Our Coronation Garden Party
On 3 May 2023, Trustees Di Steele and Amanda Foster attended the Coronation Garden Party at Buckingham Palace, their invitation being a direct result of the charity achieving the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2022. Here follows a description of the day by Di Steele.
Our visit to the palace was a day to remember from many points of view, the honour and privilege, the pageantry and splendour and the many people we met and talked to - but the overriding memory was my glimpse into the life of someone not just visually impaired but totally blind and the kindness and care shown by strangers – railway staff, palace and security staff, fellow guests and just ordinary members of the public. It was both faultless and overwhelming. Maybe this isn’t always the case for visually impaired people but dressed in our finery with a very obvious destination, it seemed the world wished us well.
Preparations for the day included complying with the heightened security and finding photo ID for a blind person without a passport or driving licence presented the first challenge. Eventually Richard (Amanda’s blind husband) and Amanda remembered her bus pass and my challenge was what on earth can I wear! Reluctant to buy an outfit that may never be worn again, I accepted a friend’s kind offer to rummage through her extensive wardrobe. In the event, four of us spent a very giggly hour whilst I tried on outfits, eventually ending up with a borrowed pure white and brand new jacket, a Philip Treacy hat (no less), navy bag and gloves and my own navy dress that I was assured looked fabulous despite having been bought from a Chinese website that popped up when I happened to be online doing something else, and costing less than £20.
I couldn’t imagine how Amanda would manage when the invitation demanded a dress and hat. How does a blind person have any idea if they like and are happy with what they are wearing. The answer must be that they get used to trusting the people around them and Amanda is fortunate to have a sister, Fiona who she can rely on. Amanda has never had any sight, so she can have no real comprehension of how much we judge other people by how they look, but when I collected her from her hotel and was taken aback by her fabulous dress and hat, both she and Richard showed obvious relief.
So, we set off on our journey by accepting a lift from some kind friends (one of whom is a WTN listener), to East Grinstead Station. One of our reading volunteers Penny Bateman had kindly offered to take Richard out to lunch so we left without a care in the world to embark on our big day. On arrival at the station, we had barely entered the ticket hall before we were offered help, then a lift (rather than take the stairs) and on arrival at the correct platform, three young girls jumped up and without hesitation, offered us a seat. On arrival at Victoria station there was a dilemma. It was fine for Amanda to use the facilities, I could stand on guard outside, but how do I leave her alone to do the same thing myself? Amanda has a delightfully unworried attitude to almost everything, so I decided to chance it, but as if from nowhere appeared a member of the railway staff who decided to step in and stand guard on my precious and incredibly vulnerable friend. I was probably worrying unnecessarily but we were in wicked London remember!
Amanda and Richard regularly stay in the hotel they were using (they live in Aberdeen and come south for all WTN trustee meetings) but there is one downside – the hotel doesn’t serve breakfast. When I suggested to Amanda that she might like a cup of tea, she jumped at the chance and I decided that it was far more important for Amanda than too long wandering around gardens that she can’t see. She did just manage a chocolate biscuit at the same time – well perhaps I should admit to joining her despite our royal tea to come very soon - but today felt like a holiday.
As we walked towards the taxi rank a lady sitting waiting for her train shouted – ‘you both look lovely’! Did we really stick out as being on our way to a very posh engagement or maybe it was just the silly grins on our faces? I must admit that the hat and jacket I had borrowed made me feel like a million dollars as I instructed the taxi driver ‘Buckingham Palace please’. Of course, he was very unimpressed and complained about The Mall being closed to traffic prior to the coronation three days afterwards. As I got into the taxi, I failed to make any allowance for the height of my hat – thank goodness it survived unscathed as did the white jacket that was just waiting for a black smudge to ruin it - somewhere on our journey!
Disabled entry to Buckingham Palace was somewhat privileged and we had just passed through the huge gates at the front when we stood back for a limousine – whispered to be carrying Prince Edward and Sophie. We really had arrived!
