The rain may have been falling over an immaculate-looking Harcombe House last September, but spirits were far from dampened as final preparations were made across the newly refurbished Devon centre for the arrival of a very special visitor.

Having undergone a major overhaul over the preceding months, the last lick of paint had been applied, the tools and hard hats had made way for fresh flowers and finery, and the entire site looked ready for an exciting future.

A scene of thriving activity therefore met all those who arrived at Harcombe House on the morning of Monday 9 September. While the police swept the building with sniffer dogs and search teams, local dignitaries and representatives from other  emergency service organisations congregated alongside staff, beneficiaries and members of the press in a beautifully decorated marquee in the grounds of the House.

A buzz of excitement filled the air as the clock ticked down to the arrival of His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge at 11.35am. The culmination of months of planning and the result of a long standing working relationship between The Fire
Fighters Charity and The Royal Foundation, the visit had been agreed to recognise the work of the Charity and to mark Emergency Services Day.

Having a close personal affinity with the emergency services from his time as a Search and Rescue pilot, and having worked hard to promote positive mental health across society as a whole, a visit to Harcombe House was welcomed by  The Duke. His Royal Highness expressed an interest in finding out how we support the UK’s fire services community with its mental, physical and social wellbeing and was keen to use the opportunity to embrace a broad conversation across the whole emergency services community in regards to supporting all those who work in the blue light sector.

The visit was therefore agreed and plans were put in place to showcase the work of the Charity and the redevelopment of Harcombe House, as well as to host a special reception for members of other emergency services and related organisations. The Duke would, in one morning, see for himself how we support our beneficiaries, how a £1.8m investment in Harcombe House will enhance our mental health provision into the future and meet representatives from other blue light organisations.

Crucially, however, the visit would also give The Duke the opportunity to meet individuals, couples and families who we have supported and worked with across the Charity over recent months. All had generously given up their time to join us for the day, many travelling hundreds of miles and rearranging plans in order to be a part of the occasion.

So at 11.35am, as the heavens opened over Chudleigh in Devon, His Royal Highness pulled up outside the main entrance to Harcombe House, quickly ducking out of the rain and into the reception area. Greeted by local civic dignitaries, Chair of The Fire Fighters Charity Andrew Lynch and Chief Executive Dr Jill Tolfrey, an unexpected interruption came in the form of four-year-old beneficiary Isla Shaw who burst through a door into Reception, directly in front of The Duke.

“She’d been really good and patient, and we were waiting for the royal party to arrive,” explained Isla’s mum, Shona. “She managed to pick the exact moment to run down the corridor as Prince William got there and was shaking hands with all the head people in the Charity. As I ran round the corner after her, there she was, introducing herself to Prince William. I’m feeling mortified and she’s having a whale of a time! So she got the first introduction to him, and shook his hand, and he was absolutely amazing with her.”

From Reception, His Royal Highness made his way up the stairs to the newly created art therapy room on the first floor. Preceded by a gaggle of press who took their positions in one corner, The Duke made his way into the room, warmly greeting everyone and taking a seat next to retired firefighter Richard Baldwin and art therapist Daisy Rubenstein. Richard’s wife, Sue, and the Bills family – Dan, Kelly and children Joshua, Mia and Isla – were also seated around a table festooned with an array of paints, plasticine, pencils and sketch pads.

Daisy outlined the principles behind art  therapy and how it is used to support the mental health and wellbeing of beneficiaries, and His Royal Highness took time to talk to everyone as they got creative around the table.

“I talked to him about the service, the job and our home lives,” said Richard, who wears prosthetics after losing both his legs due to common variable immune deficiency and leukaemia. “You can tell he’s a man with a family. I think he was first  class. I told him a quick summary of my story and he asked to have a look, so I showed him my legs! Being able to speak with him and share my story meant so much. First, I came here and learned to talk to strangers. And now here I am  talking to the future king of England. I still can’t get over it. Quite genuinely, he was an absolute gentleman.”

Firefighter Dan Bills, meanwhile, reflected on the encounter, saying; “He asked Mia what she was making, and when she said a unicorn horn he said that his daughter, Charlotte, also loved unicorns, which Mia was really pleased about. (This revelation even causes something of an international stir, with the world’s press jumping on this little piece of information about Princess Charlotte’s love of unicorns!)

“He talked to Josh about Wimbledon, and said he remembered it because he was there! It was just brilliant, an amazing experience, and it was just so lovely seeing him talk to our kids.”

From the art therapy room, Jill and Andrew escorted The Duke into a room where a psych-education workshop on the cycle of change was taking place. Typical of the kind of group sessions commonly held at each of our centres, Jill took the opportunity to explain to The Duke further about the holistic approach to support used across the Charity, and how the one-to-one sessions are complemented by group activities and workshops.

The next stop on His Royal Highness’s tour of Harcombe House saw him meet a group of beneficiaries to find out more about their specific stories and how The Fire Fighters Charity supported them. Taking a vacant seat in the circle of  beneficiaries, The Duke chatted to firefighter Mike Dowden and his family, retained firefighter Dave Shaw and his family – including the prematurely introduced Isla, who he greeted with a familiar smile – firefighter’s partner Angela Bell and firefighter Mark Richards, who spoke so openly about his own mental health battles during our 2018 Christmas fundraising campaign with The Telegraph.

