Long after most families have taken their decorations down, the Christmas tree lights still twinkle at Sandringham.
Inside the house, great fir trees are covered with traditional baubles of glittering red and gold.
In the dining room stands a rare modernising touch, a gloriously unstuffy artificial silver tree with strands of tinsel hanging down.
Thanks to the Queen’s stipulations, the decorations are kept up until February 6.
Some will say that it’s bad luck – and the Queen has certainly had more than her fair share of that.
Yet those closest to the monarch know the decorations are a quiet tribute to her beloved father, whose early death on February 6, 1952, catapulted her to the Throne at the age of 25.
The Mail on Sunday has learned that in preparation for the anniversary of her father’s death, and her accession to the Throne, the Queen will make a special pilgrimage to Sandringham in the coming days. ‘Everything is being put in order for the Queen’s visit,’ one said. ‘We’ve been told that she will stay at Wood Farm, rather than the main house’
The Queen has stayed in the cottage before, but it will be the first time since Philip died and thus very fitting that she should return now. (Above, the royal couple at the Sandringham estate in 1982)
They are a poignant reminder of the Queen’s sense of duty in carrying on his work.
The spirit of King George VI, who died at Sandringham aged 56, has been an ever-present guide throughout her reign.
Today, without Prince Philip by her side, and with the 70th anniversary of her father’s death drawing near, she must miss him all the more.
Although she normally spends Christmas at Sandringham, the Queen has remained at Windsor Castle since the autumn – a Covid precaution – where she held muted celebrations with close family, including the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.
But The Mail on Sunday has learned that in preparation for the anniversary of her father’s death, and her accession to the Throne, the Queen will make a special pilgrimage to Sandringham in the coming days.
On visits to Sandringham, the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would cycle around the estate and join their mother and father overseeing the harvest. (Above, Elizabeth with her father, George VI, at Sandringham in 1943)
Last night, sources confirmed that staff were preparing a modest cottage on the estate.
‘Everything is being put in order for the Queen’s visit,’ one said. ‘We’ve been told that she will stay at Wood Farm, rather than the main house, which is nice as that always had a special place in his heart.’
The Queen has stayed in the cottage before, but it will be the first time since Philip died and thus very fitting that she should return now.
When Philip retired from public duties in 2017 at the age of 95 – the age of the Queen today – this was the place he called home.
With typical enthusiasm, he set about improving Wood Farm as a retirement bolt-hole. He oversaw a project to install a new kitchen and spent his days reading, writing and painting.
The Queen, when she wasn’t on duty in London, would travel up to stay with Philip at the cottage and it was there that the two could live more like a ‘normal’ couple than at any other time of her reign.
Dispensing with liveried servants, Philip had insisted that Wood Farm staff – a page, housekeeper, chef and footman – wore ordinary clothes.
When Philip retired from public duties in 2017 at the age of 95 – the age of the Queen today – Wood Farm cottage was the place he called home
Whether by helicopter or by car, the 140-mile journey from Windsor to Sandringham is one to be endured rather than enjoyed – particularly for a 95-year-old.
So the decision to travel will not have been made lightly and must be taken as a sign that, if she is not robust, she is in reasonable health.
The Queen last visited the estate in early November. She would normally have spent the weekend after Halloween at Sandringham with Philip and didn’t want to miss the occasion – the first since his death last April.
But just a week later, Buckingham Palace aides were forced to announce that ‘with great regret’ the Queen would not be able to attend the Remembrance Sunday parade at the Cenotaph due to a ‘back sprain’.
Palace sources said the Queen was ‘disappointed’ but the notion of sitting for such a long period would have been too much, even for a woman of her stamina.
Before too long, however, the Queen was back on duty, joking about being a ‘mechanical’ monarch on digital video calls.
Rather than over Zoom, it is thought that wile at Sandringham, the Queen will record a TV address to the nation to mark when she will have spent 70 years on the Throne.
The celebrations will come later, with four days of parties and events planned in June.
For the Queen, the commemoration of her accession to the Throne is a sombre time. A period of reflection in which she remembers her father.
At Sandringham, there will also be plenty of fond memories of ‘we four’, as the Queen’s father used to refer to his happy nuclear family – himself, his wife (the Queen Mother), Elizabeth and her sister Margaret.
And they were undoubtedly happy days. On visits to Sandringham, the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would cycle around the estate and join their mother and father overseeing the harvest.
At Sandringham, there will be plenty of fond memories of ‘we four’, as the Queen’s father used to refer to his happy nuclear family – himself, his wife (the Queen Mother), Elizabeth and her sister Margaret – all pictured, along with Philip
For the King, Lilibet – as he called her – was his ‘pride’, while the younger Margaret was his ‘joy’.
No doubt such memories will be at the forefront of her mind. Certainly, there is an increasing number of public references to her father.
A palace insider said: ‘There is a sense throughout her reign of ‘What did my father do? What would he do in this situation?’ ‘
On her 2015 wedding anniversary, the Queen released a moving letter written by her ‘Papa’ shortly after her wedding to Philip in 1949, in which the King wrote that he had watched her ‘grow up all these years with pride’.
