“Good afternoon, I’m the Countess of Wessex and I’m visiting N-Vision today to meet clients, staff and volunteers to learn all about the services and support provide for local blind and partially sighted people.
I understand that the Talking News service is very important to all its listeners and each week keeps 258 of you up to date with national news and events and what’s happening in the local community.
I’m impressed that over 140 volunteers give up their time to prepare, record and dispatch the Talking News each week. Like most charities N-Vision depends on volunteers to support and enhance the work they do for their beneficiaries, so I wish to take this opportunity to thank them all on your behalf.
I am pleased to be contributing to the recording of the Talking News and I hope you enjoy listening to this edition. Thank you for this opportunity of speaking to you. Goodbye.”
Pause. Silence. Click off the recording. Round of gentle applause.
“So - do I get the job?” (Countess of Wessex)
“You sound like a Brummy!” quips TN coordinator Johnny Gardener.
The light, laughter and sheer joy HRH Sophie, The Countess of Wessex, brought on her visit to Blackpool-based sight loss support charity N-Vision is hard to convey in words. Look to the pictures instead on the charity’s social media @N_Vision_NW and Facebook. And eventually - the charity's website. You may even spot a tweet or two courtesy of the Royal household social media team @RoyalFamily.
It could have been any news room on any working day - with a rather different editor-in-chief in charge. A bit of banter over Brummy accents with Johnny – the brummiest Brum of all. An admission that the first time the Countess went to Birmingham, for a friend’s wedding, long ago, she picked up the phrase, “Darren get back in your buggy”, and can still do a passable impression in Brum to this day - although the Lancashire accent has defeated her. “It’s impossible.”
Recollections of her childhood, her father having grown up in Devon, lots of visits there, getting attuned to the accents of Exmoor and Dartmoor while staying and playing with friends on a farm. “I’d go back home with a really broad Devonshire accent. My mother found it very hard to understand but I’d tuned my ear in at three.” Then a giggle at veteran volunteer News reader Joy Killip’s comment that the team records the tide times too – because it wouldn’t do for dog walkers to get caught out.
The Countess, a former top communications professional in her own right, owned up to “tweaking” the script with which she had been presented. Tweaked? It was a rewrite. And a good one. It was clear she was speaking from the heart to a community she has embraced as a result of her own experiences.
She’s become a global ambassador of eradicating avoidable sight.
Turned out ma’am is a real champion of the local press too. The Talking Newspaper majors on local news content from the Blackpool Gazette and allied weeklies along with coverage of Lancashire Life, Which? Consumer magazine, sport, gardening, the society’s own news and much more. It’s a quality of life-line service for listeners, many of whom were previously readers. They receive the newspaper by post, recorded on digital audio plugs, virtually a free service, bar a nominal sign up. Others download it online too via SoundCloud.
“Local papers are incredibly important in every region,” the Countess told the team comprising Johnny and volunteers Joy and Helen Jones. “They report news as it is – relevant news to the people in that locality. Your Gazette there has a story about the floods. We’ve been talking about floods in various regions. If there’s something on the TV or radio it will be one spot. It’s important to know what’s happening in the locality.”
Of course, the big story of the day – for the local press – was That Royal visit. Arriving mid-afternoon at N-Vision, the Blackpool Fylde and Wyre Blind Society, based at Squires Gate, barely a hop skip and a jump from the airport and a waiting helicopter, the Countess of Wessex had already tripped the light fantastic to the sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer in the Tower Ballroom and loved every minute as a self-confessed Strictly fan – and toured the Grand Theatre too and enjoyed some live performances.
Both attractions are celebrating 125th birthdays. At a mere 119 years old going on 120 it might have been easy for the independent sight loss support charity to feel like a bit of wallflower as the two tourism icons commanded the media’s interest – but that left the definitive scoop for the Talking Newspaper! And an open job offer – well, volunteer role – for a certain Royal next time HRH Sophie is back Up North – even if she can’t do the accent. Sorry, ma'am!
On a dreary day weather-wise, Sophie Wessex brought her own brand of sunshine across the threshold of N-Vision, initially into the Princess Alexandra Home, warming residents’ hearts with her unaffected style, grace and empathy.
From getting stuck into a craft session recycling plastic, to looking through souvenir editions of the mother-in-law’s coronation and Princess Alexandra’s wedding - within the namesake home the latter opened - to chatting to residents, staff, trustees and volunteers the Countess made time for everybody. Including two guide dogs – staff member Julie Barlow’s Jack and 16-year-old Anna Wignall’s Venice – who both broke protocol by giving HRH enthusiastic doggy ‘kisses.
“The Countess kissed Jack right back,” said Julie. And the Countess also confided in Anna, whose mum Janet is a long standing volunteer at the charity, how she wouldn’t trust her own Labrador as a guide dog – as he’d lead her into a pond.
Anna, who presented a posy to the Countess, said: “I thought she was lovely. She was very interested in what I had to say – and she was very funny about her own dog.”
Marion and James Shackleton, stopping over at the Princess Alexandra Home for a month’s holiday, couldn’t believe their luck in meeting the Countess, one of the hardest working royals.
“You come to Blackpool – and meet royalty!”
Social coordinator at the charity Susannah Stephenson also got the chance to shake hands with the Countess with some very special gloves – with which a resident had previously shaken the hands of Her Majesty the Queen and the Queen Mother. A Royal hat trick rather than flush.
After visiting the Low Vision Centre, with community services/low vision senior manager Maria Kirkland and Low Vision support worker Stephanie Beasley showing the latest in high tech aids for those with impaired or reduced vision, the Countess sat in on a specialist Synapptic software session presented by volunteers for client Ann, with whom she chatted animatedly, and also shared her own expertise in the area. She's more than up to the date with the latest tech and medical breakthroughs too.
The highlight of the tour, for many present, came when the Countess, escorted by vice chair of the board Barbara Whalley and CEO Ruth Lambert, stepped into a packed Sharples Hall, the social hub and heart of the charity, to meet charity patron Ges Naylor, newly retired consultant ophthalmologist at Blackpool Teaching Hospitals, board members, trustees, volunteers, staff members, supporters, fundraisers – and clients.
The Countess took time out to pose with fellow members of Lions International – Fleetwood and Cleveleys Lions – as patron of the Lions Clubs of the British Isles since 2004. Local club members volunteer at the Talking News and in other areas. Back in 1925 inspirational activist Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf at the age of 19 months through illness, called upon Lions worldwide to “become Knights of the Blind in the Crusade against Darkness.” Lions have been campaigning to improve eye health and eye care for hundreds of millions of people ever since.
As CEO Ruth, who asked the Countess to unveil a plaque in honour of the visit, put it: “The Countess could not have been nicer. She is a natural. She was utterly charming, engaged and engaging. It was clear that she had a very real interest in what we are doing – right across the sight loss community of charities nationally and internationally. There couldn’t be a better ambassador. And N-Vision couldn’t be more pleased.”
"The Countess could not have been nicer. She is a natural. She was utterly charming, engaged and engaging. It was clear that she had a very real interest in what we are doing."
Ruth Lambert CEO N-VISION