EVERYONE I met who had been to Buckingham Palace for an award told me it would be an unforgettable day – and so it proved.
Accompanied by my wife Jackie and daughters Zoe and Francesca, I was invited to the palace on Wednesday to receive an MBE for services to charity and the community of Lyme Regis, presented by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.
As regular readers of this column will know, I am rarely lost for words, but I can’t find any that would do justice to the most wonderful experience of our lives.
We were fortunate to be invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party a few years ago, but this was clearly going to trump that and we dressed for the occasion – me in a morning suit and the girls in new frocks and fascinator headgear, the subject of much deliberation over the past few weeks.
We travelled up to London on Tuesday evening as we were instructed to arrive at the palace by 9.45am. We decided to take a taxi to be sure to be on time and were given a pass for the cab driver to display on his windscreen.
The cabbie turned out to be more nervous than we were as he drove through the palace gates after armed police had checked his vehicle. Dressed in a shell suit and flip-flops, he protested that he wasn’t dressed for the occasion. I told him not to worry, he wouldn’t be going inside, but he insisted in getting out of the taxi to open the doors for us.
At the entrance we were divided in two – Jackie, Zoe and Francesca were escorted into the ballroom, where the investiture was taking place, I was escorted into one of the state rooms with the other 70 recipients to be briefed on how the investiture would proceed.
At every turn there was a Buckingham Palace official greeting us and congratulating us on our honour. It was impossible to put a foot wrong.
None of us had met before but we soon formed into little huddles, introducing ourselves, saying where we were from and why we had been honoured with an award. I was surprised that all those I spoke to knew where Lyme Regis was, even a lovely lady from Dundee who was receiving an MBE for her work with underprivileged children who had rarely travelled south.
After being taken through the procedure of receiving our awards from a senior member of the place staff, we were divided into small groups and escorted to an adjacent room to the ballroom. We could hear the strains of the Countess of Wessex string orchestra coming from the ballroom and each one of us in turn was ushered to the ballroom entrance.
We were instructed to walk into the room when our surname name was announced, stop before the Duke of Cambridge, dressed in ceremonial RAF uniform and flagged by his staff who whispered into his ear as each of us approached.
It was the longest 12 yards I had ever walked and I managed to catch the eye of my three girls, beaming with pride. I was determined not to let the emotion of the occasion get to me and swallowed hard.
“Philip Evans, for services to charity and the community of Lyme Regis, Dorset”. I will never forget those words.
I bowed my head (as instructed, the ladies had to curtsey with much practising going on in the anti-rooms) and stepped forward where Prince William immediately put me at ease as he pinned the MBE to my lapel.
We spoke about my connection with sports in Lyme Regis and the other charities I’ve been connected with and then he asked “where exactly is Lyme Regis?” I brought a smile to his face when I said it was the town where the Duke of Monmouth landed to stage his ill-founded attempt to seize the crown from one of his ancestors.
He then shook my hand and congratulated me. Two steps back. Another bow of the head and I marched out of the room, not daring to look and Jackie and my daughters because I might have thrust my fist in the air and said “yes!”.
On leaving the ballroom we were greeted by more staff who again offered their congratulations, removed the badge from my tailcoat and placed it in a box and gave me a programme of the day’s events. We were then escorted back into the room to watch the rest of the ceremony.
This is when my thoughts turned to my mother and father, both long deceased.
When Jackie first handed me the letter informing me that I had been awarded the MBE with ‘On Her Majesty’s Service’ plastered across the top and quipped “what have you done now?” before smiling, I knew immediately what it was. Not because I expected it (nothing could have been further from the truth) but because I have interviewed dozens of people who have been granted awards by The Queen over the years and they always refer to the give-away words “Cabinet Office”).
The first thought that went through my mind was what would my dad have thought. A few weeks later when I told me brother, his first words also were: “What would dad have thought?”
Our dad was a hard-working man whose number one priority was caring for his family. He did not strive for recognition or greatness. My mum was a little less effusive in her praise for her offspring. She would probably have said something like “that’s quite nice dear”.
I wanted them to be part of this and so I took a photo of them with me. They were there on the biggest day of my life. It seemed the right thing to do.
When the final award had been handed out and after the National Anthem, Prince William marched out of the ballroom. It was over all bar the celebrating. Jackie and the girls hugged me and said I had done okay (I was paranoid about tripping over as we had to walk backwards a few steps after shaking the Duke’s hand).
It was a glorious but chilling autumn day in London, the sun showing the palace in all its glory. We congregated outside for the official photos and then walked out of the palace gates with the milling crowds clearly wondering with some disappointment “who the hell is that?” No celebrities receiving their knighthoods on this occasion.
Then we gathered on the Victoria Monument outside the palace and met up with my son Darren, his partner Jen and my two adorable granddaughters, Ella and Freya, for a family photo. Then shot off to Mark Hix’s Soho restaurant for a lovely long family lunch in his private dining room.
We ended our perfect day by going to see ‘Mamma Mia!’ at the Novello Theatre which, coincidentally, starred Alec Porter, who hails from Lyme Regis, in one of the lead roles, joining in all those wonderful Abba songs. What a show!
We strolled arm- in-arm through the rain, down Fleet Street (where else?) and back to our hotel. No late-into-the-night-celebration, not even a nightcap, as my daughter had to leave early to return to Galway.
Before turning in I caught up on the dozens and dozens of messages left on various social media platforms through the day, a humbling experience. Thank you to all those who offered their congratulations. I’m sorry I have not been able to reply to them all.
It’s unusual for the Evans’ not to burn the midnight oil but we were catching the 8.20 out of Waterloo to return to Lyme to put this week’s edition of LymeOnline to bed. In fact, I’m writing this column on the train.
An unforgettable day? You bet it was…