Denise Allford is still quivering with excitement. And who can blame her? Denise and husband Kevin are the delightful retired teachers who were caught in the full glare of the world’s media earlier this week being embraced by their ‘star pupil’, the Duchess of Cambridge.
The ecstatic hug Kate gave them was the sort you’d give long-lost friends.
‘Honestly, I haven’t come down to earth,’ laughs Denise, as we talk in her family home outside Carmarthen.
Every committed teacher dreams of sparking genuine respect and affection in their pupils. But when a former pupil is set to be your future Queen, it’s a little hard to know what to expect when your paths cross after almost 20 years.
But, then again, the Allfords enjoyed a very close relationship with Kate when they taught her at St Andrew’s Prep School in Pangbourne, Berkshire.
As Kate’s teachers and ‘house parents’ — thus taking charge of all aspects of her life outside her education while she was away from home, from what she ate to what she did for fun — Denise, now 64, and Kevin, 67, were a second mum and dad to her while she was at boarding school.
It meant Denise did everything for Kate — who was a day pupil from age four to nine and then a weekly boarder until she left aged 13 — from weaving her hair into French plaits on ‘hair washing nights’ to patiently listening to the future Duchess explain the plotlines of Friends, her favourite TV programme.
Meanwhile, as well as teaching her French and German, Kevin was Kate’s form teacher for her last two years there. She was so fond of him that, when she left, she presented him with a Picasso poster. The delighted couple framed it — neatly snipping off Kate’s signature at the bottom so it would fit in the frame.
As well as trying to encourage the studious little girl to work less rather than more, Kevin got used to hearing Kate and her pals giggle uproariously as they repeated their favourite catchphrase ‘Absolutely fabulous, darling’, a la Patsy from the hit BBC show which had just launched.
But it’s Denise who was closest to the Duchess. When Kate was 11, Denise became the first teacher at the school to have a baby. Their daughter Angharad was born in June 1993.
‘As house parents, we had pretty much an open door policy to our flat in the school, so children would be constantly in and out after lessons,’ says Denise. ‘I knew Catherine — don’t expect us to call her Kate because we never knew her as that — really well and liked her enormously.
‘The children had 45 minutes between prep — or homework — and bedtime. Catherine and her friends would knock on the door and ask: “Can we see the baby?”
‘They would come and play with Angharad while I carried on with marking. They were so responsible, I could easily leave them playing Peek-a-boo with her. Catherine was very comfortable around babies.
‘On Angharad’s first birthday, Catherine and her two close friends, Chelsie Finlay-Notman and Emily Bevan, came over, sang Happy Birthday — Catherine’s got a lovely voice — and helped Angharad blow out her candle.
‘It was such a lovely scene we took a photo. It’s hard to believe the future Queen used to come round for cuddles with our little girl.’
Unquestionably, then, Kate’s time at the £16,500-a-year prep school coincided with a wonderfully happy time for the Allfords, who moved out of the Home Counties to Denise’s native Wales 20 years ago so Angharad could start at a Welsh school.
Yet on Tuesday, Denise and Kevin made the 30-minute journey from their home to Mumbles where Kate and William were on a royal visit, with some trepidation.
In fact, Kevin didn’t want to go at all, but Denise insisted.
She says: ‘Kevin didn’t think we had a hope of seeing her. But I told him it simply wasn’t up for discussion. We had waited over 20 years for this moment; we last saw Catherine as a 14-year-old when she came to visit her brother James at school. ‘I’ve followed her life with such interest and often daydreamed about seeing her again.’
After arriving at Mumbles at 11am, the couple joined the crowd waiting for the royal couple to arrive.
When they swept up two hours later, Kevin discreetly slipped a note with their names and address to one of Kate’s team. ‘I had no idea what to expect,’ he says. ‘I guess we hoped she might wave.’
Minutes later Kate came bounding towards them. ‘She grabbed me in a big hug and then it was Kevin’s turn,’ says Denise. ‘She told us all about her family — we taught Pippa and James, too.
‘She’s delighted James is getting married. We asked her to pass on our very best wishes. She wanted to know that we were fine.
‘It honestly was like we had seen her yesterday. We are enormously proud to have taught Catherine and are proud of the small part we played in shaping her.’
Denise and Kevin, who retired aged 55 after a heart attack, had joined St Andrew’s, which had just 300 pupils, in 1990. ‘It was idyllic,’ recalls Kevin.
Kate had been at the school for two years when the Allfords arrived and Pippa — who is two years younger — had just joined. The pair were known as Middleton C and Middleton P. James was to start in 1991.
‘Catherine wasn’t the best student, but she was certainly the hardest working,’ Kevin recalls. ‘She threw herself into everything she did.
