I once met The Queen – and The Duke – informally. Note that last word. The Royal Household people make a clear distinction between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’. Formal is for all to see. Informal is not. You’re not supposed to say anything about it.
But amidst all the generous, lovely and totally deserved tributes now being published about Her Majesty, what can I possibly add, but my one, little personal memory? I have no option but to write about her. This is, for me – and many, I guess – a bit like losing a mother. Today, I could not write about anything else.
We had begun making wine from our vineyard in Windsor Great Park that The Queen and Prince Phillip (who was The Ranger of Windsor Great Park … a role in which he was very active … and successful) had allowed us to plant on Royal Farms land. The headlines around the world that this generated did no end of good for the reputation of English Wine. Some papers went a bit far; saying “Queen Makes Wine” calling it “Liz’s Fizz” and such. The Duke, though, always had it made very clear; the Windsor Great Park wine was entirely Laithwaite’s wine, and we’d better not say otherwise! We’ve obeyed.
In 2015 this wine was beginning to show its class. However, there was another wine made that year; one made just for The Queen. Windsor Castle has a Great Vine. A massive thing, dozens of feet long, and it produces prodigious amounts of table grapes … far more than were ever eaten. We were told that ‘someone’ wondered if they might be put to better use.
So, a year or so later, I’m standing in the stable yard of Windsor Castle, our team having produced a dozen wood cases of 50cl bottles of ‘Windsor Home Park’ sparkling wine. With us were grooms, of course, a few large gentlemen who we guessed were courtiers of some sort and a photographer. He always rode with The Queen when she went out on her pony. He and his wife were also always ready to volunteer help in the vineyard. He’d arranged this presentation.
A green Jaguar arrived and stopped on the far side of the yard, parked, and a couple got out. He wore an old mackintosh, she an ordinary old puffa jacket, plus headscarf. She was the driver. Their backs to us, they chatted a bit, and from where we were, it could have been just any old couple going out shopping.
Then they turned and came over. It’s then you feel your wits leave you. You have seen that face a million times but when you see it for real … and smiling at you! She was radiant. I know that’s a very worn cliché but there’s no other word I can think of. I don’t think you have to be a royalist or anything, you can’t help but notice the radiance. She said little, just shook hands, and thanked us very much. He made a joke. She enjoyed that.
The photographer clicked away. We were clearly told the shots were for private use only. I’m looking at the one that hangs on my office wall. Gosh, she looks so relaxed. She’s even reaching round, scratching her back. I cannot print it here, I know. That would be an invasion of privacy. I’m not going to be disrespectful in any way. I’d just like to share a memory of a relaxed, informal view of someone we always saw being formal, who was, for over 70 years ‘on duty’. What an amazing feat. The informal Queen seemed to me, that day, to be someone who, without that heavy royal duty, must make a great friend.
I, like virtually everybody, have never known a world without her. She’s been there all my life. I will miss her so much. But I do have one bottle of that Windsor Home Park wine hidden somewhere … for our own, personal ‘Loyal Toast’.