It’s not every day we receive a Royal visit in Barnsley. And it’s not every day that the heir to the throne turns 70. That the two things should have collided so serendipitously is news enough.
However, the fact that Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, made the visit to South Yorkshire on the day of his father’s milestone birthday makes it more than a nib (news in brief) in the daily round-up.
And for it to be to a Centrepoint hostel, a charity supported by his late mother. Well, my old news editor used to say that two things were a coincidence and three made a story.
I was expecting all the children to be given the day off school and for the town to be bedecked in Union Jacks. Then again, I’m old enough to remember when HRH The Queen came to visit the town centre in the 1970s, when the world was a very different place. It’s probably best to not talk about the giggly attempt at country dancing my class performed as the monarch made her stately progression along Cheapside. However, the presence of royalty in our humble little town clearly made an impact on my young mind.
It’s one I’ve found difficult to shake off. I’m not the kind of Royalist who camps out in the street, but contrasts and comparisons between our first family and our own families have never lessened their hold on my imagination.
I wanted to go and bear witness to the arrival of Kate and William – and see them in the flesh for the first time – but public details of the visit were scant. Also, try as I might, I couldn’t persuade my 13-year-old daughter, also an ardent Royal watcher, to come with me. Despite my entreaties to invent a brief dentist appointment for this momentous occasion, she refused to sabotage her school attendance record for the sake of checking out Kate’s travelling costume.
I suppose that this says much about modern attitudes to Royalty. The response across Barnsley was generally muted. On social media, it’s mostly been people with names like Irene and Mavis who have showed the most enthusiasm. Their polite voices were drowned out by more hard-nosed commentators lambasting the cost of policing the visit and so on.
All in all, this appointment was treated as a low-key affair. Earlier in the day William and Kate had been in Rotherham to open the new £50m McLaren factory. Then they arrived in Barnsley to visit a hostel which helps homeless young people get back on their feet. The Cambridges helped to prepare lunch and opened a ‘‘learning hub’’. Centrepoint was a charity close to the heart of William’s mother, the late Princess of Wales, and he is now patron. I wonder what he thought of the young people he met here. In fact, I wonder what he thought of Barnsley altogether.
It may have been under the radar, but at least this visit gave the Royals the opportunity to speak directly with ordinary people rather than make small talk with puffed-up dignitaries. I hope that they learned that social problems – homelessness and its close cousins of poverty, addictions and mental health issues – do not just affect those who live in big cities, including London.
I’d like to think that talking to some of the 60 young people who use this centre gave the Royal couple some insight into the problems which so often go unnoticed, such as the instances of teenagers forced out of their family homes by difficult circumstances and left with no option but the street.
In Barnsley, both William and Kate will have encountered a side of the North of England not often portrayed truthfully to the rest of the country. Friendly, upfront and not half as belligerent as some would believe us to be.
I don’t know which route the royal cortege would have taken from Rotherham to Barnsley, although I did think about all the possible B-roads they might have travelled and what they would have seen along the way. Did they think that not so long ago, those forlorn villages they passed were thriving coalfield community hubs? Did they look on the former spoil heaps, replanted with greenery and realise that men once toiled underneath?
My musings were underpinned by a sense of history. I couldn’t help but think of the grandees of Wentworth Woodhouse and Wortley Hall, who just over a century ago had their own train stations to alight from among the smoke and grime of the coal industry and ironworks which formed the bedrock of their wealth. You wouldn’t have found them elbows-deep washing up pots with the homeless.
Those who scoff at the Royals coming to visit Barnsley would do well to remember that only a few short generations ago, such an engagement would never have happened. I hope that this brief visit on a rainy mid-week morning teaches the cynics and the class-warriors that much has changed in this country. And not all of it for the bad.