‘She was certainly tall and very slim — not that she didn’t eat well. The girls had a cooked breakfast every day, followed by a glass of milk and biscuit at 11, then lunch and they had to eat every scrap on their plate.
‘At 4pm the boarders had their favourite meal which they nicknamed Muck — a glass of juice and a homemade doughnut or slice of cake — then a two-course dinner at 6pm.
‘Catherine simply did everything at 100mph.
Denise agrees that Catherine burnt up calories in exercise. ‘She certainly wasn’t figure-conscious,’ she says. ‘It may sound naive but I don’t think any of them were obsessed with their looks the way today’s teenagers are.
‘They wore simple clothes. On Wednesdays after sport, pupils were allowed to change out of uniform into their everyday stuff. Catherine and Pippa wore jeans and T-shirts — never anything fancy.
‘Catherine wore braces, which didn’t seem to make her self-conscious, but certainly didn’t make her appear glamorous.
‘I’m sure they got it from Carole [the Duchess’s mother]. I know everyone today talks about how super well-groomed she is — well, she certainly wasn’t then. She’s always been tall and slim but she didn’t arrive at the school gates dressed to the nines unlike some of the other mothers.’
The Middletons were well known at school for their prowess on the sports field.
‘Both Catherine and Pippa were exceptionally sporty,’ recalls Denise. ‘They were fabulous at every sport — swimming, netball and hockey.’ Kevin, who also taught the Middletons swimming, agrees. ‘Pippa had the edge on Catherine. It wasn’t so much that she was more talented as that she has a different personality. Maybe as the younger sister, Pippa was more driven and determined to excel at absolutely everything.
‘James joined my rugby team and was phenomenal. He was fearless. I would say: “Go on, James, nobble that lad over there,” and he would be off.’
Denise — who was James’s class teacher — agrees. ‘I know he’s struggled as an adult, but it can’t be easy living in the shadow of his royal sister. But as a little boy he was adorable, always smiling, always happy, always covered in mud. He would never come into the class after play without something being torn or some bit of him needing a plaster.’
Even Carole, it seems, was a super-competitive netball player. She eagerly joined a Staff And Parents’ team established by the Allfords’ colleague, Clare Prowse.
‘It was terrific fun,’ recalls Denise. ‘It really epitomises what a close-knit group we all were. After a match we would all go back to someone’s house for a glass of wine and a spot of supper.
‘Carole loved it, but sadly had to drop out after a while because she was so busy with her business.’ It was, of course, the success of Carole’s party-planning firm that led to a huge change in fortunes for the Middleton family allowing them to move from their relatively modest house outside Newbury to their five-bedroom home with vast land and a tennis court in Bucklebury, West Berkshire.
‘The girls were very excited and Carole and Mike very kindly invited us over when Pippa left the school,’ recalls Denise. ‘Sadly, Angharad had tonsillitis so we couldn’t go.’
However, while Pippa may have been the better netball player, it was Kate who, as head of netball, led the school to the runner-up position in the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools Netball Tournament.
‘It was April 1993 and I was heavily pregnant with Angharad,’ says Denise. ‘It was tremendously exciting. We piled onto the coach to take us to London at 5.30am.
‘Catherine — who even then was fantastic at building a team and keeping up morale — led everyone in endless rounds of Ten Green Bottles. And, when we reached home, her special favourite: “For She’s a Jolly Good Driver.”
‘Many parents came. Carole was busy, but I remember her ringing regularly to check progress. When we got home all the parents were there to meet us with mounds of fish and chips and dozens of bottles of champagne.’
Both Denise and Kevin are quick to point out that while Carole was an involved parent, she was far from pushy. ‘There were some parents whose voices you dreaded hearing on the phone,’ says Kevin. ‘And Carole was definitely not one of them. When she rang — which she rarely did — she would have a point.
‘For example, Catherine had obviously told her she thought it was unfair the boys had a big common room with a pool table and the girls didn’t.
‘Carole rang and asked why. We agreed it was unfair and, entirely as a result of her intervention, rules were changed. From then on it was a joint common room.’
But while it was Carole who made the tricky phone calls, it was left to her husband Mike to be the school entertainer.
‘Like in most marriages, the woman is in charge,’ says Denise. ‘Mike had the most gorgeous sense of humour. You could have a joke with him.
‘At the end of every term, we always had a parents’ match — the girls’ netball team would play the parents and Mike would turn up and be the joker. He would be the one challenging the referee’s decisions and pretending to cheat. Everyone adored him.’
Small wonder then that St Andrew’s holds such a very special place in the Duchess of Cambridge’s heart.
‘We met her at one of the happiest periods of our lives,’ says Denise. ‘It’s lovely to know that Catherine feels the same.’