On a chilly winter’s afternoon I am standing next to Princess Anne as we watch a horses’s head being sawn off. Unlike me, she doesn’t blink an eye.
We’re at Surrey University’s veterinary school where we’re being ‘treated’ to a post-mortem demonstration by students.
Elegant, willowy, and with coltish legs, her hair is ruthlessly sculpted back into her trademark chignon, and held up by what looks like a giant safety pin.
Everything about her, from her way of moving, to her clipped speech as she peppers her hosts with questions is brisk — but not brusque. As the horse’s lungs — it died of colic — are removed, she’s relating how a twisted gut and colic sealed the fate of one of her own horses.
At one point, I hear her exclaim: ‘Good Lord, it’s the spleen!’
By this stage I am no longer watching.
Pictured: Princess Anne at Royal Ascot, Ladies Day, in 2019. ‘Single-minded, fearless, driven, devoted to duty, loyal’ — these are the words I heard again and again to describe her (qualities that are beautifully captured in our striking exclusive birthday portrait of the Princess, here, by the celebrated royal photographer John Swannell)
The extraordinary visit in February offered an illuminating insight into the Princess Royal and her ferocious work ethic as she approaches a landmark birthday — her 70th — next month.
The visit was one of three royal duties she performed that day.
Over recent months I have talked to scores of people who know her or who have worked with her over the years.
‘Single-minded, fearless, driven, devoted to duty, loyal’ — these are the words I heard again and again to describe her.
Formula One legend Sir Jackie Stewart, a close friend for decades, told me they bonded at a lunch at The Savoy Hotel in London.
He bravely dared to comment on her ‘workman’s hands’.
Far from being offended, she explained she’d been mucking out just hours before.
Pictured: Princess Anne riding Doublet, during the Steeplechase section of the Crookham Horse Trials on 20th March 1972
Another source told me of her impatience with small talk.
‘There are no water-cooler moments with HRH, put it that way,’ he said.
Take her devoted private secretary Captain Sir Nicholas Peter Wright, who retired in 2019 after 17 years, but was immediately appointed an extra equerry to the Princess because she could not bear to lose him.
‘Nick worked with her for donkeys’ years, but she never asked him anything personal,’ one of her circle told me.
‘Once he fell off a ladder and was quite hurt, off work for weeks. I don’t think she ever mentioned it.’
She can be very engaging — as long as long as it’s a subject she’s interested in.
‘I know of one staffer who worked with her for years who said they only ever had one proper conversation with her. And that was about lighthouses,’ I was informed.
Lighthouses are a great passion ever since, aged five, the Princess accompanied the Queen to one on the Isle of Lewis. She is patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board.
Her secret, say friends, is that she ruthlessly compartmentalises her work and private lives.
Although she puts in 500 engagements a year — day visits and evening dinners — on behalf of 300 charities, she tries to arrange her diary so she can return to her Gloucestershire home, Gatcombe Park, each night.
And it is at Gatcombe — the estate is run by her second husband, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence — that a different side of the Princess emerges.
‘Some may think she is cold, but at home at Gatcombe, she’s actually very warm and relaxed,’ I was told.
‘There’s a large kitchen, dogs everywhere, socks. And she’s a really hands-on grandmother [she has four grandchildren by her children, Zara and Peter Phillips, from her first marriage to Captain Mark Phillips]. It’s her sanctuary where she can really be herself.’
What comes across is an unstuffy royal — albeit one who holds strong views and, like her father Prince Philip, is not afraid to express them or to defy convention.
‘She has never been, you might say, a natural in terms of doing what she is told,’ laughs one friend.
Indeed, from an early age Anne was a royal rebel — the original Windsor wild child.
Pictured: Princess Anne in the high grass in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. The late Countess Mountbatten of Burma once said of the Queen’s only daughter that she could be ‘quite naughty —in a perfectly nice way’
The late Countess Mountbatten of Burma once said of the Queen’s only daughter that she could be ‘quite naughty —in a perfectly nice way’.
As a teenager, Anne’s skirts were shorter, her boyfriends racier and her language fruitier than anyone expected of a princess.
By the time she was 20, she’d clocked up her first speeding ticket (she went on to get four more and was banned from driving for a month).
In 2002 she also became the first senior royal to be convicted of a criminal offence when her dog bit two children in a park.
She was also the first of the Queen’s children to get divorced.
Professionally, Anne forged her own path, leaving Benenden School in Kent after A-levels to pursue a career in eventing.
She became European Eventing Champion and BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1971.
She was also the first British royal to compete in the Olympics (Montreal in 1976).
Her charity work began at just 19 when she became president of Save the Children UK.
Staff estimate she’s since shaken the hands of more than 60,000 of its volunteers.
Its former director general, Mike Aaronson, tells me how when she took on the job she said she would only do so if she could be a working president, not a figurehead.
‘Over the last 30 years she has more than lived up to that,’ he said.
‘Her readiness to think laterally and question conventional wisdom shows great courage and intellectual integrity. Maybe because, like her father, she didn’t have a conventional university education, she’s able to think outside the box.’