Speaking after his chat with The Duke, Mike commented: “I spoke to him about how many times I’ve engaged with the programme, the different experiences I’ve had and the effect it’s had on the family. He was really nice, so relaxed and down to earth. And that’s the great thing about him, you feel comfortable talking to him, he’s very personable. We know his background too of course, we know how passionate he is about mental health, so you feel really comfortable in opening up to him and talking to him. It was just a really good experience.”

Leaving the group, His Royal Highness made his way to the gym where a number of beneficiaries were using the equipment, participating in a Tai Chi class and, in the case of John Couzins, strapped into an anti-gravity treadmill. The 66-year-old retired firefighter had been using the state-of-the-art equipment to support his recovery from knee surgery and, greeting The Duke with a handshake he endeavoured to explain how the machine – which simulates reduced gravity by lifting an individual’s weight off of their lower body – has helped him. Clearly fascinated, his Royal Highness was offered the chance to try for himself by our exercise therapist Abbie Morris, but he reluctantly declined.

Speaking after climbing out of the treadmill, John said: “When I first came to Harcombe House, I was walking around using sticks, and it was my time on the anti-gravity treadmill that helped me get off them. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would one day be back on that treadmill, having a chit chat with Prince William! It was really good to talk to him, I told him about my condition, how I used to struggle to walk. He said he was familiar with the machines as he’d seen  them used in the forces, and we had a little bit of banter together. I felt so pleased to be able to take part in the event. When I was asked if I’d like to be involved I thought it would be nice to be able to do my bit to help raise awareness and funds for the Charity. But then chatting with him and being interviewed by the press afterwards, and having people phone me up saying they’d seen me on the news, I felt very proud to have been asked.”

Elsewhere on his walk around the building, The Duke was met by six-year-old Harry Plaskett, who offered him a hand drawn picture.

Harry’s dad, Cheshire firefighter Stuart, explained: “When Prince William walked past, Harry stopped him because he’d drawn him a picture last night, a portrait, which said ‘To Prince William, love from Harry Plaskett’. He stopped and spoke to Harry, commented on the drawing and took it with him, which was amazing. Seeing my family talk to the future King has been awesome. Beforehand, they were so excited, Oliver, 10, was running around and being all giddy. Then when he turned up, Oliver was just in awe. They all were, they just stopped, all a bit star struck. It was  lovely, just to see him chat away, and see how good William was with them. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”

A local Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service crew from Bovey Tracey Fire Station, meanwhile, carried out drills and functional training in the courtyard, demonstrating how this kind of practical physical activity is used to support  firefighters in regards to their fitness to return to duty.

As the rain had scuppered plans to host a reception for colleagues from other emergency services and blue light organisations in a specially constructed marquee within the gardens of  Harcombe House, a warmer and drier room was instead found within the building. The cosy reception saw representatives from Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Service, Surfwell, Devon Air Ambulance, South West Ambulance Trust, RNLI,Dartmoor Search and Rescue, Police Care UK, The Ambulance Staff Charity and crisis volunteer representatives from the Shout crisis text line, which is supported by The Royal Foundation and for which a blue-light specific service was officially launched on the same day.

Shout Volunteers with HRH Duke of Cambridge

From the reception His Royal Highness stopped to sign the Harcombe House Visitors’ Book before grabbing a brolly to keep dry as he made his way to the marquee, where staff, beneficiaries and all those had been earlier involved in showcasing the work that we do, gathered to greet him.

After a few words of welcome from Chair, Andrew Lynch, and with a wellpracticed pull of the curtain string, The Duke unveiled a plaque commemorating his visit in recognition of the work of The Fire Fighters Charity.

Speaking after the unveiling, Andrew turned to The Duke, saying; “On behalf of everyone at The Fire Fighters Charity, I would like to thank you, sir, for your time today and for unveiling this commemorative plaque for us, which will take pride of place in our main reception area.

“I hope that – through meeting some of our incredible beneficiaries – you have been able to see the impact of our work for yourself. Indeed, I am sure you will agree, that the people you have met today are living proof of the need for us all to  continue to invest in, and work together in, supporting the mental, physical and social wellbeing of those who work to keep the rest of us safe.”

Further applause followed and, after kindly posing for a group photo with everyone present, His Royal Highness waved goodbye to the assembled masses and made his way to the awaiting convoy, which – after a final handshake with Jill and Andrew – whisked him off to his next appointment.

The assembled press stayed to speak to beneficiaries and gather the interviews they needed, with the resulting coverage reaching millions of people across the world within a matter of hours.

It had been a day to remember for everyone.

In the days that followed the visit, Chief Executive, Dr Jill Tolfrey, summed it up perfectly: “I was honoured to introduce His Royal Highness to some of the people we have supported and to showcase the work that we do. We share common  objectives with The Royal Foundation and I know that The Duke is as keen as we are to raise awareness of the need to support the mental and physical wellbeing of the fire services community.

“We had some lovely feedback from Kensington Palace the day after the visit too, they told us that The Duke hugely enjoyed his visit and was really impressed with the obvious impact that The Fire Fighters Charity and Harcombe House has clearly had on so many lives. They also told us that he enjoyed the ‘warm, easy and heartfelt’ conversations he had throughout his visit. So, on behalf of everyone at the Charity, I would like to thank all those beneficiaries who so generously gave their time to join us for the day.

“Of course, The Duke visited us at Harcombe House, but this visit was to recognise the incredible work of everyone throughout the Charity – and all those people we support on a daily basis – across the whole of the UK. We are a  family and, had we not worked so hard over the years and decades to impact the lives of so many people, we wouldn’t have been recognised in the way we have been this September.”

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Shout! Magazine, which you can read here.