Similarly, the Queen has spent time looking back to see how her father handled events as monarch.
In 2020, on the anniversary of VE Day, the Queen gave a national broadcast recalling her father’s address to the nation 75 years earlier.
And last year, on Father’s Day, a black and white photograph was released showing her standing by her father and Philip in Balmoral as they watched a young Prince Charles sitting on a statue in 1951.
When she ascended the Throne less than a year after the photograph was taken, it was earlier than she had expected.
Her father, a heavy smoker, was ill but it was thought that an operation to remove part of his lung had been reasonably successful.
Elizabeth and Philip, the dashing Greek prince she had married three years beforehand, certainly had no cause to cancel a planned trip to Kenya. What came next is well documented – and the Princess who flew to Africa returned to Britain as Queen.
It wasn’t something that, as the child of the second son, she had been raised to expect.
But after her uncle’s shock abdication it was left to the Duke of York, as the Queen’s father then was, to change course and, with his wife and young girls, Elizabeth and Margaret, embrace a life of duty.
They had been perfectly happy as the Yorks. The young Elizabeth would never have imagined that, not only would she one day ascend the Throne, but that she would reign for more than 70 years.
How proud she must have been when, years later on Prince Andrew’s wedding day, she was able to revive her childhood name by making her much-loved son the Duke of York – a title traditionally given to the second son of a monarch.
Quite how far the name York has fallen must surely compound the Queen’s recent pain at being forced to strip her son of his military honours and forbid him from using his HRH title.
In 2020, on the anniversary of VE Day, the Queen gave a national broadcast recalling her father’s address to the nation 75 years earlier
That a York could be demoted to the status not just of a private citizen but one facing lurid – and vehemently denied – claims of sexual abuse in a New York court just two generations after a York was elevated to Kingship, will be a source of not inconsiderable pain.
But as one former palace aide put it: ‘There are two versions of the Queen: the monarch and the mother.’ And if pushed to choose, duty to the country and the Commonwealth must come even before family.
‘The institution will always come first,’ says a palace source. ‘It’s a personal sacrifice which the Queen made when she swore the oath at her Coronation. It is an oath that she takes extremely seriously.’
As Andrew awaits his fate and Prince Harry puts the final touches to a tell-all autobiography which threatens more hurtful accusations about ‘the Firm’, the Queen has fewer and fewer advisers to hand.
Not so long ago, the Queen would have sought advice from Prince Philip, or at least one of her respected ladies-in-waiting.
After Philip’s death in April, however, the Queen suffered a further double blow when two of her ladies-in-waiting died in short succession.
Diana Maxwell, Lady Farnham, a lady of the bedchamber who was by the Queen’s side for 30 years, and the Dowager Duchess of Grafton, the 101-year-old long-running mistress of the robes, died within weeks of one another.
As Andrew awaits his fate and Prince Harry puts the final touches to a tell-all autobiography which threatens more hurtful accusations about ‘the Firm’, the Queen has fewer and fewer advisers to hand
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, the Queen memorably said that ‘grief is the price we pay for love’. No one would surely know that better.
With that in mind, there is a deeper significance to the visit to Sandringham than simply marking an historic date. For it won’t just be her father who remains in her thoughts but Philip.
Now the same age as Philip was when he retired, she must miss him dearly. After she cancelled engagements due to ill health, often at the last minute, some aides are quietly discussing what the future holds.
This winter, the Sandringham decorations have so far been just for the enjoyment of a stalwart team of staff who look after the house and the estate all year round. Perhaps they deserve a few comforts as, with the end of an era approaching, there is an understandable sense of concern.
‘The contracts state that you work for a member of the Royal Family, not the institution itself,’ said one.
‘So when Charles comes to the Throne, these people will just get four weeks’ notice and that’s it. Maybe there will be jobs found for them in the new regime. No one wants to think about it. It is on people’s minds, but it’s not something you can really talk about.’
With the Jubilee approaching, there is already a concerted effort to place the Queen’s heir, the Prince of Wales, and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall, centre stage.
No doubt the Cambridges, too, will be a bigger part of the picture. They were unable to see the Queen at Christmas and are expected to visit from their Norfolk home of Anmer Hall during the Queen’s stay at Sandringham.
It will surely be a tonic to the Queen to see William and his young family.
She regularly discusses the workings of the monarchy with her grandson, and she recently summoned him to share her growing fears about the safety of helicopter travel.
It is understood she suggested that he take helicopters only when necessary.
For while Sandringham holds many memories of the past, the Queen’s focus is also on the future, whether it is supporting Charles by promoting his wife, Camilla – elevating her to the Order of the Garter – or expressing concerns for the safety of the second-in-line.
In future-proofing the direct line, others who damage the reputation of the institution have been pushed to the margins.
Both Andrew and Harry, for example, have no right to represent the crown or call themselves ‘His Royal Highness’.
There is no room for sentimentality, even as the Queen remembers the loss of father and husband amid the decorations at Sandringham.