.

A member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, he took charge of proceedings at Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall’s pre-wedding cocktail party two years ago, welcoming other royal guests including William and Kate.

Their treatment was no different to other guests, with Bruce insisting on a choreographed service for all in “almost a

regimental way.”

It was this attention to detail that made Britannia fit for a Queen – 60 years on, these efforts ensure she still is.