Just over a year since the formal announcement, I received a letter summoning me to Windsor Castle on the 9th of February. Because of the Pandemic, recipients were only allowed one guest and there would be no refreshments available. I didn’t mind, was just relieved to be going at last. I did ask if I could take a second guest to help me over the difficult terrain, but the Investitures Office very politely declined, explaining that they would make sure I was able to park at the castle itself and have a member of staff ready to help me.
I was frequently asked who would be performing the ceremony. St James’ Palace can’t say in advance so it is a complete surprise. I wore a claret and blue striped tie in case it was Prince William, also an Aston Villa fan. I even wondered if it might be HM The Queen, as it is her Platinum Jubilee and mine must have been one of the last warrants signed by herself and Prince Phillip.
The dress code seemed straight-forward enough, lounge suit or morning suit (no top hat though!) for men and dress and jacket for ladies. However, it was ‘preferable’ for ladies to wear a hat – I had read somewhere that the Queen prefers ladies to wear hats. Now, Helen doesn’t like being told what to do, how great her Husband is or wearing hats in general, so I was a little concerned! I needn’t have been. She looked absolutely fantastic in her Cloche hat and Navy-blue outfit, carefully chosen to match my suit. As a nice touch, she wore the necklace her Granny had worn when she met the Queen in the eighties.
Security at Windsor Castle was very tight. Armed Police Officers checked our invitations and ID, while others checked under the car. While we sat there waiting, Helen accidently pressed the horn. In that anxious moment, I thought we were going to die in a hail of bullets, but our car horn is so pathetic that we were in more danger of being laughed at!
We were directed to a courtyard and parked up. The afternoon sky had darkened, promising rain. One of the many smartly-dressed Paiges showed us inside and took us upstairs in a lift. I have never been congratulated and called “Sir” so many times in one day! We were given programmes and a metal loop was attached to my lapel. We waited in Queen’s Drawing Room with about twenty other guests, paintings by Holbein, Van Dyck and Rubens lining the walls. A large video screen showed a previous investiture conducted by Princess Anne. I watched with interest, my anxiety increasing when I saw that every recipient spent a couple of minutes of chatting with her. What on earth am I going to say? I thought.
Recipients and guests were briefed on what to do. There were only 58 recipients that day, half the usual number. We were organised into a queue and shuffled down to a room adjoining the Grand Reception Room, where the investitures were taking place. We could hear the Army String Orchestra playing a mixture of classical and classic rock music. When it was my turn, I removed my face-mask and Helen and I were separated. I waited at the edge of the brightest and most richly decorated room I have ever seen and saw Princess Anne was chatting with the person who, just a moment ago, was waiting in the queue in front of me. I swelled with pride as the Lord Chamberlain read out my citation, “Mr Richard Christopher Brown Esquire MBE, for services to Disabled People and the Community of Middle Barton in Oxfordshire.” The Paige pushed me to the Princess Royal and stepped back. I bowed my head.
As Princess Anne attached the medal to the hook on my lapel, I thanked her and explained that I’d met her as a volunteer when she had opened the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock in 2014. She smiled and said: “Such a lovely place, I keep meaning to go back, but never have time.” I was pleased we had established our conversation in Oxfordshire. She skilfully asked: “Is Middle Barton very close to Woodstock?” I was impressed. Instead of glibly asking me “What do you do?”, she had been well briefed and knew exactly why I was there and what I’d done. I also knew I was in the hands of a very experienced conversationalist.
We continued to talk about my voluntary work. It was obvious that The Princess Royal had been briefed about OurBus Bartons. She said it was a wonderful service, but joked “the wheels can fall off if you don’t have the right volunteers”. I smiled and replied “We’re unique and we do it for love, but there just aren’t enough of us, are there Ma’am?”. She nodded and smiled knowingly. Our conversation moved to my work with Ataxia UK. “Ataxia is such a difficult diagnosis, was Ataxia UK there for you at that time?” she asked. Once again, I was impressed that she already knew about my work with Ataxia UK. I explained that they were there for me when I was ready for them, and I was very grateful. I explained that I had made it my mission be there for others going through their diagnosis. When she thanked me for all my work, it felt genuine.
That was it, I’d done it! The Paige reappeared behind me, I bowed my head again and was returned to Helen. She said it looked like I had to be dragged away! The string orchestra started playing the twirling melody of ‘Clocks’ by Coldplay, and I gave them a big grin as I went past. In the next room, the medal was put in a box and handed back to me. Then, as cameras aren’t allowed anywhere in State Buildings, we had some pictures taken. We had a quick look at some of the collections of arms and armour and were shown outside to take a few selfies. It had rained softly while we were inside. It was such slick operation; from start to finish we were only there for just over two hours.
It was a long, unusual but very special day. I felt terrifically proud and was so glad that Helen was there to share it with me. As we left, we drove past St. George’s Chapel and I remembered my first visit to Windsor Castle as a child with my Auntie Angela. I never imagined that it would become part of my story one day.
Richard Brown MBE