Arts, society & culture

Travels with the ‘million mile queen’

The Queen is not only the most long-serving monarch in history – she is also one of the best travelled. We look back at some of the most memorable royal tours undertaken by the ‘million-mile Queen’.

Over the course of her 70 years on the throne, the Queen has travelled more extensively than any other British royal in history. Kicking off her reign with a six-month Commonwealth tour – an epic voyage spanning 13 countries and 44,000 miles – the monarch has since visited all the Commonwealth countries, with the exception of Rwanda and Cameroon.

According to an estimate by The Telegraph, she has covered more than a million miles during her reign, equivalent to 42 trips around the circumference of the globe. And while her touring has come to a halt in recent years (her last trip abroad was in 2015), her jet-setting credentials would be hard to beat.

As Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen has always worked hard to engage with the countries under its banner. “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past,” she said during her Christmas broadcast in 1953. “It is an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace. To that new conception of an equal partnership of nations and races I shall give myself heart and soul every day of my life.”

At the time of this broadcast, the Queen was in New Zealand, then one of just eight countries to have joined the Commonwealth. Over the years ahead, as the British Empire dwindled, Commonwealth membership grew dramatically, adding a note of prescience to the Queen’s address. Today, the Commonwealth comprises 54 countries, 15 of which count Elizabeth II as their head of state.

Below, we run through some of the Queen’s most notable visits to Commonwealth nations.

1952 – Kenya

The twenty-something Princess Elizabeth was at a safari lodge in Kenya when she received word her father had died. Together with Prince Philip, she cancelled a planned riding and fishing trip and flew straight back to London, where she was greeted as Queen.

This would be the first of four royal trips to Kenya, which joined the Commonwealth in 1963. The Queen paid brief visits in 1972 and 1991, and in 1983 she undertook a five-day State Visit as the guest of President Arap Moi. This stay carried a note of poignancy, as the Queen revisited the very safari lodge where she’d learned about her ascension to the throne.

1953-1954 – Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies

Between November 1953 and May 1954, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh left their young children behind and embarked on the most ambitious royal tour ever seen. They jetted off to the West Indies (Bermuda and Jamaica) before boarding a ship called SS Gothic and setting sail across the Panama Canal and the Pacific.

Following brief stops in Fiji and Tonga, SS Gothic docked in New Zealand two days before Christmas. The young royals spent more than a month here, before sailing into Sydney Harbour for a tour of Australia. Over a million excited onlookers lined the streets of Sydney to meet them.

During their 58 days in Australia, the royals visited 57 towns and cities, made 35 flights and travelled 13,000 miles. This exhausting itinerary – which included the opening of parliament, a children’s pantomime, and a life-saving demonstration on Bondi Beach – was nonetheless hugely affirming for the Queen. At the time, the monarchy was at the height of its popularity, with one Australian telling The Telegraph: “we have gone Queen crazy”.

On 1st April, the royal party set sail towards the Cocos Islands, followed by Ceylon, Yemen, Uganda and Malta. Here they were reunited with Prince Charles and Princess Anne, before continuing forth to Gilbratar and finally home to London.

Following her inaugural tour, the Queen visited Australia another 15 times, making this the foreign country in which she has spent the most time.

1961 – India

In January 1961, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh paid their first State Visit to India. The tour – which included an elephant procession, tiger hunt and numerous banquets – was intended to mark a new chapter in Anglo-Indian relations. It was the first time a British monarch had visited India since the end of imperial rule.

The duo visited India again in 1983 and 1997, with the latter visit commemorating 50 years of independence.

1977 – Silver Jubilee Commonwealth Tour

The Queen’s most extensive tour came in 1977, to celebrate 25 years on the throne. Together with the Duke of Edinburgh, she visited 14 Commonwealth countries and covered over 56,000 miles.

In February and March, she enjoyed a six-week trip to the Pacific, including stints in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Later in the year, she ventured across the Atlantic, to Canada, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbados. She is said to have wanted to mark the occasion by meeting as many people as possible. 

1995 – South Africa

The Queen visited South Africa in 1995, following the end of apartheid. During her week-long stay, she met the newly elected President Nelson Mandela and visited black townships across the country, counter to security recommendations.

Although South Africa was one of the first countries to join the Commonwealth, it left in 1961, and didn’t rejoin until 1994. For many South African politicians, the tour held significance as a gesture of acceptance by the international community.

2002 – Golden Jubilee Commonwealth Tour

The Queen’s Golden Jubilee, which marked 50 years on the throne, was a muted event in some respects, following the deaths of the Queen’s mother and sister. Determined to make the best of the situation, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh kept their royal obligations and visited Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

Just days after losing Princess Margaret, the royal couple arrived in Jamaica, for a visit timed to coincide with the country’s 40th anniversary of independence. Next they toured New Zealand, before arriving in Australia for the 17th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Although they encountered some anti-monarchical sentiment during their stay, the tour was important symbolically.

Later that year, the duo capped the celebrations with a 12-day tour of Canada. Canada is the Queen’s most-visited country, with an astonishing 27 trips to her credit. Together with the Duke of Edinburgh, she stayed there for the final time in the summer of 2010.

2015 – Malta

The royal couple’s final visit to a Commonwealth country came in November 2015, with a three-day tour of Malta. While the Queen was officially there to open the 24th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, the trip had a personal resonance too.

The couple had lived in Malta for two years as newlyweds, enjoying a relatively quiet existence there before Elizabeth came to the throne. They were to return six times, notably for their diamond wedding anniversary in 2007, and the Queen always reinforced how special the place was to her. It was a pertinent, if bittersweet, place to spend their final trip abroad.

2022 – Passing the baton

At 96 years old, and sadly widowed, the Queen will not be embarking on any tours to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee. However, members of the royal family have been undertaking spring tours in her place.

Between 19 and 26 March, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, coinciding with a trip to Ireland by the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. Princess Anne is due to visit Papua New Guinea, and then Australia, while Prince Edward will be touring several Caribbean islands – Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent and the Grenadines.

None of these visits will match earlier royal tours, in terms of scale or grandiosity. However, they will seek to provide tribute to the Queen’s tireless service – 70 years, and a million miles, on the throne. 

This article appears in the June-Sep 2022 edition of Overseas magazine

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