Christmas with Princess Anne

Chocolate brownies, plenty of (strong) cheese and her beloved dogs, of course...
The Princess Royal, Princess Anne is never happier than when spending time at home. You are most likely to find her sitting at her long kitchen table munching on a piece of strong cheese (the smellier the better) or curled up on a sofa in her conservatory reading a book. The much misunderstood princess loves being at home and is a far cry from the formal and often frosty princess who appears in public.

Her staff, which are not much more than a dozen, work happily alongside her. Gatcombe Park is less formal and less ‘royal’ than the other residences of members of the Royal Family. Each member of staff has a title or a role to perform, but usually they all muck in together and work as a team.

The cook obviously runs the kitchen, but is often viewed helping with some other domestic duty. The royal dresser, responsible for the princess’s wardrobe, will walk the dogs, or go shopping, or make cups of coffee when required. Her Royal Highness is a perfectionist when it comes to matters of detail and the famous temper can appear if something simple or straightforward goes wrong. Woe betide her dresser if the favourite hairspray is not readily available.

Most of the time, Princess Anne is in very good humour and most of her staff describe her as kind and thoughtful. When getting ready for an official engagement, the princess will chat easily about world matters (she is particularly well-read and worldly), but she will always find time to enquire as to the welfare of her staff and their families, often offering a word of wisdom or comfort when the opportunity allows.

Not many people realise that the princess cares about the elderly and the plight they often find themselves in. Family life is close to her heart.

The house is run in a very relaxed country-house style, with the dogs and horses taking priority. The housekeeper takes the responsibility of running the household and is given the utmost trust to feed the dogs whenever the princess is away.

The kitchen is unconventional. It has the distinct aura of Downton Abbey meets country farmhouse with the added dimension of royal dogs. For Princess Anne, dogs rule and the kitchen is their domain. It is a large but simple room that would not look out of place in a period drama. There are no shiny surfaces or modern machines. Her tiny frame is testament to the fact that she is not a big eater, but the large walk-in fridge is her favourite place. The cook will leave snacks for the princess to graze on. Strong cheeses, pâté and cooked hams hanging from the cold interior walls of the refrigerated room are in endless supply. Pheasants, of course, will hang when in season.

The princess, in tradition with all of her family, is frugal. She deplores waste and staff know that everything can have a use. Nothing must be wasted or discarded unless it has no purpose or use at all.

Endless cups of coffee and regular snacks keep the princess happy. Food must be simple and non-fussy, but there is a passion for trying dishes from other cultures and sometimes the cook will be asked to prepare a recipe that the princess has come across in a magazine. A good curry would tempt her on her days off. When working or attending formal occasions, the princess will stick to light food.

As Christmas approaches, the house comes into its own as the staff prepare for the season. The kitchen takes on a real Victorian feel where the cook prepares game terrines, jams, chutneys and all sorts of wonderful edible delights that are stored on the large wooden dresser. The Gatcombe estate is mainly self-sufficient and all of the kitchen produce is sourced from there. The princess enjoys collecting eggs herself for breakfast.

At Christmas or when the Gatcombe trials are on, the staff all join in and whatever their rank or title they will be expected to make jar covers out of scraps of fabric. They will gather round the large kitchen table, sitting on wobbly chairs, preparing the jars and packaging for the delightful edible treats that will be sold or given as gifts. The chocolate brownies are legendary and are a particular treat for the princess. Christmas presents for friends and family will often include food gifts supplied from and prepared by the Gatcombe estate.

The cellar holds vast memorabilia and is a treasure trove of wonderful things. In December all of the household staff join in with the festive spirit and delve into the basement for decorations. An old cracker, the odd bauble, a piece of ribbon all hold special memories and are reused every year.

The princess enjoys decorating the Christmas tree herself. It is usually very tall and stands in the hallway. The same large baubles will be used year after year, and when the job is done she will admire her work, joining the staff in the kitchen for a cup of tea and a Harrods biscuit (often past their sell-by date on the tin).

The company of youngsters is much enjoyed in the household and Anne has a great knack for entertaining little children. Her softness shines through. Having fond memories of her aunt, the late Princess Margaret, who also enjoyed making children laugh, has inspired Anne to make childhood fun.

Just before Christmas, the princess will hold a staff party. It takes place in the large hall, where everyone gathers around the tree. It is a relaxed and informal occasion, with Anne playing the hostess and handing out the platters of food herself.

The real Princess Anne is warm, kind and amusing. She just wants everyone to be happy.