By Sally Charlesworth – Alana House volunteer
August is mainly only notable for me as it’s my birthday, but this year I was pretty excited to find an email, quietly and unexpectedly sitting in my inbox, inviting me to a celebratory afternoon tea at Ascot Racecourse!
“Look!” I squeaked at my husband. “I love afternoon tea! And it’s a real go-to thing! Racing at Ascot! And,” I added smugly, handing him my laptop. “This invitation is from Natausha, our CEO!”
He read silently, then lowered his glasses. “Well, it’s actually from an organisation called the Berkshire Community Foundation.” he corrected me from behind the screen. “To thank volunteers across Berkshire for their priceless contributions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Have you made a priceless contribution throughout the Covid pandemic? I thought you’d been lying on the sofa eating bagels? Are you sure Natausha meant to ask you along? And anyway,” he added darkly, “there won’t BE any racing. It’s on the wrong day.”
Ignoring him, I headed for the stairs. It was finally time, after 18 months of going nowhere, to consider my wardrobe. Horses or no horses, Ascot meant dresses!“
Later that day, queuing up at Reading Station I opened up Natausha’s message to double check that I was buying an advance train ticket to the right place, (yes!) at the right time, (yes!) on the right date, (yes!) when another, previously unnoticed detail caught my eye. “You will see that we will be meeting Prince Edward.”
“Oh wow!!!” I shouted, making other travellers in the queue shuffle uneasily. I fished in my bag for my reading glasses and zoomed in on the text. ‘ting Prince Edwa’ I excitedly copied, pasted, and WhatsApped to my four grown-up daughters.
Then: “Sorry, what?? Anything wrong?” replied one, on behalf of them all.
Rapidly I filled in the details “…afternoon tea at Ascot…to thank voluntary organisations in Berkshire who kept going during the pandemic…lots of cake…meet wonderful, interesting people…and meeting Prince Edward!…”
“Prince! Yey! Is it a concert?” asked one.
“But he’s dead!!” exclaimed another, more knowledgeable sister. “DEFINITELY!!”
Sad emoji faces from everyone flurried across the screen, followed by white doves, and inexplicably, a chicken.
‘NO’ I replied. “NOT Prince. Not a concert. Edward. Cake. Never mind. I’ll send pictures”
September 6th turned out to be one of those glorious late summer days, and on the fifth floor of the Grandstand building, the long glass walled room opened out onto a wide balcony with generous views across the racecourse, and the distant Berkshire downs.
Inside people mingled, putting faces to names, names to organisations; flowery dresses, flamboyant jackets, beaming smiles, goodwill and gratitude being given and received.
As young waiting staff, happy to be working again, generously refilled cups with tea, or glasses with Pimms, and circulated the room with platters of elegant sandwiches and dainty cakes, Prince Edward arrived in smart casuals and a suntan, looking very much like his familiar press images.
Watchful aides, whispering by his side, guided him into the room. As he approached our group Natausha told me that we’d been invited to give a copy of our new Alana House Recipe Book as a gift for the Prince to take home. I was impressed – what an opportunity!
As he extended his hand towards her, Natausha buoyantly returned his greeting, and asked him, charmingly, if he would share the book with the Countess, as she had once supported an Alana House event and spent some time with the service users. Prince Edward seemed genuinely interested, and promised to do so, laughingly adding that he wasn’t much of a baker himself; they chortled like old friends. Wow, she was good!
For me, a handshake, smiles exchanged, a comment on the all-round value of voluntary work … and on he moved, chatting with the rest of the group. Homelessness, covid, poverty and debt, crime and disadvantage, joined up thinking, what could be done to build on the lessons of covid, on pulling together?
After Prince Edward walked on, our group turned to each other, relieved and affirming; “you spoke well!” or “he seemed to know about us!” but also feeling the oddness in meeting someone whose image is so very well known. There’s an illusion of familiarity, as though you must surely have met somewhere before. A half hour passed, final speeches, applause, and the Prince took his leave.
As I sat back on the train, I realised I had no pictures of the meeting to send to the girls – no photography during the royal visit! So instead, I sent a picture of tea, and cakes, and a message to say I had shaken hands with His Royal Highness.
“AWESOME!!” they enthused. “Not really sure who Prince Edward is, but that cake looks ammaaaaazinggg!!!”