ROYAL EXCLUSIVE: “I’ve never been a city girl” – Princess Anne talks about life away from the royal beat

In a rare interview to celebrate her upcoming 70th birthday, HRH Princess Anne talks to Juliet Rieden about life as a farmer away from the royal beat, memories of Australia, riding with her grandchildren and why she chose not to give her children titles.
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It’s a sunny morning in Gatcombe Park, Princess Anne’s estate in the heart of Gloucestershire, a two-and-a-half hour drive west of London.

The 500-acre patch of outstanding natural beauty is not a palatial pile with a manicured garden attached, as you might expect, but a rugged working farm ruled largely by the livestock, with expert managing from their hands-on owner.

This is the Princess Royal’s private home, both a haven from the scrutiny of public life and the place where she carries out the other half of her life’s work, and probably the part she likes best – being a farmer.

Princess Anne stands on her estate in the heart of Gloucestershire for a 70th Birthday special shoot with The Weekly.

(Image: Hugo Burnand)

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s only daughter rarely allows media into this sanctuary, so we were honoured when Princess Anne agreed to celebrate her upcoming 70th birthday in the pages of The Weekly.

The plan was for the Princess Royal to show me around the estate, meet her long-horned rare-breed cattle, gleaming racehorses, pigs roaming through natural woodlands and sheep grazing.

But COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works, with my flight from Australia grounded. It was also touch-and-go as to whether The Weekly‘s UK-based photographer, Hugo Burnand, would be able to visit Her Royal Highness, but in the nick of time British internal travel restrictions were lifted.

The Princess Royal pivoted like a pro. I would interview Her Royal Highness on a video call and she would then head out onto the estate for our shoot.

And so it was, on an unusually baking summer’s day in Gatcombe, that I chatted to Her Royal Highness for an hour and a quarter.

The Princess Royal was photographed on her estate on a warm summer’s day.

(Image: Hugo Burnand)

The sun was streaming through the window as Princess Anne talked freely about everything from cherished farm life and childhood memories to trips to Australia, her children, grandchildren and brother Prince Charles. We also discussed contentious issues such as climate change, GM crops and veganism, and the Princess Royal’s passion to make the world a better place through her charity work.

Historically, Princess Anne has been dubbed the most industrious member of the Royal Firm, based on annual figures that tot up official engagements – although last year she was pipped at the post by her elder brother Prince Charles, who came in at 521 to his sister’s 506.

Her royal work includes representing her mother The Queen at events in the UK and around the world, as well as attending ceremonial occasions. Then there are close to 350 charities, organisations and military regiments that she supports, including a 50th anniversary this year as President of Save the Children.

It was, of course, a job she was born into. She had no choice and started her public role age 18. But like her parents, the Princess Royal is driven by a deep sense of duty, and even though she is at an age when most have retired, there is no sense that she will be slowing down anytime soon.

Instead she is a powerhouse of activity and is regularly represented in the media as steely and no-nonsense, a temperament some suggest is inherited from her father, Prince Philip.

But in person the Princess Royal is warm, friendly, funny and full of life. Today she is dressed in her ‘at home on the farm’ chinos and denim shirt, with barely a skerrick of make-up, her hair (which she does herself) swept up in the same bouffant roll she has worn for decades. It’s actually expertly held in place with three clips at the back, Hugo our photographer later tells me.

The Princess has isolated at Gatcombe with her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence.

(Image: Hugo Burnand)

Thanks to the pandemic, Princess Anne has been isolated at Gatcombe with her husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence.

“I haven’t been anywhere for three months, so in many respects it’s been a joy because you miss the place, particularly in the spring,” she says. “It’s absolutely lovely. The bluebells. I’ve ridden all the way through.”

Born to ride

Like her mother, Princess Anne still goes horse-riding every day.

“It gets you out; it’s a form of exercise that suits [me]. I know there’s a lot of suggestion that people shouldn’t ride, but frankly, if you’ve done that all your life and you know the animals well – and particularly one of mine, he needed to be worked on.”

The racehorse in question is called Cloud Formation and is “the nicest, best-behaved horse I’ve had in years,” she says.

There’s also a rescue mare in the Gatcombe stables, amusingly called Annie – she was named before coming into Her Royal Highness’s care.

“She’s much older than I thought she was, so she’s beginning to feel the strain a bit,” says the Princess. “Particularly in this heat, she’s not enjoying herself. She’s fundamentally a little liver chestnut Welsh cob.”

Princess Anne still goes horse-riding every day.

(Image: Hugo Burnand)

There’s an impish smile that stretches over Princess Anne’s face when she talks about her horses.

