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Tuesday, 30 July, 2002, 21:06 GMT 22:06 UK
Queen Mother's castle opens its doors
Trustee Lord Thurso inside the castle
The castle will be opened to the public next month

It is some five months since Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother died but in the pub in the village of Mey, between Thurso and John O'Groats, she lives on in the photographs which line the walls of the bar.

Queen Mother
The castle is filled with reminders of the Queen Mother
They are a reminder of the affection and respect which lives on in this tiny Caithness community for a Royal who for a few weeks every summer would come to live in the old castle which she had spent a lifetime restoring from near ruin.

Though many here met the Queen Mother, and some came to regard her as a friend, very few ever saw inside the home she created and which she came to regard as a refuge from public life.

Small gem

The overwhelming impression of the Castle of Mey as you approach it from the long, straight drive through the surrounding estate is just how small and compact it seems.

Once through the old oak doors of its austere stone facade this sense of smallness is confirmed.

Forget the imposing iron and stone staircase which greets you in the entrance hall where the pet Corgis were fed.

Once beyond this you will search in vain for the regal majesty of the great castles like Windsor, instead you will find a more modest building more akin to a large Victorian or Edwardian house.

As we were shown around the four rooms which will be open to the public, we were informed that the private trust behind the idea was keen to preserve what our guide described as 'the aura' of the Queen Mother.

As a result we were assured everything had been kept as she had ordered things when she was alive.

Personal mementoes

In the library, where in later years she conducted much of her private business, there was a television on which she would watch episodes of Fawlty Towers or Dad's Army and a card table.

Through the drawing room where guest would gather for drinks and conversation, we were led to the formal dining room with its chairs inscribed with the Queen Mother's cipher and a grand wall tapestry featuring the Bowes Lyon Crest.

Renovation work on the castle continues
Everywhere there were personal touches - pictures of her Corgis, paintings of her prize winning cattle, photos of her family.

More unexpected were the fluffy toy stag's head peering down from the library wall and the cuddly Nessie monster gazing down from the drawing room tapestry - these, and a host of other joke souvenirs bought for the Queen Mother by her staff, reflect what friends say was her mischievous sense of fun.

As with many old houses in the harsh wet climate of the north of Scotland, the Castle of Mey can also boast the odd damp patch on the walls and a leaking roof or two.

Rare insight

Which is why the private charitable trust set up to maintain the castle has spent more than 30,000 updating the wiring and heating and is planning to spend more on further renovation.

It also explains why other parts of the Castle will, for the time being, remain off limits to the public.

The Trust admits that it has no idea how many will choose to visit the Castle, though it appears slightly nervous that numbers may be greater than it anticipated - even with the 5 entrance fee which will be levied from the beginning of September.

Those who do visit will get a fascinating insight into the private life of the Queen Mother and the importance which she attached to her remote Scottish refuge perched on the northernmost edge of the British coast far away from the bustle and pressures of public life in London.

The BBC's Andrew Cassell
"Behind the great oak doors is not some great draughty castle but very much a home"

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30 Jul 02 | Scotland
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