Fit for a King – part 2 of a 3 part saga in which Diana Noonan attempts to fulfill her life-long dream of visiting Prince Charles's Highgrove Gardens.
The discovery that the tickets sent to the non existent Tewsksbury post office were unrecoverable sent me into a flurry of frantic and fruitless phone calls. Thank goodness for the staff at Highgrove who, when I contacted them, said that we should arrive, as planned, on the Sunday afternoon, carrying our New Zealand passports as identification. Replacement tickets, they assured us, would be waiting.
From Tewkesbury to Tisbury (the closest village to Highgrove) is a distance of just 50 kilometres. Such are the peculiarities of British public transport that it took us six hours and four bus changes to get there. As we had already ascertained that accommodation in Tisbury was well beyond our meagre budget, my husband and I set out on our planned ten kilometre pack-laden hike (there were no buses) to the closest hamlet with a camping ground, and found it almost two hours later: an empty paddock behind a country pub, complete with cold shower, cobwebbed loo, and no cooking facilities, and $60 a night for our tentsite!
Some journeys, especially to places you have longed for many years to visit, take on the air of a pilgrimage. It certainly seemed that Highgrove had become my place of pilgrimage, especially (as there were no buses running the following day) we would be running the seven kilometres to HRH's gardens! We filled our day packs with sandwiches, a gaz burner and billy for a cuppa, and tidy clothes to change into once we reached Highgrove, and set off at a steady jog. When, an hour later, we had failed to locate the famous gardens, panic set in and, when we called at a farmhouse, it was to be told that we had passed the prince's residence a kilometre back. No, we were informed, there were no signs to it, just a discreet gravel drive up the side of a tall hedge!
With time running out, we resorted to sprinting, and raced up the drive where a nervous-looking bobby at a check point waved us down. We produced our passports, retold our story of plight, and were finally directed to the car park a few hundred metres on. "New Zealand runners coming your way," warned the bobby into his spluttering two way radio.
At Highgrove, we soon discovered, word of anything unusual spreads quickly. "No," the staff greeting us explained kindly, no one had ever before arrived at the gardens on foot, and certainly not in running atire. As suited gentlemen and tweedy ladies arrived in the waiting room, we slunk off to the loos to change, and I hoped not too many visitors would notice me drying my face on the monogrammed hand towels in the bathroom. It quickly became apparent that there were no picnicking facilities at Highgrove but we were gently directed to a quiet spot under a tree where we could eat our sandwiches in the few minutes remaining before our tour started (any hope of boiling the billy for a cuppa having long ago disappeared). A short time later, a member of staff approached us to enquire if we were the New Zealand runners and, if we were, he would be pleased to show us a locker in the staffroom which had been freed up so that we could leave our belongings there. Visitors, he explained, were not permitted to carry belongings with them on the tour and usually left their things in their cars. As we hadn't arrived in a car (here he hesitated, politely) that could be problematic. We followed him obediently.
Lost tickets, the exhaustion of travel and the hike of the day before, camping in the rain, the morning run, overshooting the Highgrove driveway, and the chaos we had created by arriving on foot, had shattered my nerves to the point that I was on the verge of tears. But as our tour guide quietly led us out of the waiting room and down the iconic thyme walk toward the main doors of Highgrove House, it all paled into insignificance. Topiary hedges stood to attention, ice-princess lupins glistened with drops of bright rain, the stumpary dripped in moss. In the kitchen garden, espaliered apple trees hugged the high brick walls, and archways of climbing beans hummed with sound of bees. "No," replied our guide to the inevitable question of "Was the Prince at home", but from a top floor window, I felt sure I saw a curtain twitch. Birds flitted in and out of the trees, dragonflies hovered over ponds, and in His Royal Highness's garden, all was still and peaceful. If only the same could be said of the staffroom where, unbeknownst to us, our daypacks were fast becoming the cause of a major security alert ... (To be continued...)