It was the Autumn of 2015 and I was zooming down the side of St James’ park, on my usual commute-route home. All of a sudden there appeared a commotion up ahead. Cars stopped, guards materialised, and two young American girls began running along the pavement screaming at the top of their lungs: “Aaaaaaahhh maaaaayyyy Gaaaaaaad!!!! It’s her! It’s really herrrr!”. Intrigued by their excitement, I pulled alongside them at the entrance to Green Park, expecting perhaps to see Taylor ‘Tay-Tay’ Swift, Rhi Rhi, or even Beyoncé.
And then there she was. Like a china doll, beautifully dressed, perfectly poised, encased in a glass-topped limo, and waving. Of course she was waving. It was then that I realised I had never actually seen the Queen in the flesh before. To me, she was like the Golden Gate Bridge. Something I’d seen so many times on the tele-box, that I’d become blasé about. And, just like the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge furreal on my 50 state cycle, upon clapping eyes on Queenie – my heart skipped a beat. Only, with the Queen it was different, the wonder at seeing her in the flesh was coupled with a real sense of national pride. One I never knew I had until that moment.
I’d never considered myself a Royalist after all – I remember, aged 11, announcing to my Mum, that should I ever meet the Queen, I wouldn’t curtsy. “And why is that, Anna?” asked my bewildered Mumma. “Because respect should be earned. And I don’t think the Queen would have earned my respect just by being, you know, the Queen.” Yes I was an irritatingly opinionated 11 year old. Now aged 31, clearly things had changed. Had I not been on a bike at the moment she passed, I would have curtseyed, laid down in the road, offered her an organ perhaps.
AN UNEXPECTED INVITATION
Now officially the Royal’s number one fan, you can imagine my delight when an invitation to St James’ Palace landed on my front doorstep earlier this year. “The private secretary to the Earl of Wessex is desired by His Royal Highness to invite Ms Anna McNuff to attend the presentation of awards to young people who have achieved a Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, at St James’ Palace, on Tuesday February 2nd, 2016.”
Every year, hundreds of budding young explorers get invited to the Palace to receive their Gold Awards from the Duke of Ed himself, or one of his nominated fellow royals. It is the culmination of years of hard work for those in attendance. They have volunteered their time for others, demonstrated expedition skills, worked as a team and above all, have pushed their limits far beyond what they thought themselves capable of.
I was to be one of the presenters for the day, handing out certificates alongside BBC’s Natasha Kaplinsky, and Ex-Olympic Swimmers Cassie Patten and Angela Wilson. No biggy. (It was a biggy).
Having made a trip to River Island to purchase a figure hugging, yet suitably knee-length classy dress, I felt rather well prepared and all full of smug. Alas, on the morning of the big day I awoke in a sweat. Realising that although (uncharacteristically) I had gotten all organised with the dress side of things, I had nothing to put over the dress, no bag, and no shoes. And I mean, no shoes – I only own muddy trainers and one pair of big brown ‘adventure boots’. As for the bag… I’m not sure an Osprey 33L Tempest would quite fit the bill. Thinking on my feet, I proceeded to break the World record for an accessory smash n’ grab at Brixton High Street. I ran there, entered two shops and returned with shoes, a handbag and cardigan – all with change from £25, in under 34 minutes and only breaking a mild sweat. Challenge Anneka eat your heart out.
Almost ready to rock, upon slipping on the the dress I also realised that it gave me huge pant lines. One could not visit the palace with One’s pant lines on show, so there was nothing for it. I was going to the palace sans pants. Would I be the first to cross the threshold commando, I wondered?
THE MAIN EVENT
Upon arrival at the palace me and my guest for the day, Jamie, were ushered past the queues of youngsters and into the grounds. Following a tour and the showing of lots of shiny things and big muskets and pistols, we were taken into our room. The throne room. Yes, yes, I had lucked in. Of all the rooms in all the kingdom, I was getting to give a speech in a room which housed the highest throne in the British Realm. The actual throne that Queen Elizabeth had sat on during her coronation in on June 2nd, 1953. And no, sadly, despite my request, I was not allowed to sit on it.
A few seconds later we were hushed to a silence and told that Prince Edward would be entering the room in the next two minutes. My palms got sweaty and my heart beat fast. I watched as the large opulent door at the North end of the room swung open and HRH glided through. Gosh he looked dapper. He moved among the groups of kids for a few minutes, stopping to chat and ask them about their experiences as they giggled and offered polite replies. Prince Edward then moved towards me, as the man at his side uttered:
“It’s my pleasure to introduce you to Anna McNuff – an ex-Great Britain rower turned adventurer.”
Obviously this being my second royal encounter (since the Queen), I was all like: “Pssssh, whatevs. Wassup Eddie boy?” Or not. I was uncharacteristically nervous as brief chit chat ensured, and I can affirm that His Royal Highness has a manner to calm even the greatest of nerves. Gentle, inquisitive and genuinely interested – “I think what you do is absolutely fabulous.” he said as I blushed, before asking whether I had done the DofE programme myself. To which I rambled on about having started it, learnt how to make a beer battered Mars bar, but found that the meetings always clashed with rowing training so I’d had to give it up before even making a Bronze level. There was a pause, as an awkward silence descended over the room. “Am I to be punished?” I asked. It seems my nerves had disappeared and I was back in full cheeky force. “No, no.” Smiled the Prince. “You’ll not be punished.” Phew.
Prince Edward having exited, I had the pleasure of making a six minute speech to the group of 70 youngsters and their parents. I regaled adventure tales from New Zealand, and at the appropriate moment, whipped out my pants of perspective from the recently purchased handbag, to a rapturous applause. I am sure that throne has witnessed many fights in its honour over the years, but perhaps this was the first (and last) time it will see one between a Unicorn and a Robot, under a rainbow.
As I walked away from the palace, all smiles and energy – I mulled over the lines of my favourite T.S Eliot poem. And considered how appropriate it was for the youngsters who had just reached the end of one great achievement, but were in reality at the start of a lifetime of many more to come:
“In my beginning is my end…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
A DIAMOND YEAR
This year the Duke of Edinburgh is in its 60th year. Celebrating their Diamond Anniversary, they are calling for everyone to ‘give it their all’ in 2016. For themselves, their families, their communities and others.
You can take on a challenge for the DofE, raise or contribute £60 to continue to fund the amazing work they do. Read more about them and their challenges here, or follow Visit Wales ‘year of adventure’ ambassador Tori James, as she takes on 60 days of adventure around beautiful Cymru.
Until next time adventure homies,
Adventure Queen McNuff, over and out xx