Later we photograph her with Fiddle Faddle – named after a Scottish reel – and her foal Reel Fashion. I’m told the sire was called Schiaparelli after the famous Italian fashion designer, hence the foal’s name. Her Royal Highness’s palpable love for the two-month-old is right there in our photos. Horses have been a backdrop to the Princess’s life since she was a baby, and now on her farm provide intense joy.

She was famously the first member of the royal family to have competed in the Olympic Games, and her daughter Zara Tindall took up the baton and was presented with her silver team medal at the 2012 London Olympics by her mother.

Watch Zara’s highlights from the 2012 Olympics below:

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Princess Anne’s grandchildren – both Zara’s girls Mia, six, and Lena, two, and Peter Phillips’ daughters, Savannah, nine, and Isla, eight – all ride. They live on neighbouring Aston Farm, so I ask if they have been joining Granny on her daily rides.

“They do occasionally come over,” she says. “It gives them a change of scenery and a bit more water to play in.”

Zara and Peter were raised at Gatcombe.

“I think on the whole you’re very lucky if you can have children growing up on farms,” says Princess Anne. “They have more time to themselves; there’s an expectation that they will actually go out and enjoy themselves on their own. You don’t watch them every minute of the day. That is quite important,” she says.

“You also get to understand that if you have livestock and animals, that is part of the deal, you look after them. They’re not just a radish! If you want one, you have to look after it. So ponies, dogs, whatever… that’s all part of the deal… You have to try to get the message across that you have to work hard to keep a place like this.”

“It’s a mixed blessing to have a title.”

Does the Princess anticipate passing Gatcombe on to her children? After all, it is their childhood home.

“At Gatcombe, the farming bit is fine. The house might be more of a challenge,” she smiles. “By normal standards it’s expensive. It’s an old house.”

While their birthright has given Peter and Zara certain privileges, they do have to earn their own crust. Princess Anne turned down titles for her children when they were born, something Prince Harry and Meghan have followed with their son, Archie.

“I think even then it was easy to see that it was a very mixed blessing to have a title,” says the Princess.

What this meant for Zara and Peter was that they grew up differently from their cousins Princes William and Harry, in that they always knew they would have to build their own careers. When he was younger, Peter toured South Africa with the Scottish rugby team, later worked in motor racing and today, at 42, runs a sports entertainment agency.

Meanwhile Zara, 39, aside from her stellar competitive horse-riding career, trains horses and is patron of the Magic Millions event here in Australia. Although she’s not prone to cooing over her offspring, the Princess Royal admits she’s proud of their progress.

“I’ve got no complaints,” she jokes. “To be honest, having children of parents who both achieved at a fairly high level in sport and they’ve both achieved their own levels in their own sports, is fantastic. But they’ve also created their own careers away from that, using that experience – they’ve done incredibly well.”

“They’ve both achieved their own levels in their own sports.” – Princess Anne’s children, Zara and Peter (pictured in 1984).

(Image: Getty)

Country life

The Princess Royal was born on August 15, 1950, in Clarence House in London and still retains a base in St James’s Palace next door to Clarence House, now her brother Prince Charles’s London home, and just across Green Park from Buckingham Palace, one of the homes in which she grew up.

But she has always felt most at home in the country.

“I’ve never been a city girl,” says Princess Anne.

“I may have been born within the sound of Bow Bells [English vernacular for a true Londoner], but definitely never my scene. London was to me school days. I did lessons in London and then because the weekends were at Windsor [Castle] and Windsor has a farm – mostly dairy, but there were pigs and chickens as well – my background in that sense was always on the farm.”

“Because I rode from no age, you saw every part of the farm and spent a lot of time down there, and there were people good enough to explain what they were doing; or just out of fun to explore, collect eggs, see piglets.”

“All of that was very much part of my programme,” she explains.

“There was never a question of living in London. It was not a world for me.”

Princess Anne and her mother, Queen Elizabeth II photographed on the Sandringham Estate in 1979.

(Image: Tim Graham via Getty)

Princess Anne married her first husband Captain Mark Phillips, another equestrian Olympian, in 1973, and very quickly the newlyweds started house-hunting in the country.

“We looked at quite a lot of places,” she reveals.

In the end the Queen purchased Gatcombe Park – which included a Grade-II-listed manor house and 500 acres of land – as a gift for the couple and their new life began. But Princess Anne wasn’t originally looking for a career in farming.

“There was more land than we had intended getting, so no, I hadn’t intended to be a farmer,” the Princess explains. “I had intended to live in the countryside and understand how to run grassland, but mostly with horses … and the odd beast to clear up.”

