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Considering that on any given day during seven decades in the British Royal Family, the Duke has had to make small talk with dozens if not hundreds of strangers, it isn’t surprising that he has occasionally strayed off-piste. But the occasional spot of no-nonsense banter should not be allowed to eclipse his substantial contribution to the wider world.
The Queen touched on this in her Golden Wedding anniversary speech in 1997 when she said: ‘I, and his whole family, and this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.’However, this week we can at least acknowledge some of it.
That the world’s most famous and respected head of state continues to enjoy her record reign is down to the unstinting support of the man who swore to be her ‘liege man of life and limb’.
The very fact that the retirement of a 95-year-old is headline news merely underlines what an extraordinary part he has played in our national story.
Driving me around the Windsor estate a few years ago, the Duke of Edinburgh was in full flow as he pointed to one landmark after another.‘You can see Prince Consort’s Farm has remained, externally, the same as Prince Albert built it,’ he mused, before pointing in the opposite direction, adding: ‘Great place for crows, this.’On we drove, past the farms designed by ‘Farmer George’, King George III, past the Frogmore gardens designed by Queen Charlotte, past the mausoleum built by Queen Victoria — ‘the family burial plot’ as the Duke called it — and so much else. But it soon dawned on me that so much of the landscape was actually down to the Duke himself: the tree plantations, a new deer herd and the Guards Polo Club, the international polo venue he built on the disused wartime airstrip at Smith’s Lawn.
As well as being the longest-serving Ranger of Windsor Great Park in history, he is also the first member of the Royal Family to open a shop.
It contains a lot of poetry — including works by Bob Dylan — but little fiction. As undisputed master of the royal barbecue, the Duke is as keen on new recipes as he is on new ideas about anything else.
In the early Sixties, for example, it was the Duke who played a central role in the creation of the World Wildlife Fund, paving the way for organisations such as Greenpeace and helping to kick-start an entire environmental movement.‘About 30 years ago I suggested that we should have a plucking and packing facility for game,’ he told me.‘Then this business of farm shops came along, so we converted the potting sheds into a farm shop.’Weaving his way past the gobsmacked queue at the shop’s meat counter, the Duke gave us a swift retail masterclass: ‘Stuff grown here that was not [financially] viable when it went to the open market is viable now that it’s got an outlet.By taking out the middleman, it becomes more efficient.For all the synthetic outrage in response to those well-worn lines about Hungarian ‘pot bellies’ or Aboriginal Australians ‘throwing spears’, they have done nothing to diminish his stature as a national treasure.Indeed, when the Duke ordered photographers to hurry up and ‘take the f*****g picture’ at a lunch for Battle of Britain veterans two years ago, there not a batsqueak of complaint from anyone.