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Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh with their sons Prince Edward and Prince Andrew (in red) at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, on their Silver Wedding anniversary year, September 1972.  (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I went inside the royals' 'real family home' Balmoral Castle ahead of its historic opening to the public - all the details

Balmoral was the late Queen's favourite place

Emily Nash
Emily Nash - London
Royal EditorLondon
June 29, 2024
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Queen Victoria called it "my dear paradise in the Highlands" - her son, Edward VII, called it "the barn with 1,000 draughts".

For the late Queen Elizabeth II, Balmoral Castle was a lifelong summer sanctuary where she surrounded herself with her loved ones. It is where she died, peacefully, just two days after appointing her final prime minister Liz Truss in the drawing room.

The Queen standing in a light room with green sofas, floral lamps and a fireplace in the centre© Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II photographed in the Drawing Room of Balmoral Castle on 6 September 2022, two days before she died. The room is part of the interior tour route.

Standing in the cosy and intimate space this week, before the Castle's interior is opened to the public on July 1 for the first time ever, I found myself unexpectedly moved by the scene.

King Charles has replaced the pale green carpet with a Hunting Stewart Tartan and changed the sofa covers to a light tartan chintz to match the curtains, but the room, with its white marble fireplace and thistle-patterned trim is instantly recognisable from that poignant last photograph.

WATCH: Why Balmoral was so important to the royal family

Described as "the heart of the castle", family photographs on the piano include a Hugo Burnand Coronation portrait of Charles and Camilla, and a photograph of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Queen Victoria's favourite satin birch chair to the left of the fireplace has not been used since her death and was made famous in the Balmoral Test episode of The Crown, which depicted former prime minister Margaret Thatcher accidentally sitting in it.

The late Queen and late Prince Philip enjoying a picnic with Charles, Anne and baby Andrew in 1960© Bettmann
Balmoral was known to be a favourite place of the late Queen

This is the first time in history this room has been opened up to outsiders, and I was lucky enough to be in the first group through the door for this extraordinary glimpse into the royal family's private Scottish retreat.

Just seven ground floor rooms are open during the bespoke, 50-minute tour, but they pack a punch, though not in the way you’d expect from a royal residence. The never-before-seen route offers up tantalising insights into the royal family’s private time there, as well as historic objects, art and anecdotes.

Curator Sarah Hoare tells HELLO!: "It's their holiday home. There's no state visit here. We don't have state rooms. It's their private home."

A beloved sanctuary

With the King and Queen staying down the road at Birkhall, the Sovereign's Standard was flying from the turrets as we approached the Castle. The monarch had visited the night before our arrival to inspect new signage in the gardens and planned to return in the coming days to check up on everything.

A gorgeous group of working Fell and Highland ponies out exercising in the grounds brought back memories of the late Queen and it's not hard to imagine her many great-grandchildren now trotting about the estate on them and exploring the same paths, streams and mountainsides she knew so well.

Two white horses© Emily Nash
Used to carry stags off the mountain and panniers of grouse, Beth, Alpine, Gairn, Chaffinch and Angel are among 40 ponies bred on the estate

Balmoral has been the scene of some of the royal family's greatest highs and lows. They gathered there on the day Queen Elizabeth died and they were there when the dreadful news of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales came from Paris, the Queen opting to stay and look after her young grandsons Princes William and Harry in her Highlands haven rather than returning straight to London.

But it has also been a beloved sanctuary for the Firm, with its breathtaking scenery, abundant wildlife and fresh air, and one filled with happy memories of barbecues, picnics and balls.

Charles, Prince of Wales, Prince William, and Prince Harry play on the bank of the River Dee, near Balmoral Estate, Scotland, on April 10,1987, in Ballater, Scotland.© Julian Parker
The area is a secluded place for the royals

This is where the royals come to find absolute peace and privacy and they can walk and drive around the area without being bothered. So it feels all the more special to be granted access for the first time.

"We are making history here," Sarah adds. "Queen Victoria and Prince Albert entered the castle in September 1855 and no public have ever had access to any of the rooms that we're about to tour. We're forever grateful to His Majesty the King, King Charles, and Queen Camilla for giving us permission."

The Entrance Hall

From the moment you enter the Castle, you become aware that it is a real family home. The entrance hall appears grand at first glance, with its pine-panelled walls, vast oak fireplace and 22 pairs of eyes staring down in the form of stag hunting trophies, each marked with their weight, the date and time they were shot and by whom.

An oak fireplace with a Coat of Arms carved into it
The oak fireplace in the Entrance Hall was retrieved from the original castle and dates back to 1830. Above it, a chimney piece is carved with Queen Victoria’s Coat of Arms.

But there is a row of fishing rods and nets ready to be scooped up for an outing, along with wellies and waders across the hall. Umbrellas, walking sticks and children's wheelbarrows are all within easy reach for guests to grab and take into the great outdoors.

Queen Victoria's influence looms large throughout. She and Prince Albert first leased Balmoral in 1848 and bought the 11,000-acre estate in 1852 for 30,000 guineas, building a new Castle on the site which has since grown to cover 55,000 acres.

The Red Corridor

Flock wallpaper by William Morris dating from Victoria’s 1887 Golden Jubilee is stamped with her VRI cypher and visitors can admire a copy of a Franz Winterhalter portrait of Albert, which his grieving widow took with her everywhere.

