Sitting in the sun-dappled glory of an old mansion which serves as the officers’ mess at RAF Halton in Buckinghamshire, the Duchess of Cornwall kicks off her shoes

Camilla has spent the morning handing out awards at a graduation day parade for young cadets. She will go on to meet several hundred more officers and their families personally at a reception before the day is out.

‘Sorry, I’ve just had my shoes off,’ she confessed when we bumped into each other shortly afterwards. ‘But I’ve got a Coca-Cola to revive me.’

Are you a ‘full-fat’ or ‘diet’ lady? ‘Oh full-fat. Forget anything diet. I want the full kick!’

And no wonder

While most women her age – she marks the milestone of turning 70 today – might favour pottering in their gardens and relaxing in front of the telly, Camilla’s workload is heavier than ever.

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One drawback to this unwavering duty, she once confided in me, is that she wishes she could see more of her five grandchildren, by her son Tom Parker Bowles and daughter Laura Lopes.

‘I would like to have more time with them but, you know, it’s the nature of the beast. I can’t. But every given opportunity, I see them.’

There have been reports that Charles, too, would like to spend more days with his grandchildren by William and Kate: the amount of time he spends with them has been the subject of intense speculation.

The trouble is that the couple’s official duties mean that opportunities for Camilla to kick off her shoes more regularly are, increasingly, few and far between.

Last year, the Queen’s daughter-in-law undertook 221 royal duties at home and abroad

It’s a tally that doesn’t yet rival that of the monarch, who, at 91, still conducts well in excess of 300 engagements a year.

But it far outdoes that of Her Majesty’s ‘working’ grandchildren, William and Harry, along with the Duchess of Cambridge, who failed even to break the 200 engagement mark between them last year.

While not everyone will feel sympathy for Camilla, becoming a Duchess by marrying into this privileged life of butlers, gold plates and palaces, it does have its own peculiar demands.

As a debutante, Camilla wasn’t expected – and didn’t especially need – to work when she was a young woman. And that didn’t change during her first marriage to Army officer Andrew Parker Bowles. Today, in her royal role, things are very different.

‘The laziest woman in Britain’

So how is Camilla – once described by a royal courtier as ‘the laziest woman in Britain’ – facing the challenge of being a working woman in her 70s?

After travelling with her on dozens of official engagements, both at home and overseas, I have seen that behind the royal facade is a woman of immense charm, with a genuine passion to tackle injustice wherever she sees it.

While partisan admirers of Diana will never feel affection for the woman who was her love rival, there’s no doubt Camilla possesses the kind of easy familiarity with the public that contributed to the Princess’s immense popularity.

I remember watching her on Valentine’s Day morning in Bristol this year, where, just after breakfast, the Duchess was already charming the masses at a Royal Voluntary Service tea dance.

‘Sit down and finish your cuppa,’ Camilla was urged as she moved from table to table

‘Oh don’t worry, I never get to take more than a sip wherever I go,’ was her smiling response. Wherever she goes, people can be heard saying: ‘Wasn’t she delightful?’ or: ‘She wasn’t what I expected. Really warm and friendly.’

Women’s Aid

Later that day in Bristol, I watched as she toured the offices of the charity Women’s Aid, meeting staff and survivors of domestic abuse, before catching a train back to London for an evening event.

Campaigning against domestic violence, rape and sexual assault have become some of the cornerstones of the Duchess’s public work. So why has she chosen to champion such gritty issues? ‘Well, I’ve always been very interested by it,’ she once told me. ‘I have known people who suffered both mental and physical abuse, and I just thought I would like to dig a bit deeper. It is a taboo subject.

Turning point

‘I think the turning point was when I went to an event run by the charity Safe Lives, where I met the mother of a woman [named Joanna Brown] who had been bludgeoned to death by her estranged husband. This lady must have been the same age as me and had taken on her daughter’s two children.

‘I watched her face and I thought: “Suppose we reversed the roles and that had been me, the same age and with grandchildren. What if it had been my daughter who had been bludgeoned to death in front of my grandchildren?”

‘That was it – that’s when I started crying. And I looked round and saw everybody with tears in their eyes.

‘That was the turning point which made me think I really do want to get involved. I want to talk to more people, and I want to get more people together.

‘That’s the way you solve problems. I’ve probably learned that from my husband. He’s brilliant.’ Tackling issues outside the royal comfort zone is, surprisingly, becoming something of a habit for Camilla – and it has even led to her being dubbed one of the country’s more unlikely feminists.

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Patron president of WOW

As patron president of WOW, the Women of the World festival at London’s Southbank Centre, Camilla has also become involved in a cause that tackles self-esteem, female genital mutilation and the gender pay gap.

As a working consort, it has to be said, the Duchess doesn’t always conform to the hard-nosed royal mantra of ‘never explain, never complain’.

Scared of flying and hates the heat

She is petrified of flying (not ideal for those long foreign tours) and once sat, terrified, on the steps of a tiny private jet during an overseas visit, refusing to get in. One can’t imagine Princess Anne doing that…

On board, she can often be seen squeezing her husband’s hand as an aircraft is taking off (Charles, despite being a pilot, is hugely sympathetic to her phobia, but was heard during one particularly bumpy flight to yelp loudly: ‘Darling, please don’t hold me so hard!’).

