And as a Westland Wessex helicopter touched down at Blists Hill Museum, there was already a huge crowd clamouring to catch a glimpse of the pilot.
When Prince Charles visited Shropshire to mark 200 years of the Iron Bridge in 1979, royal fever had well and truly gripped the nation. The dashing young prince, who wowed the crowds during his trip to the county, turns 70 today.
The hair may be a little greyer now and his days of flying helicopters behind him, but those who meet the Prince of Wales still talk about that glint in his eye and the boyish sense of humour.
Charles at 70 seems, in many ways, far more at ease with himself than he did as a nervous 30-year-old during his Ironbridge visit. The weight of expectation no longer seems to bear down on him like in his younger days, his charitable work is in full swing, and his sons are now forging their own public lives.
Tonight the Queen will throw a private Buckingham Palace birthday bash for her eldest son and heir.
His 1979 visit took him to Blists Hill, the Iron Bridge itself – where he paid half a penny to cross the bridge – and Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.
Among the fans who turned out to greet him that day was 35-year-old superfan Anita Littler from High Ercall, who stole a kiss after presenting him with a rose as he made his way along the crowded road in Ironbridge town centre. Eleven years later she would hit the headlines again, when she slipped through an armed cordon to kiss the startled prince once more during a polo match in Florida.
The following year he returned to the county again when he took part in the horse racing at Ludlow. But just as the horse he was riding romped home in second place, the future king was also playing second fiddle to a teenager in the crowd. The event was the first public appearance of his future bride, 19-year-old Lady Diana Spencer. She was spotted with Charles’s ex-girlfriend – and future second wife – Camilla Parker-Bowles.
By this time, he was already well acquainted with the county, having performed the official opening of the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in 1978. During the visit, days after his 30th birthday, he chatted with staff on the hospital’s ward 28, including Staff Nurse Lynne Breakell. Again, thousands of well-wishers lined his route to the hospital after his helicopter landed, where he was greeted by the Lord Lieutenant of Shropshire, John Dugdale.
He had also visited Newtown, over the border in Powys, in November 1972, two days after celebrating his 24th birthday. He was forced to borrow a raincoat after being caught in a torrential downpour. and it set the theme for the day, which saw him visit Clywedog Reservoir, the tallest man-made dam in Britain.
On his way to the town’s civic centre, he walked between lines of cheering children waving paper flags, and spotted four-year-old Ian Whitticase of Mochdre, who was wearing a small leather helmet. He stopped to ask him if he had made his flag at school. He later chatted with Gwynn Evans, who was planting trees at the community centre on the Trehafren estate.
When Charles returned to Shrewsbury in July 1981 his marriage to Diana was just 12 days away. An estimated 20,000 people lined the streets, bringing the town to a standstill for half an hour, and he was showered with wedding gifts.
He stopped to thank Valerie Jones, who gave him a set of chair backs she had taken two weeks to crochet, and told cheering schoolchildren it was ‘like Christmas’ as he accepted a variety of home-made cards and presents.
In 2001 he conducted a day-long tour of the county, taking in visits to Harper Adams College in Newport, Shrewsbury School, Boscobel House near Tong, and Coalport China Museum. He officially opened the new music suite at Shrewsbury School, and praised 18-year-old Andrew Hughes for his solo during a performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto.
Prince Charles has also been a regular visitor to the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.
The prince visited Llangollen in 1985, 1996, 2003, and 2006 and enjoyed dancing with performers in the festival’s Parade of Nations in 2015.
The guest list for tonight’s party is likely to include Charles’ friends from his public and private life, members of the Royal Family and others who have played an important role in the prince’s life.
The celebrations began last month with a gala night of comedy and magic staged for the prince at the London Palladium.
The event called We Are Most Amused And Amazed was in aid of the Prince’s Trust, and was shown on television last night.
The all-star line-up for the event included Bill Bailey, Rowan Atkinson, Sandi Toksvig, Omid Djalili, Alistair McGowan and Kylie Minogue.
The heir to the throne, who is facing the growing prospect that he will assume the role of head of state, made headlines last week when he spoke about how he sees his future.
In a BBC documentary he said his days of speaking out on issues, dubbed “meddling” by critics, will end when he becomes king.
Speaking about being heir to the throne compared to being monarch, Charles said: “But the idea somehow that I’m going to go on in exactly the same way if I have to succeed, is complete nonsense because the two – the two situations – are completely different.”
The Queen is 92 and she still carries out her full duties as head of state but her family, led by Charles, are increasingly supporting her public work.
Charles has recently returned from a major tour of West Africa where he promoted the Commonwealth, Britain’s interests and helped strengthen the UK’s links with Nigeria, the Gambia and Ghana.
Birthday boy has time to impress
Royal correspondent SHIRLEY TART pays her own birthday tribute to the prince
Don’t worry, Sir, it’s not that bad!
Given the family’s good health inheritance (like living long lives) the latest royal birthday boy simply stands on the doorstep of another big challenge.
The Prince of Wales, heir to the throne, nearly a decade beyond an average retirement age already, today hits the big 70.
The strictly unobservant will say he is still waiting to start a proper job.
And indeed, still campaigning whenever he can for so many of the causes which have for so long dominated his life.
On which point that is set to be royal rumour and nothing more.
Never mind waiting in the wings for his heritage to be fulfilled, Prince Charles has been one of the busiest and productive royals throughout most of his adult life. And not just with chatting to his garden flowers, either.
He was living as well as talking ecology, preservation, restoration years before they became issues with the wider world.
Back then, he was labelled a bit of a zany case which actually couldn’t have been more wrong.
Along with his views on architecture, food and keeping healthy, this heir to the throne has cared for so much down all of these years.
And while some of us might wonder at the start of a new reign, about that inbred spirit of preserving and the championing of changes (for the better of course) and whether it would remain with the move from Prince of Wales to the man taking over from our amazing Queen.
Last week our senior prince put himself on the line with those views.
He said he wasn’t stupid and of course he wouldn’t be campaigning in the same way as he had for all the years when as a king in waiting.
And remember this is the toddler who was just four years old when his mother came to the throne.
I doubt he can remember a time when she was just mummy to him, Charles the first born.
So these many years on with all the changes in family, national and international life, of course a new reign will be different.
And yet … somehow you know that the now elderly Prince of Wales will of course have his own views of community, of making contact with folk, of proudly watching his new grandchildren growing up.
Helping ‘make’ his youngest son’s wedding day extra special by gently escorting both the bride and her mother at Windsor’s St George’s Chapel won him more than a few plaudits. But maybe most of all, he is in a really good place with his beloved wife at his side, supporting, encouraging and finally – and rightly – being accepted by the wider public.
Charles is a good man and will do the job well.
Camilla is devoted to him and will be his Queen, as she should be.
For all that, like I’m sure many others, I hope we’ll still be sending birthday wishes to Her Majesty for a while yet.
And whatever the future holds for our Royal Family and for us, hitting 70 isn’t that bad after all even if the Prince of Wales can only carry on campaigning in his head!
Happy birthday, Sir.