Fortunately, those childhood days with the Windsor pigs and chickens now came in handy, as Princess Anne and her husband started to plan the direction of their seemingly substantial farm.

“It’s not huge in that sense,” she opines. “Two hundred acres of it is woodland, the grassland is relatively limited. It’s hilly. It has steep valleys, and … the grass doesn’t grow very thickly. We’re still learning.”

Princess Anne has embraced the farming life for close to five decades now, and for the past 27 years has been joined in her passion by her second husband. Together they have developed an impressive business and a little piece of Her Royal Highness’s brand of paradise.

“We’ve gone in the last 25 years for rare-breed cattle, sheep, pigs, horses. The pigs live in the woodland.”

When I later see the pigs in our photos, they look like the happiest beasts in England, masters of their own domain.

“I’m afraid we do have to fence them in. It’s not considered appropriate to let them roam too much. The rules on pigs in this country are very strict in terms of where they can and can’t go.”

“Mind you, the pigs themselves don’t always live by that particular agreement,” explains the Princess with a wry smile.

Recently the farm was invaded by a wild boar.

“It came in [to Gatcombe], killed my boar, which was pretty boring of it, and although apparently it had a go at my young sows, it didn’t leave anything behind, so I lost on every count!” chuckles the Princess Royal.

This is the sort of earthy farmer’s tale that is 100 per cent Princess Anne, and why she gets on so well with rural folk the world over.

Princess Anne and Timothy Laurence pictured at the British Eventing Gatcombe Horse Trials in 2006.

(Image: Tim Graham via Getty)

One of her many roles is as President of the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth (RASC).

“She’s a country person at heart and thoroughly enjoys the work she does with us,” RASC Hon. Secretary Michael Lambert tells me.

“One of the challenges is making sure that she keeps to a timetable, because she enjoys talking to the farmers so much. She is very like one of us… Then, when she’s not doing royal work, she’s keen to get back to Gatcombe as soon as possible.”

The Princess Royal is a practical farmer with very different ideas from her older brother Charles, whose strictly organic Highgrove farm is not far away. The siblings disagree on many issues relating to the land including genetically modified crops, which the Princess Royal supports.

“It has been an enormous advantage in many parts of the world to use GM wisely for very specific environments. It makes it much more likely to be able to grow what you need,” she explains. “I have to remind people that rapeseed oil was only made non-toxic to humans by the Canadians after the Second World War by genetically modifying the plant. It’s [ironically] quite popular with all those people who don’t like GM.”

I ask if she and Prince Charles ever have conversations about farming. “Yes… occasionally, but rather short,” quips the Princess.

Princess Anne’s farm is not far from Prince Charles’ organic Highgrove farm. (Pictured in 1980).

(Image: Getty)

Australia bound

Princess Anne encountered vast farms in Australia and New Zealand on her first big overseas tour in 1970. She was just 19, and at the time a huge hit on magazine covers around the world, lauded for her fashion choices from miniskirts to trouser suits. Anne and Charles accompanied their parents on the tour, which was to celebrate the bicentenary of Captain James Cook sailing up the east coast.

“I had a lot of first impressions on that trip because that was one of the first long trips I’d been on with the Queen and the Duke,” remembers the Princess.

“It was hot. It was quite full-on. It was quite hard work. I think it was in Melbourne, when walkabouts were just starting, and somebody said to me, ‘We’ve met before’. I thought, ‘I’ve just arrived in Australia, so that’s unlikely.’ She was Maltese and said, ‘I was the floor maid in the hotel in Malta when you stayed before the Queen joined you.’

“I was three! That taught me a very important lesson, that the world was already a pretty small place. We then had a night in Queensland off the beaten track. I wondered why it was red. Then it rained overnight and the place went green. Absolutely extraordinary. It was a really interesting trip.”

One irritation for the feisty young royal was what she saw as blatant sexism at official functions.

“Of course, the Queen is the Queen and it’s a different relationship, but I still got the feeling that there were women at that end of the room and men at this end of the room. I didn’t go for that, so I just annoyed the men at the other end,” she laughs.

“To be honest, I think they were gratified in Queensland that I was the least bit interested in the livestock or the land. They were quite happy to talk.”

In Melbourne, Princess Anne and Prince Charles danced at a ball with 400 other young Aussies to rock band The Mixtures.

“They were fun events. You met different sorts of people, not least of all friends of my brother, who went to school with him in Geelong.”

Princess Anne visited Australia in 1970 alongside Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh and her brother, Prince Charles.

(Image: Getty)

Another memorable visit was in 2009, when the Princess Royal came for the memorial for victims of the Black Saturday bushfires. It was a devastating time.

