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Indian couple at royal wedding

The villages of England, often hidden away by woods, are reluctant to share their secrets with outsiders. Not so, not any longer, certainly not in Bucklebury, less than an hour's drive from London. Dipankar De Sarkar writes.

world Updated: May 04, 2011 19:53 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

The villages of England, often hidden away by woods, are reluctant to share their secrets with outsiders. Not so, not any longer, certainly not in Bucklebury, less than an hour's drive from London.

The village — home to Prince William's fiancé Kate Middleton — is rather enjoying a sudden surge of interest. Hundreds of international journalists and tourists have made their way to Bucklebury ahead of the April 29 royal wedding. And the estimated 2,000 villagers, while not exactly throwing open their doors, are playing it pretty cool.

Bucklebury is tucked away from a busy highway but is not hard to find - why, for a short time, you could even hop on to a 'Kate Middleton Country' bus tour. "You will see the houses where she has lived, the church in which she was christened and the beautiful countryside in which she grew up," the operator advertised. At least two coachloads of mostly journalists have rolled into Bucklebury since February. They visited the church, dropped by at the butcher's and stopped for a quick pint of local ale at the pub. Now the tour is off - even Bucklebury, it seems, has its limits.

Kate's village has an air of history and tradition about it. The oak trees near the massive Middleton family home were planted by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), with additions made by William's grandmother Elizabeth II in 1972.

To the visitor Bucklebury comes across as respectable and upper middle class. Its residents are well-heeled and there are many multi-million-pound houses of the sort English property agents call a "substantial property, set on acres of land." Not a brick, it seems, can be out of place in this very English village.

And so many of the people you meet here say they were either born in the village or are decades-old residents that when you finally meet up with Hashmukh and Chandrika Shingadia it is something of a surprise. Chandrika was born in India, as was Hashmukh's father. And the couple came from Kenya. They've been in the village for 13 years.

Hash and Chan, as everyone calls them, may be the only Indian faces you will see for miles. The hard-working Shingadias are the lifeline of this rural community — they run the only convenience store serving the village. That's the reason Kate has been a long-time visitor to the store and why one day she brought along William to casually introduce him.

"This car pulled up and a man got out, looked around the shop and went back into the car," recalls Hashmukh, 52. "Then Catherine walked out, with a young man following her. I told Chandrika. We turned around and Catherine said, 'Can I present William'." You could have knocked the Shingadias down with a feather.

Famously, that's not all. "On February 17," says Hashmukh, "the postman delivered an envelope that had the letters ER (Elizabeth Regina) stamped on it and it said, 'from the office of the Lord Chamberlain'. I ran to Chandrika and she screamed. We both opened the letter together and it was the invitation to the wedding."

Everyone in Bucklebury talks about how down-to-earth Kate is, so no one thinks it curious she chose to invite the village grocer, butcher, postman and the man who runs the Old Boot Inn pub to her wedding.

It was a caring touch that has been played up by the national media. But the Shingadias, whose 16-hour workday begins at 4.30 a.m., are not ones for big picture symbolism. "It just shows Catherine also wanted her friends to be part of the celebrations," says Chandrika, 43, between serving customers, whom she addresses by their first names. Chandrika's big secret, of course, is the dress she will wear to the wedding: it's a saree that she bought in India (mum lives in Junagadh). "It's simple, delicate and Gujarati" is all she will say.

And so a sliver of East will meet West at the royal wedding. The men and women of Bucklebury will rub shoulders with celebrities and prime ministers at Westminster Abbey. Bucklebury celebrations will kick off at the Shingadias' convenience store — it's called Peaches — where visitors will be served free "Royal breakfast" and climax with a street party. "This will give people a lift," said village butcher Martin Fidler. "There's so much of doom and gloom around — we need it. I hope it's a sunny day."