The Duke and I
My dad called me from Nigeria the other night to reminisce about the time I met Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. I was invited to receive my Gold Duke of Edinburgh's Award a while back, so my Aunt Cecelia and I put on our best hats, and went to St James’s Palace to meet the Prince.
I had started the rigorous programme of things you needed to complete the Gold DofE when I was rounding up secondary school, and didn’t finish until I was at University. Many parts of the tasking criteria for completion have faded in my mind, but I remember keenly some of the major elements:
We had to do a certain number of hours of sport - so I learned to play Squash with my pal Amy.
We had to do community service - so I volunteered at a Care Home where I was assigned to one of the long term, silent and paraplegic residents. I started off our time by reading the gentle James Herriot books she had on her shelf, but by the end of the year I was bringing in steamier Mills and Boons type romance novels which I could tell she was enjoying by her embarrassed and delighted smiles every time I came over. She also instructed me to paint her wide, ridged nails a soft baby pink each month.
And the part of the DofE Award people talk about the most is often the expedition - in our case, we spent several days and nights using just our compasses and maps to the navigate our way through the rougher terrain of Cévennes in South Central France. Our little groups of four were given a destination we had to reach by nightfall, and we would do so laden with our heavy back packs that contained all our food, water, bedding and tents for the entire trip. It was tough, but more mentally tasking than physically for me, and I remember the great feeling of accomplishment sleeping under the stars on the last night before we went home.
But my most profound experience came with the residency criteria, where we had to volunteer in a residential type setting for a few days. During my first summer break from University I went off to work as a type of camp counsellor for CCHF - an organisation that took city kids, at times from troubled backgrounds, and introduced them to some tranquil countryside life for a few days so they could experience a completely different environment. I was assigned four of the sweetest boys aged 6 to 10, and my ‘Men in Black’ and I spent a glorious week with our other amazing group of volunteers and kids, traipsing through hedges and adventure parks. I have never laughed so much and slept so little in my life, and I will always be grateful for the madness, and the pure unbridled joy of that time.
In the decades since, I have volunteered with various underserved communities, camped in the Simian Mountains of Ethiopia, travelled solo through Japan, Egypt, New Zealand and so many other countries, completed National Service in Nigeria, and even picked up sticks to live on various continents on my own. Along with countless other experiences that I may not have found the courage to undertake if I hadn’t gotten a taste for these things when I was so young.
As for my encounter with the Duke himself, it was brief and unremarkable: he asked if any of us had done our expeditions abroad, I joked that we’d done ours in neighbouring France, which was almost abroad. He looked at me in confused dismay and asserted that it was in fact very much abroad. I chuckled uncomfortably, as he moved on to the next group of award recipients.