“You often wonder when is the right time to have a memorial and that was quite early days, because there were still fires burning. We flew through one on the way out. I think for most of us, the speed of fires, the way they burn in Australia, how quickly they can do damage, it was pretty horrifying.”

“For a member of the family to be able to come and join you seemed entirely appropriate, so it was really nice that people felt that was appreciated.”

Princess Anne watched with deep empathy as Australia battled this year’s vicious bushfire season. Many royals – including Princes William, Harry and Charles – have suggested a link between the fires and climate change, but she is less convinced.

“I don’t even go down the climate change route,” she says, shaking her head. “I think the way people manage ground is part of the discussion… Climate changes all the time. It has done so throughout the globe’s history, so there’s nothing new under the sun. Somehow, we’ve got to learn that our kind of life is changing. We’ve got to remember to respect what’s out there and how to live with it.”

She agrees that First Australians may have a better grasp of how to deal with our fires.

“They’ve got a lot more knowledge and I suspect their ability to pass on the relevant knowledge is better than us. First Nations people have a much better understanding of what the dangers are, and fire would have been a massive danger throughout their existence.

“They know Australia a lot better than anybody else. I suspect they existed in quite a lot of climate changes already.”

The Princess Royal visited Australia again in 2009 in the wake of the devastating Black Saturday bushfires.

(Image: Getty)

The Duke’s legacy

While her opinions may not be popular with environmentalists, Her Royal Highness speaks from a depth of experience gained from talking to farmers around the Commonwealth.

She started working with Michael Lambert at the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth in 2008, attending her first conference in New Zealand. RASC was originally set up by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1957.

“Very kindly, my father asked me to follow in his footsteps,” she says proudly. “For me it’s been absolutely fascinating. We went from Brisbane, big farming country, to Singapore and vertical farming.”

“Father and daughter are very similar,” adds Michael. “The Duke is occasionally indiscreet. She is much more measured, but she’s quite happy to call a spade a spade.”

“We were talking about organic production at our 2014 Brisbane conference, and there was a gentleman from the Australian Greens party who made some statements in his presentation that she didn’t agree with… At the end, she went up to him and they had quite a discussion. She’s not afraid to come forward.”

Princess Anne tells me she recalls talking about the vegan movement at one of the conferences, and it’s safe to say she’s not a fan.

“You can’t have a world without livestock. They are a necessary and very constructive part of our expectation to feed ourselves,” she argues. “Perhaps my biggest irritation is single issue groups… We need livestock as part of the genuine mix that keeps land healthy.”

“You can’t have a world without livestock.”

Another of her father’s personal initiatives that she’s taken on is the Commonwealth Study Conferences, designed to share wisdom and ideas among emerging leaders.

Chris Hartley is Secretary of the organisation and says Princess Anne spends three weeks a year at their events.

“She’s her father’s daughter. There’s a palpable fondness between them that you’ll see, but she is very hands-on. She’s a workaholic,” says Chris. “I think to Her Royal Highness, the role is about creating a better world in terms of giving opportunities, advice, help and encouragement to people who will make a difference.”

“I hope that’s true,” muses the Princess. “I think both my father and I would feel it’s about sharing information; that there are many more similarities than dissimilarities in the world, and you have to focus on those to make it a better place.”

The Princess’s longest-standing charity work is with Save the Children. She has travelled all over the world witnessing children in dire situations, including refugee camps. She says that even though images from those trips can be heart-rending, she always tries to see the positives.

“You use those images in order to get the message across to others. I’m always encouraged by the way you see children running about and playing. The common denominator was the number of children who made toys out of wire coat hangers. Everywhere! They’re really good at it.”

“She’s her father’s daughter. There’s a palpable fondness between them that you’ll see” – Prince Philip’s legacy lives on through Princess Anne (pictured in 1980).

(Image: Getty)

As her 70th birthday approaches, I wonder if Princess Anne feels older and perhaps wiser.

“Sometimes,” she replies, explaining that her biggest joy is connecting information that she has come across over the years to “the appropriate point” today. “Then you feel wiser.”

In essence, she says, she’s “jack of all trades, master of none” – which I think, looking at her farm, is a little harsh. As our chat ends, the Princess Royal jumps in her Land Rover and leads our photographer around her beloved acreage.

After the shoot, she drives past our photographer’s assistant, who is packing up, and stops to tell him about freshly laid eggs she has just picked up. I am reminded of the little girl who gathered eggs at Windsor.

She really hasn’t changed at all.

Read this story in The Australian Women’s Weekly August issue on sale now.

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