Early in 1986, we received an invitation to visit the Queen in November of that year. I remember thinking what a difficult time to leave PEI, recalling how busy the previous year at Fanningbank had been with so many events to attend and preparations to be made for Christmas. I did know, however, it would not be proper to ask for a rain check.
On November 17th, we flew to England. We were greeted in Heathrow by Mr. Lowell Bourassa who had made all the arrangements from Canada House. He accompanied us to the St. James Court Hotel where we met Mr. Garth Powell, the manager. The hotel was on Buckingham Gate Road about a five-minute walk to the Palace. We were given a beautiful suite with our own personal maid who was there ready to unpack for us. She was surprised to see that we only had two suitcases each, as she expected that we would have several trunks.
The next day was a leisurely one. We went for a nice long walk and enjoyed some of the sights of London. In the evening, we were entertained at Canada House by the Canadian High Commissioner, Honourable Roy McMurtry and his wife along with three other couples.
We were on our own the next day and so, naturally, we visited Harrod’s Department Store and also Hambly’s Toy Store that had six floors to pick up some gifts for our young grandchildren. In the evening, we had tickets for Agatha Christie’s long-running play “The Mousetrap” and not so long ago I read that it is still bringing in the crowds after 24,500 performances.
Day 4 was a special day. London was adorned in brilliant sunshine with a nice crisp autumn temperature. Mr. Graham Johnston, Secretary of State, arrived about 1:30 p.m. and we drove to Buckingham Palace. We were almost three minutes too early and Mr. Johnston instructed the driver to drive around Queen Victoria’s monument. Apparently, this is the usual procedure. You don’t just sit outside the gate idling the car, so we drove around the monument three times and then it was time to drive through the gate.
Inside, among many people in various uniforms, we were met by the Queen’s Aide-de-Camp and Miss Mary Burden, the Queen’s Lady-in-Waiting. We walked along until we came to the Bow Drawing Room where we sat and chatted for a few minutes. Miss Burden is from Wales, and she told us that she and Her Majesty had been friends since childhood. I thought how lucky the Queen was to have such a lovely lady-in-waiting and also an old friend.
Very soon, the high double doors opened and a very distinguished black couple emerged. Both were dressed top to toe in white. Miss Burden had told us earlier that they were from one of the African countries. They had arrived in a white carriage driven by a team of horses. We had arrived in a shiny black car.
I was very relaxed about this visit because I had been presented to the Queen at least three other times in Prince Edward Island. The only thing that I was a bit concerned about was my hat. I didn’t want it to fall off when I would curtsy to the Queen, but everything was fine. However, when I raised my eye and saw this petite lady coming to greet us with her hand out and calling us by our names, suddenly I thought, this is our Queen coming toward us. She had a cheery fire burning brightly in the fireplace and she invited us to come sit down. Lloyd sat beside her and I sat across from them.
The conversation was free and easy, no different that visiting with friends in our own home. She was a completely different person from the times I had met her before, which was always a formal setting. Here she was in her own familiar surroundings and totally relaxed and ready for a friendly chat. The Queen has a great sense of humour and a very jolly and hearty laugh. She had visited China not so long before and told several funny stories about her walk on the Great Wall of China and how she enjoyed the culture.
She has an excellent memory, too, as there was no time between visitors to check her notes. She knew all about our family, our four children, Lloyd’s political life, and she commented how nice to be able to live in the country with our family and still be so near the capital city. She seemed very familiar with the geography of PEI. Her homework was well prepared. She talked a lot about her mother and how she loved Canada.
Lloyd did most of the talking with Her Majesty, but I did tell her that when I was six or seven years of age, I was the proud owner of a Princess Elizabeth coat. It was pale green tweed with a green velvet collar and cuffs. She did indeed remember. She said both her and her sister Margaret had matching coats and quite often they would get them mixed up and the younger Margaret, who was a great tease, would run off wearing the longer coat. With a rather longing look, she turned toward the window and said, “Those were happy carefree days.” No doubt that would be before she had begun the heavy training to be future Queen.
That afternoon she was wearing a blue flowered dress, gold earrings and her wedding band and no other jewellry. The sitting room was spacious but very comfortable. Beautiful paintings decorated the walls and heavy ornaments set on the tables. The room looked out on a large rose garden and roses happily bloomed in November.
During the conversation, Lloyd mentioned something about that day being her and Prince Philip’s wedding anniversary; I think it was their 36th, if I recall. “Yes, it is”, she said, “But we don’t bother celebrating because there are so many of us. Anyway, Philip is out in the country today and I don’t know if he will be home for tea, but I hope he will be,” and she laughed.
No one could or would tell us before exactly how long the visit should last, and, of course, we couldn’t move before the Queen did. Lloyd had read in the London Times that morning the names of people with whom the Queen was to meet that afternoon. Our names were included. Later that afternoon she would be opening a medical building. Lloyd as always knew the right thing to say and mentioned her busy schedule. So after a few more comments, we were ready to leave. It was a solid half hour of continuous conversation and laughter. She walked with us almost to the door where her aide and Miss Burden met and accompanied us to where Mr. Johnston was waiting.
As we were walking along, Miss Burden made some mention about our visit with Her Majesty, sure that it was enjoyable which we indeed did agree. I did say that I was hoping to see one of her corgis. “Oh”, Miss Burden said as she turned to me, “That could have been arranged if you had only mentioned it.” She told us Her Majesty would have been so pleased. “So many people do not like dogs”, then she said, “The next time you come be sure to tell us.” I said, I would.
The reason that I mention the corgis to you is to recount the story about Lieutenant Government George Stanley and his wife Ruth from New Brunswick who had made the Royal Visit the previous year. Mr. Stanley was less fond of dogs. As it would be, one of the Queen’s corgi dogs was in the room and, naturally, sat beside Mr. Stanley’s chair the entire time much to his dismay.
The rest of our trip included attending a church service at Westminster Abby and touring around England. One day we went to Ascot Raceway, and upon an invitation from the track manager, we sat in the Queen’s Royal Box to watch the horses exercising. We went on to tour Stonehenge. At Stratford-upon-Avon, we had coffee and crumpets in a pub where Polly the 13-year old parrot could talk, sing and whistle the Colonel Bogey March and at the end of a performance would flap its wings inviting applause.
We saw one of the four remaining copies of the Magna Carta. In Salisbury, we toured the cathedral built in 1220 which features the beautiful rose window. In Bladen, we toured Winston Churchill’s grave. In Southampton, we were welcomed on board Lord Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory. We drove around the New Forest where the horses run wild. We stopped at Beaulieu Place and admired the antique cars in the National Motor Museum.
I must not forget to tell you about the day we were at Windsor Castle and I saw Queen Mary’s doll house which I had read so much about when I was a child. Never did I think that I would really see it.
Queen Elizabeth has had a remarkable life. She has always displayed grace and dignity. Not long ago, I read where a British journalist was quoted to say, “Our Queen is a national treasure and the most repeated figure in the modern world.” We hope that the ones who follow in her footsteps some day will enjoy similar respect.
Thank you Helen for sharing this wonderful story. Your exquisite detail takes our imagination with you on the visit to see Her Majesty the Queen.