A large black statue in the corner of a wooden-panelled room
A life-size statue of 11th Century King Malcolm Canmore, an ancestor of King Charles III, who killed Macbeth and who is credited with founding the Highland Game

In the stairwell, a life-sized statue she commissioned after his death aged just 42 in 1861 is mounted on a rotating plinth. We're told that when the widowed Victoria went upstairs to bed, a servant would turn it so that his gaze was always on her. Alongside it, a tall rack of picnic rugs stands near the stairs, ready to be scooped up and taken outdoors.

The Main Dining Room

Kings and Queens, the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, nearly all British Prime Ministers, Florence Nightingale and President Eisenhower have all dined here over the past 170 years and is still used by King Charles and Queen Camilla to entertain guests to this day.

Queen Victoria of Great Britain (1819 - 1901) at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, with her dog 'sharp'© W. and D. Downey
Queen Victoria's influence can still be seen in Balmoral

Intriguingly, while the mahogany table extends to the full length of the room, the royal couple always sit opposite one another in the centre, "at the heart of their guests," says our guide.

It is also where the King's piper performs at the end of a meal, continuing a tradition started by Victoria.

Page's Lobby and Family Dining Room

Wearing blue plastic covers on our shoes, we make our way through the narrow Page's Lobby – once Queen Victoria's private chapel – and into the bright and less formal Family Dining Room, where the royals gather for breakfast, afternoon tea and occasional meetings.

A room with a painting, bookshelves and three mounted deer heads
The Page's Lobby at Balmoral, which was once Queen Victoria's private chapel

At the King's request, the White Stewart Tartan china on display has been replicated in the new restaurant to serve visitors who have booked afternoon tea.

His Majesty also asked curators to display items from "Prince Albert's Highland Attire", including his silver pistols, gunpowder horns, sporran, eagle feathers and cap, kilt belts, skean dhu – a traditional ornamental knife – and a smoky quartz Cairngorm stone brooch.

The Library

Once referred to by Edward VII as "the great unread" The Library is now used by King Charles as his study.

Looking out over the glorious sunken garden to the west of the Castle, his red leather and wooden desk features a phone, letter rack, silver ink pot and blotter and clock. A small drum is tucked underneath.

A library with bookshelves and a desk with a red chair
The Library, which King Charles uses as his study while at Balmoral

The walls are lined with volumes on history, art and poetry, novels, Virgil and Homer, plus Prince Albert’s speeches and a miniature replica of Royal Yacht Britannia sits inside a glass bottle ornament on a side table.

Opening up this very private space for the first time is part of the King's longer-term plan to give the public more access to royal residences. The King believes royal homes should be working properties at the heart of their communities, supporting employment and giving the public opportunities to enjoy them.

The Ballroom

Back outside, we make our way to the Ballroom, which visitors to the estate can already enter on a standard £17.50 ticket. This summer they can enjoy an exhibition of the King’s watercolours and items of clothing worn by the royal family at Balmoral.

Balmoral Castle© Getty
Royal fans can enjoy Balmoral Castle like never before

These include outfits worn by King Charles, Queen Camilla and Queen Elizabeth II at the annual Ghillies Ball, which sees the large wood-panelled room packed with royals dancing alongside staff and estate workers at the end of each summer break there.

The Gardens

The King has been busy redesigning the grounds to add trees including Rowan, Field Maple, Japanese Maple and Birch and he has commissioned two new mazes; a Thistle Maze created from Yew trees and another which will form the shape of a Celtic cross.

He has also expanded the kitchen garden, which boasts a huge range of flowers, herbs and vegetables, including squash, strawberries, kohlrabi, Pak Choi, purple sprouting broccoli and Duke of York potatoes.

Emily Nash standing in a field in front of Balmoral Castle© Emily Nash
I got to explore unseen parts of Balmoral

Planting is designed to come into bloom in the late summer while the royal family is in residence. James adds: "When the family are here, they're not here to sit in their castle. They're here to enjoy the outdoors. And that's what we try and promote."

Visitors can also dine at a new 263-cover café and restaurant, which is decorated with copies of paintings from the castle's interior and boasts chairs formerly used by the members of the royal family.

Tickets

Tickets for the interiors tour sold out within two hours of going on sale in April and over the next five weeks, some 3,400 people from across the globe will get to walk through the Castle for the first time.

Filming and photography are strictly forbidden inside, but holders of the £100 interiors tour ticket will receive a commemorative "golden ticket" as a memento. Proceeds from the tours will go back into the Estate.

Then-Prince Charles In Kilt And Sporran And Shepherd's Crook Walking Stick With Prince William & Prince Harry At Polvier, By The River Dee, Balmoral Castle Estate in August 1997© Tim Graham
Tickets for the tour sold out in two hours

James Hamilton-Goddard, director of visitor enterprise, says of the historic opening: "It's a big deal. The King wanted it to happen we've made it happen. It's just been a joy to work on."

Curator Sarah, who usually oversees the ballroom exhibitions, adds: "It has been an absolute privilege to work on this special tour. I’ve worked here for 10 years and had never seen inside a window or through a blind, so when I saw the interiors it gave me goosebumps."

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