Prior to our day out, I had decided that I would attempt to describe everything during our day. How stupid I was! Talking about the Yeoman of the Guard wearing red stockings meant nothing to someone that doesn’t know what red is – though Amanda is very patient and would never make me feel bad about failing to understand her disability. I quickly changed my plan and decided to talk to everyone we came across. That meant the girl scout thrilled to be doing her duty ‘to God and the King’ by directing these seemingly important guests. Of course, we knew it was just us, not important at all – just equally thrilled to be there. As we walked past the side door where the intruder (of the Queen’s bedroom fame) had come in, we passed a terrifying looking policeman with a massive machine gun – an MP5 he told us. When I asked him if I could take a photo of him with Amanda, this scary gentleman turned into a just another kind and helpful person, honoured to be of service to the new king - though the gun he held continued to be pointed at my feet!
The gates to the tea party had opened at 3pm and because of our delay with refreshments on Victoria Station, we arrived quite late but, in the event, that couldn’t have been better timing. It meant that we were in pole position to see the entrance of the royal party. The King and Queen Consort Camilla, (also in a Philip Treacy hat I hasten to add), stood on the steps from the palace whilst the National Anthem was played, and 8,000 overawed guests raised their voices to show their appreciation of the Sovereign and this very special occasion.
As the royal party split up to meet the guests, Sophie, Duchess of Edinburgh walked past us and said hello to this silly woman gawping at her (me), whilst Charles and Camilla met guests at random in pre-set ‘lanes’ policed by the Yeoman of the Guard.
Amanda and I strolled around the gardens spying a family of goslings on the lake and listening to the silver bands. Amanda along with many other guests did a great job of aerating the lawns with her stiletto heels! We had a lovely warm afternoon, but wet weather had just been round the corner.
Nobody could have prepared me for the difficulty of edging my way through a large crowd with a blind person on my arm. I could see the gap to aim at, but it was a whole different story for Amanda who appeared to place complete trust in me, and just walked straight ahead. Anyone and everyone that received a small ‘nudge’ immediately realised the situation and smiled, helping us to move forward if they could. People were just lovely!
Eventually we decided to collect our tea from a long marquee the full length of the lawn. Reaching the front of the short queue, the waitress without hesitation asked if we would like help carrying our cups and once we were loaded up with elegant sandwiches and delicious mini-cakes, she was by our side looking for a table for us. A table with 3 other ladies was selected and we couldn’t have had better companions. They were all mayoresses of South London boroughs and all had stories to tell – they were also wonderfully complicit in helping me refill Amanda’s plate and when the ice creams came round, we failed to mention that we had had one already! I left Amanda in their company whilst I did a bit of royal spotting and came close enough to King Charles to overhear conversations – which was quite near enough for me. After tea, we listened to one of the military bands and then it was 6pm and time for the National Anthem and the royals to depart.
When we walked out of the big gates in front of Buckingham Palace, crowds were already in place for the coronation and seeing us and presuming we were important – they waved. Of course, we carried off the act with aplomb and started our walk to Victoria station, the taxi queue being impossibly long. What a good decision that was, we passed the Rubens Hotel and just happened to slip inside for a glass of bubbly to round off our day. Alas no vacant seats but the amazing goodwill continued, and seating was immediately found.
On Victoria Station concourse, I searched the departures board, not really being sure of the final destination of the East Grinstead train. So followed the incident that remains an abiding memory to complete a day of generosity and kindness. A railway official came up to us, asked our destination, and within two minutes we were speeding in a buggy to the correct platform and the best carriage for our destination platform. This was before the platform number had even been announced.
Tired and replete, we had a quiet but satisfied journey home after a truly wonderful day.
And what of Amanda’s memories of the day. She said “I really enjoyed your company Di, and loved the description of the royal party emerging from the palace”, - though it probably wasn’t my words as much as the breaks in my voice! She also talked of the atmosphere of excitement, the military bands, and our personal encounter with Sophie the new Duchess of Edinburgh. Amanda added “It was a day I will never forget” - but then neither will I.