The announcement by Prince Philip of his retirement from public life, brought back memories of his visit to Sri Lanka and Wilpattu when he was President of the World Wild Life Fund. It was a great honour when the late President Jayewardene, our President at the time, asked my late husband, who was the Deputy Minister of Tourism and Wild Life at the time and me, to accompany and host His Royal Highness at Wilpattu on behalf of his government.
I went ahead to get the house at Wilpattu ready for the Royal visit, and was at the front door to welcome His Royal Highness, when he arrived at Wilpattu with my husband. I walked up to him and asked him what he would like to drink, he stated his choice of tipple and I walked into the kitchen to get some ice for his drink. To my surprise I found that he was just behind me and insisted on getting the ice himself, stating that it was indeed a pleasant surprise to get ice in the jungle. Contrary to reports in the media about his rudeness, I found him most courteous at all times.
It was just Prince Philip, his valet, the Scotland Yard detective and my husband and I in one bungalow, while the rest of his group were housed in another bungalow. But his group, plus the then Director of Wild Life, Dr. Lyn de Alwis, had their meals with us, at our bungalow. He was a most interesting, knowledgeable conversationalist, well informed and had done his home work well. He knew that I was an Anglican, niece of the late Bishop Lakdasa de Mel who had preached for the Royal family at Windsor and that I was married to a Buddhist. After dinner on our first evening, before he retired for the night, I asked him what time he would like his cup of coffee, in the morning. But, we heard him waking up much earlier, so I dressed quickly, and ran down the stairs to get his cup of coffee. To my horror, I found that the staff of the Lanka Oberoi who were doing the catering had locked up the kitchen and retired to the bungalow, allotted to them. The ASP on duty and I managed to open the door, and I got his coffee ready, in the nick of time, just as he arrived downstairs. I had told the Prince about a Mr. Spendlove at the British High Commission who kept calling me before the visit, insisting that a special bed be sent for the Prince by them to Wilpattu. After that, each time the phone specially installed for his visit rang, he would tease me and say ‘that must be Spendlove for you on the phone’. On our drives through the jungle, he often took the wheel of the jeep and would always turn round to me, I sat at the back, my husband sat beside him in front to inquire whether he was driving too fast and whether I was comfortable. He knew the name of every bird we saw, and kept strictly to the rules set for visitors. The only times he got annoyed, was when he felt there was too much security and asked my husband whether their presence was necessary.
"He knew the name of every bird we saw, and kept strictly to the rules set for visitors. The only times he got annoyed, was when he felt there was too much security and asked my husband whether their presence was necessary"
One morning, while we were having breakfast, I noticed some photographers a fair distance away, focusing their cameras on us, as we ate on the verandah. I had read that the royal family didn’t like being photographed, while eating and mentioned this to my husband in Sinhala.HRH was quick to pick up the vibes, asked me what I said and remarked, ‘Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter they are too far away.’ He was familiar with Sri Lanka, having been here during the war, and mentioned that he would like the rest of his party to see Anuradhapura and asked me if it was possible to do so. We promptly adhered to his request and made arrangements with President’s House at Anuradhapura, to have a meal ready for us. He drove there too with my husband and me as passengers, drove to all the historic sites, explaining them all to his staff who followed in another vehicle. He insisted on piloting the plane which belonged to Her Majesty, when we returned to Colombo. An amusing incident during the flight was when he suddenly walked into the cabin where I sat, having given the piloting over to the co-pilot. I stood up so fast that I banged my head. He told me that he took such care when he piloted the plane as I was on it and now I had hurt my head! This remark made my day!
Later on, at the farewell banquet hosted in his honour, by President Jayewardene, he made special mention of me to the President, and said he had been looked after well and that all arrangements made for his food and comfort couldn’t have been better. I recall going to the airport the next morning to see him off with my husband and there again, he said, ‘I didn’t expect you to come so early in the morning’. He was a real Prince Charming, an officer and a gentleman, and his visit to Wilpattu remains among my most treasured memories. He gave us a book written by him as a memento of his visit, asked us to contact him when we came to London, which we never did and wrote me a letter of sympathy when my husband died. I always enjoyed keeping up with his busy life, by reading about him in UK newspapers and magazines as he is a special kind of person.
But he deserves a rest and the opportunity to spend more quality time with his children and grandchildren.
I wish him a happy and contented retirement from public life.