Camilla also hates the heat – another downside to those long foreign trips – but she can at least laugh at her own frailties, jokingly mopping away her perspiration in full view of the cameras on a sweltering day in Italy earlier this year.

On an official visit to Egypt a few years ago, she told me how she had dragged her mattress onto the roof of the modest mud-brick house where they were staying and slept al fresco, before admitting defeat because of the flies that were bombing her ‘like Messerschmitts’.

She is fiercely supportive of her husband’s devotion to the causes he holds dear, but she’s not above affectionately pricking that earnestness every now and again.

On that same visit to Egypt, Charles was in his eco-friendly element as they visited the electricity-free desert village of Siwa. The Duchess, however, made clear – with an amusedly theatrical roll of her eyes – that the lack of plug sockets was ‘all well and good if you didn’t need to use a blooming hair dryer’.

It’s that sense of humour that makes Camilla a perfect foil for our future king.

So what of her life when she’s not carrying out public duties?

Charles’s private home, Birkhall, in Scotland, has become a refuge for him and Camilla. There, she can kick off those annoying heels and go walking with her two naughty rescue Jack Russells, Beth and Bluebell, who share their mistress’s occasional disdain for decorum.

She also likes a good book – ‘Bliss!’, she says – by crime writers such as Peter James and the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, the latter of whom reminds her of carefree childhood holidays at their family villa in Florence.

Camilla treasures the time she spends with Charles and her adored grandchildren – twins Gus and Louis and granddaughter Eliza by her daughter Laura and her husband, Harry Lopes, and Lola and Freddy by son Tom and his wife, Sara.

She also once said the Prince loves to spend time with her grandchildren, who are aged between seven and nine

‘Sometimes, when we are with my husband in Scotland, he reads them Harry Potter,’ she told me at a recent child literacy event, another key area of her public work. ‘And he does all the voices, because he is a brilliant mimic. I’m not very good. I try to do the voices, but acting isn’t my forte. But he sits down and they all sit with him.

‘I always think they are going to be wriggling around in the bed, but they sit spellbound.’

I suggest that the idea of the future king cuddling with his step-grandchildren and reading them a bedtime story is a world away from the perception many people have of him.

‘Yes, it’s really sweet,’ she said. ‘He’s extremely good with children. They love it.’

And, it seems, she thinks they are good for him, as well as her — because they help stop you turning into fuddy-duddies.

‘Children keep you young,’ she told me earlier this year. ‘I have my grandchildren quite a lot.

‘They are charging about all over the place. You can’t just sit down and say: “Sorry, I’m too old, I can’t play.” ’

Today’s birthday “something to be endured rather than celebrated”

Like the Queen, who hates any kind of fuss being made about her personal landmarks, the Duchess is treating today’s birthday as something to be endured rather than celebrated.

‘It is the last thing I want to talk about!’ she joked when I asked her about it.

‘Truthfully, though, I think if you don’t keep your grey cells working and you don’t keep going, you’ll just sit down and watch the day go by. But if you keep your grey cells working, I think it helps keep you young.’

‘Truthfully, though, I think if you don’t keep your grey cells working and you don’t keep going, you’ll just sit down and watch the day go by. But if you keep your grey cells working, I think it helps keep you young.’

Camilla – known as ‘Gaga’ to her grandchildren – is also acutely aware that her own mother, Rosalind, died at 72 of the brittle bone disease osteoporosis – another cause she champions through her work as president of the National Osteoporosis Society. ‘Before, I used to put it aside. But now I think: “Well, my mother was 72 and suddenly she was gone. How much longer have we all got?”

‘If that’s the case, I want to do something with my life. I’d rather just be called ‘Gaga’ than become it.’

So what about the prospect of growing older in the glare of those ever-present cameras?

It would surely be a daunting prospect for anyone.

‘You know, there was a lady in a crowd the other day. She said: “I’m your twin, I’m going to be 70 on the same day as you. I’ve been told by a friend that we are officially old.”

‘And I thought: “Oh dear.” I’m not sure about being officially old. The trouble is that I don’t feel it in my head. Sometimes I still feel a teenager, but then other bits of your body don’t quite agree. When your feet are screaming in agony at the end of the day, I realise that perhaps, you know, I am getting older.’

It’s those shoes, again, you see

Stretching her aching feet out as she prepares for her next round of what is affectionately known in royal circles as ‘grip and grin’, she smiles and says to me teasingly: ‘You wouldn’t realise that, of course, because you are always perched on your very high heels.

‘But that’s just one thing I have to accept. I’ve gone down to two inches – can’t do any more. Every opportunity, I have to admit, I do kick my shoes off.’

Turning 70 in fine fettle, happily married, fired with enthusiasm for her adopted causes, and enchanted by her grandchildren, this ‘Barefoot Contessa’ seems most contented.

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© Daily Mail

Author: ANA Newswire