Inside Sandringham: King Charles III’s private country retreat

The Norfolk estate is undergoing a major transformation that includes a new topiary garden

Sandringham Estate
The Sandringham Estate
(Image credit: Getty Images)

After three days of festivities marking his coronation, the newly crowned King Charles III retreated to Sandringham with Queen Camilla for some rest and recuperation.

The estate in north Norfolk is “most widely known for the royals’ Christmas morning walk”, said Country Living, and the King considers time spent on the private country retreat “a tonic”, reported Norfolk’s Eastern Daily Press.

The new monarch inherited the estate upon the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in 2022. The property was a place of “particular significance” for the late queen, said Town & Country magazine. It is where her father King George VI was born and where he passed away.

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After Elizabeth II died, many of her racing horses at the estate’s Royal Stud were sold, prompting speculation that the King might gradually stop using the estate. “The monarch may have too many castles and palaces and too little time to enjoy them all,” said The Times, but it added that Charles would be “pained” to give up Sandringham. Far from abandoning the estate, he has set out a “grandiose redevelopment plan” that includes a new topiary garden, Woman and Home reported.

A rich royal history

Sandringham is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as “Sant Dersingham”, the estate’s website reported, and there is evidence of a house on the present site as early as 1296.

Royals throughout history have both lived in and had a strong affinity with the home, including George V, who once described Sandringham as “the place I love better than anywhere else in the world”, said the website. His son, King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II, wrote that he was “always” happy at Sandringham and “I love the place.”

The tradition of the Sandringham Christmas party was begun by the then future Edward VII in 1864, and was “adopted enthusiastically by the present royal family”, the Daily Express said.

During the 1960s, when then-Prince Charles and his siblings were young, the royals generally spent Christmas at Windsor Castle. But in the 1980s, they transferred the festive celebration to Sandringham because the Berkshire property was being rewired. The family enjoyed the change of venue so much that they opted to return in the following years.

The tradition was held dearly by Elizabeth II. In her 1992 Christmas broadcast, the monarch said: “I first came here for Christmas as a grandchild. Nowadays my children come here for the same family festival. To me, this continuity is a great source of comfort in a world of tension and violence.”

She opened the house to the public in 1977, her Silver Jubilee year.

Long before meeting and marrying the then-Prince of Wales, Princess Diana also had a “huge royal connection” to the residence, Hello! magazine said. She was born at Park House, a property located on the Sandringham estate. The house was later offered by the monarch to the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity in 1983, and became a hotel for disabled guests and their companions to enjoy together.

More than 300 residential properties near the estate are owned by the King, reported The Guardian. “Anything with a light blue door belongs to the king,” one local resident told the newspaper.

The 8,000-hectare estate also contains the Sandringham Royal Park, which is open to the public free of charge every day of the year.

Members of the royal family have in the past delighted visitors with unexpected appearances, such as in 2021 when Prince William surprised runners taking part in an inaugural half marathon in the grounds by turning up to cheer them on, accompanied by Prince George and Princess Charlotte.

Step inside

Sandringham House was once described as “the most comfortable in England” and “boasted a shower and flushing water closets far earlier than many others in Britain”, according to The Telegraph.

The main ground-floor rooms are regularly used by the royals but are also open to the public. The decor and “contents remain very much as they were in Edwardian times”, according to the estate’s website.

In 2013, the Daily Mail reported that the house was not large enough to accommodate the 30 guests invited to the Christmas celebrations that year. “Despite being set in 600 acres of woodland, the house is small by royal standards and quarters are said to be ‘cramped’,” the newspaper said. Guests were invited instead to stay in the servants’ quarters and other nearby cottages.

More than 200 people work at the estate, including gamekeepers, gardeners, farmers and employees in Sandringham’s sawmill and its apple juice-pressing plant, according to Town & Country.

“The estate places a huge emphasis on recycling, conservation and forestry, and is a sanctuary for wildlife,” the magazine added. Sandringham is also famed for hosting royal shooting and hunting parties.

The renovations

In early 2023, major renovations began on the lawn area to the west of Sandringham House, which is being transformed into a topiary garden, BBC said. The lawn, which was a formal parterre garden in the 1800s, has “been affected by warm weather and excessive rainfall” in recent years, according to a press release. The new garden will incorporate plants that are “more robust, hardy and better able to withstand the impact of emerging weather patterns”, the statement said.

More than 5,000 yew tree hedging plants will be planted, along with more than 4,000 herbaceous perennial plants and bulbs. “In addition, it will create a rich source for pollinators and the provision of new habitats.”

The garden renovations perhaps reflect the new monarch’s well-known love for nature. Dubbed the “climate king” by Vox, Charles has long been a champion of environmental causes. He has in recent years overseen “Sandringham’s conversion to a fully organic operation”, Country Life reported.

The changes could also be a nostalgic homage to his great-great grandmother Queen Alexandra, whose topiary garden in the old dairy building had a “profound influence” on Charles as a child, the monarch told The Telegraph in 2019. “I can still remember being taken as a child, being wheeled in my pram even, and it was so special, these clipped animal shapes, peacocks, birds. I’ve never forgotten it.”

Where will King Charles III and Queen Camilla live?

Along with Highgrove in Gloucestershire, Clarence House in London, and of course, Buckingham Palace, Sandringham is just one of “more than a dozen royal residences at [the King’s] disposal”, The Times said.

Royal biographers have noted that the King prefers smaller houses to sprawling palaces and, as such, he “appears reluctant” to spend time at Buckingham Palace, the newspaper added. He may use ongoing works at the property as “an excuse not to move in”. Renovations are set to be completed in 2027.

In the meantime, the King and Queen intend to stay just down the road, at Clarence House, which has served as their home for nearly two decades.

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