On the 25th August 2016, I visited Buckingham Palace for what I’m sure must be over a dozen times in these past 23 years of summer openings. In my more pious days as a teenager, a good little Catholic boy, whenever I would visit the outside of the palace railings, I would say the Pater, Ave and Gloria, “for The Queen’s intentions” – and hope one day I would get inside to have a look around! Happy to say I have been inside on so many occasions, but only once with the Lady of the House in residence!
When I was a newly ordained Catholic priest, the Parish Priest and I had tickets from the then Archbishop of Cardiff (John Aloysius Ward, OFMCap), to visit the Queen for one of the annual Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace (1987). Every bishop was sent two tickets a year, and the PP and I got them for that year, the year of my priestly ordination. It wasn’t surprising we got them, given that the PP and the Archbishop were ‘bezzie mates’. For those of you who know about my time in that parish, you’ll know how tough it was (putting it mildly!) So the day of the Palace visit should have been an amazing highpoint for me; I have always loved The Queen! But sadly, as usual, it was fraught with tension and disappointment. The PP decided to be his usual self, and have a rage of temper declaring “We’re not going!” I don’t know what my feelings were at the time. Looking back, it is just so hard to differentiate between anger, sadness, rage, regret, frustration … resignation. So off I went to do some gardening, and got my hands and nails really dirty doing some planting and weeding. I hate dirty finger nails!
Then at the very latest minute we could have left it for driving to London for the afternoon, he changed his mind – again – and said “Come on! We’re going!” By then, I couldn’t have given a shit!
Anyway, we went. We had stickers to display in the car windscreen as we drove down the Mall and parked up for the Garden Party. Two amazing events about the visit stick in my mind to this day. When the members of the Royal Family came out into view, and the National Anthem was played, everyone got into lines for one member of the Royal Family to come down and chat. There were these secretaries who would go and chat to people, and write down some key details. They would then introduce these chosen people to the member of the family. This one secretary kept coming up to the PP and me and chatting and laughing – but never taking our details. “Damn!” I thought! “It’s not going to happen!” But it did!
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh was meeting and greeting people in the row we were in. He was introduced to an old couple standing right opposite us, but he kept looking around at the PP and me, in clerical collars. All of a sudden, Prince Philip said to the couple “Excuse me a moment …” and over he marched towards us. He greeted us and asked us where we were from. When we told him the parish / town, he put on a Welsh accent (which, on the English, I think, always sounds rather Pakistani) and said “Oh, Cha-pel, are you!?” When we said “No, Your Royal Highness: Catholics!” He said “Oh! Romans! Jolly good!” and off – or “orf” – he trotted!
The second funny story about that visit was going for a pee! The toilets were in marquee / tents. The urinals were down one wall, washbasins in the middle, but the roller-towels over on the far wall. So one would wash hands then have to walk, dripping hands, over to the towel area. There were Footmen in full red uniforms standing there by the roller towels. As the quests washed and shook their hands and made their way over to the towels, the Footmen would pull a fresh piece of towel through and then brush one’s shoulders – for dandruff, no doubt – as we stood and wiped our hands!
Jump forward a number of years. I was visiting the Palace in the year of The Queen’s 80th birthday (2006). I took my partner’s ten year old niece, Nicola. We were awestruck at the amazing array of 80 of The Queen’s most famous dresses. Then we came to the very last one.
It was a full ball gown, black and purple, with an amazing 2-D skirt section. I bent over it really close, to try to see whether the skirt part of the gown was an inter-woven black and purple, or was there a black see-through lace over a purple silk skirt? Nosey, I guess! This elderly lady came up to us and asked what I was looking for. I told her what I’ve just told you. Then she said, “I left school when I was 15. I started working for a company that made dresses for Princess Margaret. We would spend 3 months making hems; 3 months on cuffs; 3 months on sleeves … but it would take a full 18 months before we could work on a full dress. But you know what it’s like. War was on, I met my husband, we got married and soon after I had a baby and had to leave the company. But they were good days!” Then she said “good bye”, and just after she moved off, she came back, tugged me on the sleeve and whispered up close:
“It’s you boys who know all about these things!”
I was 49 at the time!