Standing in the crowds of the Exhibits Hall at the Royal Easter Show were Annette O’Donnell, 82, and Lisa O’Donnell, 58, patiently hoping they might catch a glimpse of Princess Anne and terribly excited. The mother and daughter had seen the royal at the show back in 1970, Lisa then just six years old, and Princess Anne 19.
It was The Princess Royal’s first visit to Australia and sparked a passion for the Easter Show that has never left her. For Annette and Lisa from Moss Vale in NSW’s southern highlands, it sparked of a deep admiration for the Queen’s daughter. “She is just lovely” Annette tells me. “I think Australians really like her, she’s so down to earth.”
Princess Anne and her husband Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence had touched down in Sydney shortly after 5am and just a few hours later had freshened up for official audiences first with their hosts the NSW Governor Her Excellency the Hon Margaret Beazley and her husband Dennis Wilson at Government House; and then across the harbour with the Governor-General His Excellency the Hon David John Hurley and his wife Linda at Admiralty House. From there the couple headed out for a full day and evening at the Royal Easter Show. They literally hit the ground running and frankly it was hard to keep up!
This was a working trip, no big entourage, no media rota, no fuss and I was the only journalist embedded with the tour. The frenetic three-day visit, the first to Australia from a member of the royal family in close to three years, was to be all about the Princess meeting Australians face-to-face and this first day was all about the Easter Show.
The Princess Royal is the patron of Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth, a role her father the late Duke of Edinburgh passed on to her and one she feels a huge affinity with. She was here in Sydney at the organisation’s invitation to celebrate its bicentenary at their biggest Aussie show.
The day at the Show also coincided with the first anniversary of the Duke of Edinburgh’s death and many suggested her choice of a mint green coat and hat edged in teal piping, was a nod to her father’s livery colour, also used over the years for his staff uniforms and cars. When I enquired, an aide told me “it might be” with a wry smile. If so it was a lovely gentle touch in keeping with the royal’s low-key style.
Away from the royal beat, farming is the other half of Princess Anne’s life on her Gatcombe Park Estate in the English county of Gloucestershire, and she is never happier than when she’s pulling on her wellies to check on her rare breed cows and free-range pigs or – of course – out riding on her horses which she does every day. So, it was no surprise that her visit to the show was going to be all about livestock and paddock to plate experiences.
WATCH: Prince Charles sneaks up on Princess Anne at a royal function. Story continues after video.
This is a world the Princess feels very comfortable in and it showed. She insisted on visiting the show on foot rather than being chauffeured in a golf buggy and wasn’t at all concerned about striding through the crowds. When people cried out “Hello Princess Anne, over here!”, she smiled and occasionally waved; and when one rather persistent fan followed with her phone saying ‘can I take a photo?’ while already snapping several, The Princess Royal quipped, “you can if you can do it while I’m walking!”.
Many had come on this day instead of the usually more popular Easter weekend to try and see Princess Anne and they weren’t disappointed. She was everywhere.
First up were the super cute Liam Capes, age eight, and his sister Emalee, six, who guided Her Royal Highness and Sir Tim around the Little Hands on the Land working farm in The Paddock educational exhibit. Then it was a ramble through the exhibits and yes Annette and Lisa O’Donnell got their wish when the Princess walked right past them. They couldn’t believe it!
She met former Weekly food director Lyndey Milan to talk about local produce. “She really understands the importance of where food comes from and supporting local farmers,” Lyndey told me.
The centre piece of the Show was driving into the glittering opening ceremony surrounded by considerable military pomp in the historic 150-year-old calèche – the same horse drawn carriage she travelled in on her first visit to Australia and the Easter show in 1970 with her parents and brother Prince Charles.
As the rain that had threatened all day started to come down, the Princess didn’t waver and in her first speech of the tour was cheered as she talked about recent challenges– “the devastation of floods, following the impacts of the global pandemic and the harshness of the most recent drought, and bushfires.”
“Agricultural shows provide the opportunity for city children to learn about country life,” she continued. “The show brings country and city together and celebrates rural traditions and proudly showcases the Australian way of life a way of life supported by the RAS for 200 years.”
Later at a private dinner overlooking the showground stadium the Princess announced a heartfelt, “being here again is a real pleasure” and praised the local agricultural industry, noting “of course we come here to buy shorthorns” referring to the shorthorn cattle she and Sir Tim farm at Gatcombe. “She is so authentic” one diner told me. “We feel really proud to have her here.”
The next day the royal couple had planned to go to Buxton and meet rural fire service volunteers and especially talk to the bereaved families of two of their fire fighters Andrew O’Dwyer and Geoffrey Keaton who died in the Green Wattle Creek blaze in 2019. There she would have seen the Fire Truck Memorial Playground erected in honour of the two men but flooding prevented the visit.
So instead the families came to the RFS HQ in Sydney’s Homebush. Even with the frantic rescheduling this was a meeting the Princess was determined to have. She had followed the fires closely from the UK and wanted to pay her respects to the families personally. Andrew O’Dwyer’s father Errol was clutching his framed photo of his son as he talked to Her Royal Highness. Andrew and Geoffrey were in the firetruck together when it rolled after being hit by a tree killing them both. Errol told me afterwards he and his wife were struggling with the loss and it was touching that the Princess wanted to remember Andrew. “It keeps him here,” he said.
From there the couple visited the Sea Heritage Foundation to go on board the MV Cape Don, a former lighthouse tender vessel where Prince’s Trust Australia – Prince Charles’ charity – is partnering with an initiative to train First Nations’ youth in the maritime industry. After a poignant First Nations welcome to country smoking ceremony in which the Princess was presented with gifts that she was told would keep her safe on her journey back to the UK, the couple boarded the ship which is currently being restored with the help of volunteers. The Princess and Sir Tim were clearly in seventh heaven as they clambered around – for Sir Tim, a former naval officer, this was fascinating!
Later at Government House on a beautifully sunny Sydney afternoon the Princess hosted a spectacular garden party for the Australian arms of her charities and military patronages and spent a couple of hours meeting and chatting, one table at a time. “Having the Princess as our patron is special to us,” Private Terry Meissner from the Royal Australian Corps of Transport told me. “Meeting her solidifies and validates what we do, this is a special day.”
Following a short speech at the close of the garden party the Princess was cheered with a spontaneous “Hip hip hooray!” The final stop of the night was a private invitation only dinner hosted by the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron with the couple arriving on the Royal Barge.
Today the royal couple sadly bid farewell to NSW at Holsworthy Barracks where HRH inspected the troops of the two Royal Australian Corps she is patron of before flying out to Papua New Guinea. It was a whirlwind trip but a treasured one for many, which garnered a huge fan club here in Australia for The Princess Royal.