Lord Snowdon’s death last week took former News defence correspondent TIM KING back to the day when he covered the return to Portsmouth of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones (as he then was) in the Royal Yacht Britannia after the couple’s Caribbean honeymoon
The Royal Yacht Britannia wasn’t on the drawing board when the Queen and Prince Philip married on November 20, 1947. They had to settle for a honeymoon at Broadlands and Balmoral.
But her sister, Princess Margaret, enjoyed the royal honeymoon to end all when she married Antony Armstrong-Jones on May 6, 1960.
In the next two decades, three of the Queen’s children also enjoyed exquisite cruises on board after their weddings, yet the ship seemed to carry a jinx because all four marriages were fated to end in divorce.
Britannia had been commissioned in 1954 and the Queen had no hesitation in lending her sumptuous yacht to the newly-weds for their fabulous honeymoon in the Caribbean.
Six weeks later, on June 18, as the Evening News’ defence correspondent, I covered the royal arrival home.
I stood a few yards from the end of Britannia’s prow watching a deeply bronzed, smiling princess and her husband walk down on to South Railway Jetty as the yacht’s Royal Marines Band struck up Crazy Love in calypso rhythm... interspersed with the staccato popping of dozens of flash bulbs as the Press photographers caught the moment.
‘It is nice to be home again,’ said the princess when she was greeted by the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Councillor Gerald Horton, and the C-in-C Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Manley Power.
The formalities were brief and 15 minutes after they stepped ashore, the couple were driven to the Harbour station past cheering crowds lining The Hard to board the 2.15pm train to Waterloo and then on to Clarence House and later to Windsor to join Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
But there must be many Portsmouth people who will remember the stupendous build-up to Britannia’s homecoming that day, and her entry into harbour followed by a convoy of small boats and crowded pleasure craft. HMS Victory and the carrier HMS Hermes were dressed overall.
Thousands – among them holidaymakers from across the country – lined every vantage spot along Southsea seafront, the Hot Walls and Point for hours to catch a glimpse through the mist of Britannia, which had earlier anchored at Spithead.
As if by magic, the haze lifted just after noon and the sun shone as the gleaming yacht weighed anchor at 1pm and headed on the last nautical mile home.
I wrote: ‘As the Royal Yacht came close inshore at Clarence beach, watchers were delighted to see the princess and Mr Armstrong-Jones standing alone in a prominent position on the promenade bridge.
‘The couple looked very sun-tanned. Princess Margaret appeared delightfully fresh in a salmon pink coat, yellow flowered dress and ruched tulle hat.’
As Britannia came immaculately alongside, the couple waved to the royal yachtsmen’s families on the jetty who cheered and waved back.
The princess’s hairdresser Sylvia Davies told me when she disembarked later: ‘It was a wonderful trip,’ brushing aside all other questions.
Protocol and the role of the Royal Family have changed since then.
On December 11, 1997, The Queen stood at the spot on South Railway Jetty where her sister’s joyous honeymoon ended and tearfully bade farewell as the faithful floating retainer that served her for 44 years was decommissioned.
It’s unlikely any future royal honeymoons will match that of Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones.
Prince William and Kate had to make do with a flight to the Seychelles, but memories of more than a million nautical miles sailed are still very much alive on board Britannia which is preserved as a museum at Leith in Scotland.
Britannia’s clocks are stopped at precisely 3.01pm when Her Majesty finally disembarked and an era of long-established tradition dissipated into nostalgia.
HONEYMOONS IN BRITANNIA
The Queen lent her magnificent yacht to four members of her family for their honeymoons
1960 Princess Margaret and Mr Antony Armstrong-Jones (Lord Snowdon) – Caribbean
1973 Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips – Caribbean
1981 Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer (Princess Diana) – Mediterranean
1986 Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York) – Azores