IT seldom appears on the American tourist’s list of British cities to visit, but Nottingham was the venue chosen yesterday for the royal family’s newest member to begin her public life.
Meghan Markle, until recently a TV star in her native US, was swept into a whirlwind of handshakes, smiles and snapshots as she and her husband-to-be, Prince Harry, faced an outpouring of affection from east Midlanders.
Harry was said by Kensington Palace to have chosen the city for their first joint engagement because its people were “close to his heart”.
It was his ninth visit in five years, and he appeared eager to please the thousands of spectators, at one point asking someone: “Can I shake your hand?”.
In scenes that reminded many of the early days of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s married life, a sea of camera phones greeted the couple’s arrival. Their body language said much about their relationship, and they held hands continually and glanced into each other’s eyes.
Ms Markle, well used to the red carpet and the attention of the public, appeared to take the approbation in her stride - even when one well-wisher, Frank Shelton, produced the pet barn owl he had brought to meet her.
With no gloves, Ms Markle’s engagement ring was plain to see, and she carried a handbag - something Kate rarely does.
In a 20-minute walkabout, the future royal, protected against the cold in a long dark blue coat by the designer outerwear brand Mackage, was handed armfuls of flowers, chocolates and assorted other gifts.
But with no private secretary yet, she had to hold the gifts and her handbag on the same arm as she carried on shaking hands. A little while later, one of Harry’s aides took the blooms from her.
“I’m so happy - it’s real good to be here,” Ms Markle told a woman who asked how she felt about being in Nottingham.
At points during the walkabout, Ms Markle put a reassuring hand on Harry’s back. Later, she left his side and walked to the other side of the road to greet hundreds of people crowded behind crash barriers. At one point, she rubbed someone’s wrist, as if to warm them up on the cold day, as she shook their hand.
Harry and Meghan had gone to Nottingham not just for the walkabout - a practice pioneered by Harry’s grandmother, the Queen, in 1970 - but also to learn about Full Effect, a programme helping to help young people affected by youth violence, and to attend a World Aids Day charity fair hosted by the Terrence Higgins Trust.
They chatted with Chantelle Stefanovic, a Full Effect mentor who recently spoke about the issues facing children in the St Ann’s area of Nottingham, at the inaugural summit of the Obama Foundation in Chicago.
Ms Stefanovic was presented with a framed picture of herself, Harry and Barack Obama, by the couple.
They also spoke to Lizzie Jordan, who runs an organisation called think2speak, which goes into schools and raises awareness about HIV and Aids.
Ms Jordan said: “The fact they’ve chosen this occasion to put the spotlight on this subject - I just think ‘Hats off to them’.
“People will listen, that’s the culture that we live in, but the kudos they bring is huge.
“By associating themselves with a highly stigmatised condition - I couldn’t ask for better advocates for our cause.”
A trustee, Laura Waters, then showed Harry and Ms Markle home HIV test kits, and how the organisation was helping people engage with treatment for what is now seen as a long-term managed condition.
Dr Waters, who admitted being “a little star-struck”, added: “We talked about the stigma and importance of educating people, but also I thanked Harry for his amazing work in reducing that stigma and coming here today.”
She said: “They are a lovely couple and I said to them how important that love is.”
Before leaving, Harry said: “It was very nice to see you - good luck with everything.”