Princess Anne at 73: ‘Her five grandchildren will distract her from her grief’

The poignant image of Anne, Princess Royal last September escorting her mother’s casket during her solemn final journey from Balmoral to Windsor is one that remains etched on the minds of so many of us.

Now, as she celebrates her 73rd birthday, she faces more heartache as the one year anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s death approaches.

Anne was at the Queen’s bedside when she passed away on September 8 and later said in a statement that she felt “fortunate to share the last 24 hours of my dearest mother’s life”.

But while her husband Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence will be there to offer his support in these difficult weeks, former BBC royal correspondent Jennie Bond notes that five other individuals will offer immense comfort and distraction: her grandchildren – Savannah, 12, Isla, 11, Mia, nine, Lena, five, and Lucas, two.

“Kids take you out of your world, into a space full of laughter… or tantrums… toys and playtime. Whatever they’re up to, it’s all-consuming, leaving no time to think about how sad you are really feeling,” says Jennie.

“They also throw your focus onto the future, instead of dwelling on the past, and I imagine Princess Anne will be taking every chance to be with her grandchildren – as much as she can with her extremely busy work schedule.”

Indeed, as one of the hardest working royals, Princess Anne still regularly carries out more than 500 engagements each year with little fuss or fanfare and Jennie says that her work will also be “a very useful distraction from grief”.

Anne’s children Peter Phillips and Zara Tindall reside on Princess Anne’s 730-acre Gatcombe Park estate in Gloucestershire, which Jennie says is the ultimate symbol of their close-knit family ties.

“The fact that they all live on the Gatcombe estate speaks volumes about how well they all get on. I’m sure Anne is a very important part of that set up.”

When she’s in full-granny mode at home, the Princess is said to provide the perfect balance of structure, fun and affection as “she encourages her grandchildren to push boundaries”, a source notes.

From giving them the courage to jump into a swimming pool or picking especially tricky hiding places, “she also makes them hearty, organic, home-cooked meals – and doesn’t hesitate to reward the little one who clears their plate the best.”

With free time on the estate punctuated by never-ending adventures, there’s the opportunity for quiet moments too and she loves nothing more than telling stories to her grandchildren, including Zara’s favourite book from her childhood, The Velveteen Rabbit.

It’s a very different image of the sharp-witted, no-nonsense princess we’ve observed over the years. So has becoming a grandma softened this stoic royal?

Body language expert Judi James thinks so, from studying images of Anne during informal occasions, laughing, playing, pulling funny faces and cracking jokes with the youngest members of her family.

“Princess Anne is admired for her work ethic and upholding the royals’ ‘never explain, never complain’ mantra. So her relaxed behaviour with her grandchildren has been a happy revelation,” she exclusively tells OK!

The normal way in which her grandchildren are raised is a direct effect of how Anne brought up her own children, Judi claims.

“Although she’s stuck with resin-like determination to royal protocols, Anne clearly followed a formula to allow Peter and Zara, and in turn their children, to be free to pursue a life they chose for themselves.”

Thanks to Anne, her first husband Captain Mark Phillips and Zara’s own success, a passion for horses binds the family together. Savannah, Isla, Mia, Lena and little Lucas are regularly spotted attending horse trials and other eventing competitions and Peter Phillips has confessed his daughters have definitely caught “the horse gene”.

But not all of her pastimes find favour with the gregarious little ones. In a tribute programme for her landmark 70th birthday, Anne joked about her grandkids’ less-than-impressed reaction when she invited them to press and identify flowers with her. “I’ve offered to try and do some outdoor learning but so far it hasn’t been taken up on,” Anne said.

Explaining that, as a child, she would pick plants and then identify them, Anne admitted that she’s aware it’s not a popular activity with today’s young generation.

“I thought it might be a good idea if we started doing that again,” she explained, adding with a wry smile, “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them at that suggestion!”

The same TV special saw both Peter and Zara provide a glimpse into Anne’s life as a devoted granny.

“She loves seeing them ride, she loves having them around for Sunday lunches, doing all the sorts of stuff we used to do as kids. She now takes them to do those sorts of things,” Peter said. Zara then joked, “We quite like leaving them on Sundays. We’ll say ‘We’ll pick them up later, bye’.”

This sense of normality has been executed with ease, Judi notes. “Her grandchildren seem to be among the happiest, most fearless, playful and joyful children in the royal family.

“This has allowed Anne to join in the fun with them hands-on, looking every inch the playful, tactile and doting grandmother in the way her own mother was rarely, if ever, seen to do as a grandmother.

Some sightings have even shown Anne almost behaving like one of the children herself, which suggests she might be relishing moments of the kind of free-range childhood behaviours she only experienced rarely.”

Jennie agrees and tells us, “I suspect that rather like me, Anne enjoys teaching her grandchildren new skills. I can’t see her sitting down and playing games with them on an iPad – she’s much keener on getting them out in the open, enjoying sport and nature and outdoor games.

Raising the next generation to love the outdoors is something Anne shares with fellow grandma, Carole Middleton, who often takes care of Prince George and his siblings. “It’s important for children to grow up appreciating nature and part of that is allowing them to get a bit muddy,” Carole has said.

“I want to run down the hills, climb the trees and go through the tunnel at the playground. As long as I am able to, that’s what I’ll be doing. I cook with them, I muck around dancing, and we go on bike rides,” says Carole.

Princess Anne’s own parents set a good example for how to be a grandparent, according to Jennie. “The late Queen and Prince Philip were important mentors for Anne’s own children. The Queen was particularly close to Zara because of her riding success and, as her first grandchild, Peter had a special place in his grandparents’ hearts.”

Adding that the Queen Mother played a key role in Anne’s life, Jennie explains, “Anne understands the value of having a grandparent on hand and does her best to be available as much as she can. To her grandchildren she is very much Gran, rather than Princess. I’m sure she acts that way too.”

With the anniversary of the late Queen’s passing set to be marked by the family together in Balmoral, the Princess will be supported by her young family and boosted by the knowledge that they’re creating their own happy memories in the Highlands, just as she has done her entire life.

These moments away from the public eye where she can simply be a grandmother must be the gifts she treasures the most.

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