It is a telling contrast to some of the younger royals, perhaps those self-proclaimed non-conformists the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who stormed out of the Royal Family earlier this year, claiming their free spirits were being constrained by The Firm.
Pictured, Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Princess Anne at the 50th Anniversary of the Investiture of Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace, London, on 5 March 2019
Anne obliquely referred to the Sussex schism in a rare interview with Vanity Fair, suggesting she didn’t feel the younger generation understood what she and other older royals had achieved.
‘Nowadays, they’re much more looking for, “Oh let’s do it a new way”.
And I’m already at the stage, “Please do not reinvent that particular wheel. We’ve been there, done that. Some of these things don’t work. You may need to go back to basics,” ’ she said.
I’m told when asked whether Harry and Meghan might be a little put out by the implicit criticism, the Princess simply said she’d ‘get in touch’ with her nephew if need be.
That’s Anne all over.
Pictured: Princess Anne, Vice-Patron of the equine charity, The British Horse Society, visiting the Addington Equestrian Centre near Buckingham in March this year
In fact she’s something of an outsider when it comes to family affairs.
One source recalled a family hoo-ha during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, when, at the end of four days of celebration, the Queen (without Prince Philip who was in hospital) decided to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry.
The message was clear — here was the stripped-down future of the Royal Family.
The decision caused an internal furore led by a very vocal Prince Andrew spitting feathers about the ‘snub’.
‘Everyone was furious not to be on the balcony, except Princess Anne,’ said one who remembers the ruckus well. ‘Status means nothing to her. And she definitely doesn’t do drama.’
I can confirm that from first-hand experience.
At the Kent, Surrey and Sussex Air Ambulance Trust base near Redhill, Surrey, I watch as a Queen’s Flight helicopter bringing her from Buckingham Palace lands two minutes early (naturally).
Her entourage is minimal: a part-time lady in waiting, the Hon Mrs Madeleine Louloudis, and a lone policeman.
As she steps out of the aircraft, I’m struck by the boxy purple coat that almost swamps her — her outfits are almost always British and well-worn.
(At a subsequent engagement to present the Queen Elizabeth Award for British Design during London Fashion Week, British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful confides in me that he is ‘desperate’ to put her on his front cover. ‘She’s a fashion icon!’ he exclaims. ‘The ultimate royal recycler. She has pioneered sustainable fashion for decades and we could all learn something from her.’)
Ram-rod straight with her surprisingly small feet turned out, she reminds me of a regal Mary Poppins as she motors her way through the waiting line-up, rising up on her heels like a regimental sergeant major as she greets some 30 people in the first half hour.
Inside the control room she is shown a map of the area the air ambulance serves which, she is told, has a population akin to that of Vietnam. ‘But with less people on bicycles,’ she remarks drolly, a hint there of her father, the Duke of Edinburgh.
The Duke of Edinburgh shares a joke with his daughter Princess Anne at the general assembly of the International Equestrian Association at the Waldorf Hotel, London
The Princess litters the ‘meet-and-greet’ with personal anecdotes.
Erroneously thanked for being at the opening of a particular London hospital, she whips back, to roars of laughter: ‘I would have been minus three in 1947.’
Her next job is the headquarters of Biwater International in Dorking, a water treatment firm which has won a Queen’s Award for Export.
Here she tells of visiting refugee camps in South Sudan where they built home-made water purification devices with plastic drums and pebbles. (one friend describes her to me as a ‘total geek ... She’s virtually nerdish about science and engineering, just like her father.)
Mark Bowden was Africa Director of Save The Children between 1984 and 1999 and travelled overseas with the Princess more than a dozen times.
Among the most memorable trips they took was to Somalia in 1989, then under the grip of the dictator President Siad Barre.
Anne was determined to take the ‘nasty old bastard’ to task about the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM), he said.
And when he tried to intimidate her with a bone-crushing handshake, he recalled, she gave him one just as hard back.
When the party headed up to the far north west of Somalia, the FCO tried to put the Princess off going as it had received a ‘tip’ from the CIA that neighbouring Ethiopians would try to take her hostage. Anne would hear nothing of it.
‘We stayed in pretty rudimentary accommodation, no flushing toilet, pit latrines,’ Mr Bowden recalls. ‘The morning after we arrived she got up and cooked breakfast for everyone — scrambled eggs.’
On the way back she was asked by Margaret Thatcher’s government to visit Saudi Arabia, but insisted she would only go if she and the whole team could get a shower —stepping off the plane carrying her towel and toiletries no doubt to the surprise of the official guard of honour.
Anne works hard on the background to every visit she makes.
The Rev Andrew Wright, Secretary General of The Mission to Seafarers, which supports 1.5 million crewmen and of which she is president, says: ‘She does her research and makes people feel she is focused on them and interested in what they have done.’
In this new world of influencers, social media and soundbites, she may not be the youngest or most glamorous of our royals, but she possesses the work ethic and deftness of touch the Queen has in abundance.
Thankfully, this very original royal rebel has no plans to slow down as she approaches her landmark 70th birthday on August 15.
Not that anyone would dare suggest it.