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‘To me Balmoral was paradise’: Prince Harry lifts lid on life at royal retreat in new book

Prince Harry has lifted the lid on life at Balmoral
Prince Harry with his dad and brother in happier times at Balmoral.

Prince Harry has offered a tantalising glimpse into the royals’ secret life at Balmoral Castle.

In his new book, Spare, the son of the King looks back fondly on summertime stays in Aberdeenshire as a child.

The royals fiercely guard the goings-on at what is their only private residence, and the prince’s memoirs offer a rare peek beyond the castle walls.

Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle.

The prince’s first visit came in the summer of 1985, before his first birthday.

Harry recalls the odd custom of bowing to a statue of Queen Victoria, King Charles doing headstands in his boxer shorts and how staff would “use measuring tape” to ensure the banquet table was perfectly laid.

These details come against a backdrop of happier times with the loved ones he is now at odds with.

But it was also a scene of heartbreak, and Harry recounts how it felt more “like a crypt” as he forlornly walked the halls in the days after Princess Diana’s death.

And latterly, it was where he said his final farewell to his beloved granny.

Harry with his brother annd his dad on the banks of the River Dee. image: Jim Bennett/Daily Mail/Shutterstock

How did young princes live at Balmoral?

Harry’s book opens with a vivid account of what life was like for a little boy on the sprawling countryside estate, disputing any notion of it as a “surreal” or even “utterly freaky” place.

He says: “To me, Balmoral was always simply Paradise.

“A cross between Disney World and some sacred Druid grove.

“I was always too busy fishing, shooting, running up and down ‘the hill’ to notice anything off about the feng shui of the old castle.

“What I’m trying to say is, I was happy there.”

Balmoral dates back to the 15tn century. Image: Shutterstock

Each summer, Harry and William would holiday for a fortnight there.

They would spend most of their time outdoors, and Harry paints a romantic picture of the “dense woods, deer-nibbled hill and the River Dee snaking down through the Highlands”.

The author says that “closing his eyes”, he can envision the 50-bedroom castle’s interior in precise detail.

He lists the footman occasionally found guarding the “whisky-coloured” oak door, a huge fireplace and a utility room full of hooks for fishing rods, walking sticks and rubber waders.

He explains the need for “heavy waterproofs” in the “Siberian nook” of Scotland often recorded as the coldest place in the UK.

The prince recalls many rooms, each with their own purpose; like the TV room and the tea room.

He describes the huge main staircase in the central chamber that his granny would usually avoid – she and her corgis opting to use the lift instead.

Upstairs, it was “easy to get lost” when confronted with row upon row of identical doors.

Victoria referred to Balmoral Castle as a Highland paradise, words echoed by her descendant in his autobiography.

How did sleeping arrangements reflect ‘the heir and The Spare’ relationship?

Harry says he never needed to ask why William had the bigger bedroom at Balmoral.

Willy, as he calls his older brother, slept in a double bed with a “beautiful window looking down on the courtyard”, and had a “cupboard with mirrored doors”.

Prince Harry playing at the feet of his dear mother when he was only two on an early trip to the north. Image: Brendan Beirne/Shutterstock

Harry says his own room was “far smaller and less luxurious”.

“I never asked why,” he writes in the new memoir.

“Willy was the Heir, whereas I was The Spare.”

What did they eat?

Serving staff would carry out silver trays each dinner time, the bone china plates covered with haughty silver domes.

But when those domes were lifted, it wasn’t pheasant, grouse or foie gras underneath…

Despite their noble lineage, the lads feasted on humble grub like fish fingers and cottage pie.

Fish Fingers were all the rage in the castle. Image: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

It was a different story for the grown-up royals downstairs… Harry says fastidious staff used a tape measure to ensure the table was perfectly laid before their luxury nosh was brought out.

What was the significance of the Queen Victoria statue?

Queen Victoria and her husband Albert bought the 15th century castle as a way of “escaping the sadness of the world” – beginning a royal tradition that continues almost 200 years on.

During Harry’s stays, a statue of the long-reigning monarch stood on the second floor.

