Sep 08, 2022
7 mins read
I did a funny thing today. I saw that the Queen was not at all well and that her family were flying up to Scotland. It felt like this might be serious. And so I sat down and wrote her a letter. I’ve wanted to send her a thank you letter for a while, but was too shy to do it. (I have a weird thing about writing to people I do not know.) I wanted to thank her for her years of steadfastness and devotion and stoicism. I wanted to tell her how much I have adored seeing her love of horses, over the decades. I wrote about how everyone in the racing world lights up when they speak her name.
She is held in awe in racing circles, because she knows the Stud Book inside out and upside down. I remember, years ago, someone saying to me, ‘If you are put next to the Queen at lunch and you want to talk about horses, you have to make sure you know your stuff. She’ll run rings around you.’ (I rather love the idea that, at some point in my life, I met people who might get put next to the Queen at lunch.) She has developed extraordinary thoroughbred families, keeping the bloodlines going from horses she inherited from her father. By all accounts, she knows every last thing about every one of her broodmares and her youngstock, and has been known to set trainers and stud managers right, very politely but firmly, if they get their facts wrong.
I love that she is countrywoman and I love that she has her heart in the highlands, just as I do. She’s a deep part of this community. Balmoral is just up the valley, and my friend George in the shop delivers her Racing Post first thing every morning when she is here. The locals are touchingly protective of her, and curious freelance journalists have long ago given up hanging around the place, looking for snippets of gossip, because everyone closes ranks. It’s a source of pride that this is her private place, where she gets to go out in the hills and the heather every year, and come as close as she ever can to being an ordinary person.
Anyway, I sat down and wrote my letter and got into the car with the dogs and drove down the valley to deliver it by hand.
It was a strange, melancholy drive. The weather has come in and low, dove-coloured clouds were tracing their way along the hillsides. The woods and forests were dressed in their olive drab and the roads were slick with surface water.
I decided to take the small, winding route to the south of the mighty River Dee. I don’t often drive along there, and I had forgotten the astounding beauty. It’s a true northern landscape, with strong, singing colours, which shine through the dreich. At first, it has a close, narrow aspect, with elegant stands of silver birches guarding each side of the road. But then, suddenly, the ancient, glacial valley opens up, and there are rich green pastures filled with sheep and the majestic Aberdeen Angus cattle and the dear old Highland coos, as red as autumn leaves.
You get sudden glimpses of the distant hills and then you are deep in a Caledonian pine forest, the tree trunks traced with iridescent aquamarine lichen, and then, another turn, and a neat farm spreads out before you, all the hay gathered in ready for winter, the charming steadings in their sturdy, characteristic granite standing as they would have done a hundred years ago.
I did feel sad. I love the Queen. She’s been here all my life and she feels like the great mother of the nation and when she does go, it will be like a great oak has fallen. That’s why I wanted to write my letter.
I had visions that the people at the gate would be delighted and that we might have a teary moment together and that I would drive away feeling somehow connected to that mournful household. But the copper at the gate was not one of the old, merry, Dixon of Dock Green types; he was a hard-eyed, suspicious operative, fully kitted out, as if he was going into a war zone, stroking his huge automatic gun as if he would like to turn it on me. He had no intention of taking an envelope from a slightly harassed-looking middle-aged woman in muddy gumboots.
I saw the lady from our local flower shop in her delivery van, waiting patiently to deliver some flowers, and looking very sorrowful, and we exchanged smiles and nods of recognition. On the other side of the road, penned in behind crash barriers, a huddle of miserable-looking press was gathered. They were all wearing dark clothes and talking seriously into telephones and scribbling in notebooks. The cameramen, with only closed gates to film, looked fed up. A small group of befuddled tourists stood beside them, smiling in incomprehension.
In the end, I gave my letter to the kind man in the Balmoral shop, who promised he would try to ‘get it through security’. I thanked him gratefully, with my hand on my heart. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘It must be a difficult time for you all.’ He was a capable, matter-of-fact fellow, but there was a glinting tear in his eye.
I stopped in the woods on the way back and let the dogs have a run. The heather was a singing mauve and the undergrowth was twenty different shades of green and the Scots pines stood tall and eternal. I felt the mossy earth under my feet and felt a passionate gratitude for the consoling power of nature.
As I drove home, I thought of what I might say if I were a very, very old lady, lying on my deathbed. I’d like all my adored ones to come and sit on the bed with me and I’d ask them what their best thing about life was. I’d want them to talk to me, because I would have talked enough. I’d like to go with their dear voices living in my head.
I thought: what is the best thing about life? And the answer is so simple and so obvious. It is love.
It is all the loves. It is, I thought, as the rain came down so hard that I could hardly see the road ahead, this Scotland, this place, this soaring landscape. It is the grand mares and the funny, antic dogs. It is poetry and prose, the marvellous stories, the profound truths. It’s Shakespeare and Jane Austen. It is the old friends, who make me laugh and laugh until I can laugh no more. It’s the sweet relations. It’s music and dancing and learning. It is writing.
All the loves. They are what count, in the end. They are the best things in life. It is love that keeps us humans going, through times of fear and grief and muddle.
On the last leg, as I was coming into my own valley, a softer, kinder landscape than the wild places near Balmoral, and feeling grateful for all the loves I was listing in my head, I saw the lone figure of a postman, just off his shift, walking home in his uniform. He had his head bowed, as he made his way through the rain. He was such a solitary apparition, tiny against the high hills behind him. He felt to me symbolic of something, I’m not sure what. I wanted to write him down, anyway.
As I was finishing this, a friend rang up. We were talking about the Queen, feeling the sadness of it all. My friend had the television on in the background. I could hear solemn voices and something about an announcement. ‘Oh, no,’ said my friend. ‘She has died.’
The oak tree has, indeed, fallen.
I thought: should I go back and rewrite this? But no, I’m going to leave it. That last, sad drive stays. The woods and the hills and the rain-streaked valley are still there. It was a funny thing to do, to get in that car and take the letter which was, in the end, too late. But I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I wrote it all down and there will be that memory always, to go with all the others, of a long, devoted reign.