The Earl and Countess of Wessex made a top-secret tour of Market Harborough today (Wednesday) in the first royal visit to the town for many years.
Prince Edward and his wife Sophie made their hush-hush trip to Market Harborough to give the town’s emblematic Tuesday market’s 800th anniversary the royal seal of approval.
Crowds of thrilled shoppers and townspeople turned out along with dozens of excited local schoolchildren as the royal couple almost brought the town centre to a standstill.
The extra-special day the town will remember for a long time to come began as Prince Edward and Countess Sophie flew in to the town’s football ground off Northampton Road.
They were then driven to Market Harborough’s iconic bustling indoor market in the town centre just after 10am as temperatures nudged 25C (77F).
Edward and Sophie were accompanied by Leicestershire’s Lord Lieutenant Michael Kapur, the county council’s chairman, Cllr Dan Harrison, and Harborough District Council chairman Cllr Stephen Bilbie as they went into the packed market.
Prince Edward and Countess Sophie smiled and chatted away to beaming traders and shoppers as they walked around opposite sides of the town’s historic mart.
Standing just feet away as they went in through the big main entrance, Carl Dunkley, 62, who runs a video and music stall, told the Harborough Mail: “It’s brilliant to see Edward and Sophie here.
“At least eight police officers with a sniffer dog came in at about 8 this morning checking that everything here was safe.
“We were thinking Kate and William were coming but it’s great to see the Wessexes.
“I’m no huge fan of the Royal Family – but this is massive for our market as well as for the whole town,” said Carl, of Kettering.
David Payne, 62, relished showing Prince Edward his stall’s old tools and gardening equipment.
“Edward said he was a countryman at heart and he took a genuine interest in what we’re selling here.
“I was very impressed that he knew what the specialist tools for hedgelaying – called billhooks – were,” said David, of Desborough.
“It takes pretty specific knowledge to know that.
“It was a pleasure to meet Edward and talk to him, he’s a lovely chap.”
Moments after chatting to Countess Sophie, Market Harborough born-and-bred trader Sue Birch, 58, said: “She was very keen to find out about all the different cheeses we sell here as well as all our other local produce.
“I told her that I know 90 per cent of my customers and she agreed that the personal touch is so important.
“It’s been far too many years since we had our last royal visit,” insisted Sue.
“So this is a day that none of us will ever forget because Market Harborough and our market deserve this.”
The surprise royal visitors were then applauded by dozens of overjoyed children from the town’s Meadowdale primary school and Market Harborough CE Academy as they stepped out into the dazzling morning sunshine.
Flanked by their royal detectives, Edward and Sophie laughed and joked with the jubilant youngsters – who were waving Union Flags – as startled shoppers and passers-by quickly gathered.
Snapping off picture after picture on her camera phone, Faye, 50, had a smile from ear to ear as she told the Mail: “I knew we had someone famous coming because my friend works in the market.
“So I made sure I was here this morning to lap it all up and to discover who our mystery guests of honour were going to be!
“There’s a massive buzz here and we’re all loving it,” said Faye, of Market Harborough.
“Sophie is so elegant and beautiful while Edward looks so smart – they make such a charming couple.”
People looking on did a double take as the royal party left the market to stroll through St Mary’s Place.
Stopping off at Cardzone, Prince Edward and Countess Sophie spoke to enchanted staff before leaving with a personalised Market Harborough gift.
“They were very keen to find out about our shop and what we do here,” said employee Donna Greer, 42.
“I was a bit nervous and tried to hide behind my colleagues but it didn’t work!
“We gave them each a Cadbury’s chocolate bar inscribed with Market Harborough.
“They seemed very pleased but warned the bars would soon melt in this scorching heat.”
The town’s royal visitors left behind a stream of charmed townsfolk in their wake as they headed to Harborough Museum in the Symington Building on Adam and Eve Street.
They talked to staff there, asking questions about Harborough’s rich history, before walking the short distance to the town’s totemic Old Grammar School on the High Street.
Edward and Sophie were given a rapturous salute at Market Harborough’s most famous landmark by 30 buzzing children from St Joseph’s Catholic primary school on Coventry Road.
The 10-year-old pupils have been carrying out research into the town’s history and had made banners detailing key dates and events specially for the royal visitors.
And Edward and Sophie certainly made the children’s day a red letter one as they took time out to ask them about their school and what they had been up to.
Bernadette Dabbs, the headteacher at St Joseph’s, said: “Our pupils have loved every minute.
“It’s definitely not the way any of us normally spend a Wednesday morning at school in Market Harborough!
“Coming along to see the earl and countess of Wessex has been incredible for all our youngsters – and they’ve done us proud,” she said.
“Prince Edward joked with them about nipping off school for the morning and he was so lovely and down to earth, it was great.
“Our children have worked hard to create banners highlighting vital local events and dates in our history and they really appreciated that.”
Maya, 10, said: “The prince asked me what we had been doing for the banners – he was very impressed.”
Alongside her friend, Caitlin, 10, said: “It’s been very exciting.
“We didn’t know that they were going to be here today – we’ve all been in shock.”
Delighted Amelka, 10, said: “We all just froze!
“But it’s been amazing to walk over in to town to see them here.”
Standing just feet away, the youngsters had the best view in the house as to ecstatic applause Prince Edward pulled off a Union Flag to unveil a plaque declaring: “Market Harborough Market Heritage Trail.
“Opened by TRH The Earl and Countess of Wessex 8th September 2021.
“To commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Tuesday Royal Charter Market.”
And with that Edward and Sophie walked over to their gleaming blue Range Rover and were swept away down the High Street as they waved back at the chattering schoolchildren cheering them on their way.
Looking on, Cllr Phil King, the leader of Harborough council, told the Harborough Mail: “This is a huge honour for Market Harborough.
“We have been honoured and privileged to have had the Earl and Countess of Wessex visit our town today.
“They have come to recognise the 800th anniversary of our Tuesday market.
“And they have been able to walk around our superb town centre and meet local people on their visit,” said Cllr King.
“This has been a fantastic day for our town, for our famous market and for our people – and it will live long in the memory.”