Queen Victoria, with John Brown, at Balmoral in 1868. DCT Media

Both princes bowed to it each time they passed, Harry explaining that he found her tragic life story “compelling”.

It was expected of the boys, but he said he would have done it anyway.

Why would Prince Harry take care before knocking on his dad’s door?

Describing the labyrinthine upper floors of Balmoral Castle, Harry lets slip that he was always cautious not to barge into his dad’s room.

King Charles, he explains, performed headstands each day to help ease the pain historic polo injuries had left him with in his back and neck.

He would do these wearing only his boxer shorts, and at the slightest twitch of the doorknob would blurt out “No! No! Don’t open! Please God don’t open!”

The Queen with her grandchildren Prince Harry, Peter Phillips and Zara Phillips, as the royal family boarded the ‘Britannia’ in Portsmouth for their annual trip to Balmoral in 1997. Image: PA

Why does Prince Harry describe Balmoral as ‘a stage’?

Harry explains that everything at the castle was “either old or made to look so”.

“The castle was a playground, a hunting lodge, but also a stage,” he writes.

What is Harry’s recollection of dreadful moment Charles awoke him in 1997?

Harry recalls being roused from his “clean, crisp” bedding at Balmoral Castle in the early hours of August 31, 1997.

It was a moment where his world would shatter, etched painfully in his mind.

His father, wearing a white dressing gown that “made him look like a ghost in a play”, broke the news that Diana had died.

Harry tells readers that he remained in bed until the Balmoral piper began playing at 9am, as he did every day.

But the family did their best to carry on as normal.

As it was a Sunday, they attended at Crathie Kirk a two-minute drive away.

Crathie Kirk, where the royals have worshipped for generations. Image: DCT Media

By the time they returned to the Balmoral gates, piles of cards, stuffed toys and flowers had begun piling up as a grief-stricken nation reacted to the news.

Harry recalls seeing only “a matrix of coloured dots”, “flowers and more flowers”.

King Charles places a hand on Prince Harry’s shoulder as they look over the tributes at the Balmoral gates.

The following days “passed in a vacuum”, with everyone “ensconced in the castle” as Charles departed for Paris.

Harry writes: “It was like being inside a crypt, except a crypt where everyone’s wearing trews and keeping to normal routines.”

The 38-year-old says he “remembers nothing” of the trip back to London, and he would inevitably come to associate Balmoral with those sad days.

Prince Harry bounds up the stairs of the aircraft at Aberdeen Airport after a stay at Balmoral.

Gory hunting expedition was ‘like baptism’

Harry also reveals how, during a teenage stay at Balmoral, his head was shoved inside the slashed stomach of a deer he had freshly shot.

Read more about the grisly encounter here.

Final chat with Queen came days away from her death at Balmoral

Harry’s book reveals that his final conversation with his beloved grandmother came just four days before she died.

They discussed her disappointment about not being well enough to attend the Braemar Gathering – normally a staple event of her stay in the north.

Prince Philip and the Queen at the Braemar Highland Games 2014

He adds: “I told her to take care. I looked forward to seeing her soon.”

Harry’s most recent visit to castle to say goodbye to gran

It was more than 37 years since his first visit, cradled in Diana’s arms, that Harry last visited Balmoral.

Spare details the call he received from Charles at lunchtime on September 8, 2022.

After a few tense words over Meghan not being invited, he arranged a charter flight from Luton Airport.

By the time it landed, the news was out. The Queen was dead.

Harry left the plane in thick mist, speeding to the place he thought of as “paradise” in a borrowed car.

Harry sharing a car with The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh after a Sunday service at Crathie. Image: Donald Stewart

He still wanted to say a final farewell to the woman who had been a constant in his life.

He recounts entering her “dimly lit” bedroom, which he’d only been in once before, moving “uncertainly” until he saw the late monarch.

“I whispered to her that I hoped she was happy, that I hoped she was with Grandpa. I said that I was in awe of her for carrying out her duties to the last.”

He passed the statue of Queen Victoria as he left, padding slowly along the familiar tartan carpet he’d trodden on since he took his first steps.

Honeymoons, heritage and heartbreak… What does Balmoral mean to King Charles?