Secrets of the Queen's happy place: The royal staycation spot where she can truly be herself

Watch: Queen says hello to Shetland pony at Balmoral

Every summer, in late July, the Queen heads North, her duties slipping away with the miles.

She's driving to the huge private residence owned by the royals, where nothing will be expected of her until October, except hiking, shooting, riding and fishing - perhaps a few after-dinner games, too, though at 95, she may well head to bed with a horse-training manual instead.

Balmoral, in Aberdeenshire, has been in the family since Queen Victoria and Prince Albert rented, then bought it from the aristocratic Farquharson family in 1852, providing a residence in Scotland for the Highlands-loving Queen.

Deeming it 'too small' Queen Victoria had a new castle built, not far from the original grand house, which was then knocked down.

File photo dated 08/09/60 of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and three of their children Princess Anne, Prince Charles and baby Prince Andrew, on his father's knees on the lawns at Balmoral. Balmoral in the Highlands, one of the royals' favourite places, held many memories for the Duke of Edinburgh. The Queen was once said to never be happier than when she was at Balmoral, Philip, too, loved the outdoor life that was synonymous with their annual break, which stretched from the end of July into October. Issue date: Friday April 4, 2021.
The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and three of their children Princess Anne, Prince Charles and baby Prince Andrew, in 1960 at Balmoral. The Queen was once said to never be happier than when she was at Balmoral. (Getty Images)
Crathie, UK - July 29th 2015: Scottish fir trees frame the distant view of Balmoral Castle.
Balmoral now - still the Queen's favourite staycation. (PA)

Arriving at the end of July - for the first time without Prince Philip - The Queen will stay until the Autumn, despite a COVID scare, with one of the castle's staff testing positive this week.

Sadly, her favourite event, The Braemar Gathering, has once again been cancelled, too. The summer event, of which the Queen is patron, features traditional Highland games including tug of war, tossing the caber and displays of Highland dancing - the gathering is often attended by Prince Charles, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William and Princess Anne.

The Duke of Edinburgh, The Games' patron Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales, known as the Duke of Rothesay when in Scotland during the Braemar Royal Highland Gathering held a short distance from the royals' summer retreat at the Balmoral estate in Aberdeenshire.
Having a laugh at the Gathering in happier times. (AP)

Currently in residence at Balmoral, however, are Prince Andrew, who is visiting despite being embroiled in the Epstein scandal which has seen him recently sued for sexual assault in the US, and his ex wife and close companion, Sarah Ferguson.

Prince Charles and Camilla are expected to stay as usual at Birkhall, their country residence on the Balmoral estate, while a visit is also anticipated from William, Kate and their children before school - and duty - resumes in Autumn.

The castle has remained a favourite of the current Queen since her childhood, and generations of young royals have been taken there for holidays since, with picnics by Loch Muick, at the foot of Lochnagar, and barbecues, previously run with naval precision by Prince Philip, in the grounds, which run to 50,000 acres of rolling Highland hills, gardens and woodland.

File photo dated 01/09/72 of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during a visit to a farm on their Balmoral estate, to celebrate their Silver Wedding anniversary. He was the Queen's husband and the royal family's patriarch, but what will the Duke of Edinburgh be remembered for? Issue date: Friday April 4, 2021.
The Queen and Prince Philip in 1972, visiting a farm on the Balmoral estate. (AP)

Read more: Queen remains at Balmoral after worker tests positive for Covid

Because Balmoral was privately inherited by the royals, there is no obligation to host official dinners or receive VIPs there. However, it is traditionally the location of what is allegedly known as 'The Balmoral Test.'

An entire episode of Season 4 of The Crown was given this title, and featured the visit of Princess Diana, a short time into her 1980 courtship with Charles. According to legend, she was a roaring success, though whether she really stalked and brought down an injured stag, as suggested in the episode, seems doubtful, given her well-documented dislike of bloodsports.

Later, the couple spent part of their honeymoon at the castle, which apparently went less smoothly, as Diana resented how much time Charles was spending on his holiday activity of painting watercolours without her.

Queen Elizabeth II during an inspection of the Balaklava Company, 5 Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland at the gates at Balmoral, as she takes up summer residence at the castle. Picture date: Monday August 9, 2021.
The Queen arrives at Balmoral, Summer 2021. Just the usual Guard of honour to greet her... (AP)

She allegedly told biographer Andrew Morton, of further trips there with the in-laws:

“Instead of having a holiday, it's the most stressful time of the year... It's very close quarters.”

Equally stressful was Mrs Thatcher's visit, which was portrayed in The Crown as a series of faux pas, with the wrong clothes, the wrong timings for dinner and the woeful decision to wear perfume to go stalking, alerting any animals to her presence.

Watch: The Crown: Gillian Anderson on Becoming Margaret Thatcher

If the 'test' does exist, it's seemingly purely to discover whether the guest enjoys the traditions of a large, draughty country estate during shooting season - or in midwinter, when the royals often stay there over Christmas. For the senior royals, it's their 'happy place' where they can mingle in likeminded aristocratic company, and enjoy hunting, shooting and fishing in the wide open spaces, without being 'on duty' for several weeks.

Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer (later Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961 - 1997) hold a photocall with their dog Harvey at Craigowan Lodge in Balmoral, Scotland, 6th May 1981. This was their first official photocall after their engagement. Diana is wearing an Inca jumper with green corduroy trousers and Hunter boots. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
It doesn't look like the best honeymoon in the world.... (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Read more: Queen says hello to Shetland pony at Balmoral

Prince Philip, who went to boarding school in Scotland, at the rigidly monastic Gordonstoun, (followed by Charles, who loathed it) retained a lifelong love of the wild Highlands, and put many hours into the estate. He was responsible for managing the castle’s gardens for many years, creating a vegetable garden, an oak plantation, a water garden and a flowered walkway.

It's believed that Balmoral was his favourite residence - perhaps because the media and the public couldn't get close to him or his family there.

The Queen too, seldom looks happier than when pictured out riding across the moors or driving a Landrover around the perimeter.

Princess Eugenie, who is close to the Queen, has said of Balmoral:

"It's the most beautiful place on earth. I think granny is the most happy there, I think she really, really loves the Highlands... Walks, picnics, dogs—a lot of dogs, there's always dogs! And people coming in and out all the time."

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life edit

The Queen is known to clear up after picnics herself as a badge of honour, and has shocked guests in the past by doing the washing up after meals along with other senior royals.

Cherie Blair, then wife of the PM, commented, "You think I’m joking, but I’m not. They put the gloves on and stick their hands in the sink. The Queen asks if you’ve finished, she stacks the plates up and goes off to the sink."

In fact, Mrs Thatcher once gave the Queen a pair of washing up gloves, after noticing the Monarch scrubbing plates without them.

And the normality continues throughout the stay - members of the public may even spot the Queen striding through the grounds with her dogs.

Queen Elizabeth II confers the honour of Knight of the Order of Australia upon His Excellency Sir Peter Cosgrove, the Governor-General of Australia at Balmoral, Scotland.
A rare glimpse of a Balmoral interior. (AP)

One year, the dressed-down Queen, in tweeds and headscarf, was hailed by a group of American tourists. They chatted away, and it was obvious they had no idea who she was.

"Have you ever met the Queen?" one asked her, excitedly.

"No" she said, and pointed to her royal protection officer.

“But he has.”