Belfast Telegraph

A very different Duchess from the shy newcomer of five years ago

By Ivan Little

The last of the dainty ham and cheese sandwiches and fairy cakes were long gone - but the Duchess of Cambridge still had more than 2,000 guests at an Ulster garden party eating out of her hand on her first visit here for five years.

The royal, who was a somewhat shy and nervous newcomer to duties in 2011, returned to Northern Ireland yesterday as a confident and radiant style icon who is now a mother and a darling of the media.

On her first visit, just before her glitzy wedding, she was just plain old Kate Middleton, and the most memorable part of the trip was the sight of her and her fiance Prince William tossing pancakes in front of Belfast's City Hall.

Yesterday's visit to the Secretary of State's sun-drenched garden party at Hillsborough Castle was their first trip as a married couple, but they left their two children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, behind in London.

Not that anyone was complaining as they chatted and mingled with the royal guests.

The Hillsborough agreement was that the duchess - known here as Baroness Carrickfergus - really was the star of the show.

For with all due respect to the future king, it was his future queen that the women in their summer finery - and many of the suited and booted men - had come to see. And it is what Kate has been wearing which has been the focus of almost obsessional newspaper attention.

Hacks who are anything but savvy in the sartorial stakes had no shortage of guidance that the duchess was wearing a gold-coloured coat by Day Birger et Mikkelson and a hat by Lock and Co.

She also wore a gold Irish Guards shamrock brooch - maybe her way of saying sorry for breaking an age-old tradition by declining to present the regiment with their shamrock on St Patrick's Day.

With an eye to male equality, I asked a member of the Press corps who she thought had designed the prince's suit.

I was told: "Who cares about him?"

And indeed as the sun shone on a balmy afternoon, the heir to the throne ploughed a comparatively lonely furrow around the Hillsborough grounds as his wife went walkabout in the other direction surrounded by scores of cameras.

The Mayor of Lisburn and Castlereagh ,Thomas Beckett, a Wolves fan, talked to the prince about his devotion to their Midlands rivals Aston Villa, but there was no mention of Northern Ireland's footballing heroes.

First Minister Arlene Foster - who is just back from watching Northern Ireland at the Euro finals in France - said: "It's wonderful to see the royal couple here, continuing the visits which their family have been doing in recent months."

Orange Order chaplain the Rev Mervyn Gibson was delighted to see the future King William in Hillsborough.

The duchess praised a number of charity workers during proceedings, including Laura Bankhead (23), who works for the Phoenix charity project in Coleraine helping children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"The duchess took a real interest in my work and she was aware that ADHD is on the increase at the moment," she said.

A number of volunteers from the Foyle Hospice, including Arthur Graham, also met the duchess. She lauded their dedication - but also admired a necklace that hospice helper Kathleen Boyle was wearing.

"It's a really pricey one - all of £14.99," joked Kathleen. "And I have the earrings to match!"

As the Ulster Orchestra entertained the guests, Prince William may have been playing second fiddle to his wife.

However, he did impress the people he met, including Leanne Magee who is a web editor at Belfast City Council.

"He talked to me about the power of social media and how he's cautious about using it," she said afterwards. "But he told me he's about to launch a new campaign against cyber bullying soon."

Barbara Castle, who has lived next door to Hillsborough Castle for 37 years, was on her first visit to a garden party.

"It's been a long time coming but I think the security people on the gate put a word in for me," she said.

No such luck for 89-year-old Eileen Baxter, who has lived in the same house on Hillsborough's main street for 68 years.

"I was fortunate to get an invite years ago when Princess Diana was here," she said. "She was my favourite."

Someone else who met Diana also had a surprise encounter with Kate after the formalities were supposedly over yesterday.

The royal couple were heading for home when the duchess spotted 23 year-old Suzanne Glover from Newtownards, who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy that means she needs a wheelchair.

Kate stopped to talk to Suzanne, who has just graduated with an honours degree - but the encounter with Diana was too long ago to remember. Her mother, Margaret, said: "Suzanne was only 18 months old and she was in the Ulster Hospital. Princess Diana noticed her big red rosy cheeks and realised she was teething.

"She gently rubbed her face and said, 'Ah, sore cheeks.'"

Evelyn Hassard, from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, spoke to William about her long involvement in a community arts festival. But she also revealed a link between the two of them. "I told him my cousin actually registered the birth of his two babies at the palace - he thought that was lovely," she said.

Belfast Telegraph


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