The royal fleet

Forget the flash furnishings; for Tim Richards, the highlight of a visit to Sandringham is the museum's car collection.

It's hard to imagine James Bond making one of his daring high-speed getaways in the vehicle in front of me. It's a perfect replica of the Aston Martin used in the movies Goldfinger and Thunderball, except for one key detail: it's less than two metres long. Still, according to the sign in front of the model, it was built to mimic all the features of the onscreen car, including revolving number plates, concealed dummy machine guns, water jets and a smoke discharger.

And Sean Connery's Bond could handle any crisis in style; he would have just cast a lazy eye over its miniature chassis, drawled "Must've shrunk in the wash", leapt in and raced off.

This scale reproduction was, however, exactly the right size for the six-year-old Prince Andrew, to whom it was presented in 1966 by the Aston Martin factory. It's on display in the museum at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth's Norfolk residence.

In its publicity material, Sandringham is described as "neither a palace nor a castle", but this is no shack in the woods. Its long, brick facade is set with attractive bay windows, and the house is surrounded by 25 hectares of beautiful gardens.

Most people do a tour of the house's ground-floor rooms, but as I've seen enough stately home interiors for a lifetime, I've headed straight for the museum behind it.

Its focus is royal vehicles. There are some magnificently posh cars in the collection, including shiny Rolls-Royces and a 1947 Daimler that was painted in a discreet dark green so Queen Mary (wife of George V) could go shopping without drawing attention.

Another room has cars that were used to take royals on hunting trips, outfitted with such modifications as drop-down tables for picnic lunches. Then I step into the royal garages, still used when the family is in residence. There's an eclectic assortment here, including the late Queen Mother's converted golf buggy and a gleaming MG sports car.

Another room of the museum is dedicated to the Sandringham fire brigade, which had its headquarters in this building until it disbanded in 1968. The centrepiece is a splendid 1939 Merryweather fire engine, which is bright red and stacked with polished firefighters' helmets.

Between toy cars and full-size fire engines, the museum offers plenty to entertain the inner child.

But next I enter a rather grotesque room full of the mounted heads of large animals. King George V created his own museum of big-game hunting here, and the trophies cover the wall above a fireplace and couches. Crikey. Times have changed, it seems — and sometimes for the better.

The final room is full of presents given to the Queen on state visits overseas, including a peace pipe, a model of Nelson's HMS Victory, Zulu chess pieces, a chunk of the Berlin wall, and decorated ostrich eggs.

Quite a haul; though I bet she would have been just as happy with book vouchers.

THE FACTS

WHERE Sandringham Museum is open 11am-5pm daily, entry $12.
FLY Qantas (131313, qantas.com.au) flies Melbourne to London daily from $2000 return. Sandringham is near King's Lynn, about 90 minutes from London Kings Cross by train ($48).
STAY Garden House: the former head gardener's house from $950 a week; sandringhamestate.co.uk.
Kings Head Hotel: comfy country house hotel from $120 a night; the-kings-head-bircham.co.uk.

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