Remembering the day The Duchess of Cambridge came to open The Treehouse in Ipswich

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge - Credit: Archant

Friday marks five years since the first care shift was completed at The Treehouse children’s hospice in Ipswich.

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge visits the East Anglian Childrens Hospice in Ipswich to officially open

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge visits the East Anglian Childrens Hospice in Ipswich to officially open the Treehouse.

In a series of features this week, Lauren Hockney will look back at the £3million fundraising appeal, talk to those who benefit from its care, as well as its amazing staff.

Today, we remember when it was officially opened by East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH) Royal Patron – Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge. There was a party like atmosphere on the day The Duchess of Cambridge came to Ipswich.

Hundreds of people, including supporters of The Treehouse Appeal, children and families, turned out to greet the popular royal, waving Union flags and enjoying music, stilt walkers and acrobatic displays on what was a momentous day for East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices (EACH).

But for the Duchess, March 19, 2012, was also a day to remember.

Crowds start to gather at the EACH Treehouse in anticipation of the Duchess of Cambridge's visit.

Crowds start to gather at the EACH Treehouse in anticipation of the Duchess of Cambridge's visit. - Credit: Archant

As the charity’s royal patron she was invited to open The Treehouse, which first opened its doors to children with life-limiting illnesses on May 13, 2011, and it was to be where she would give her first official public speech after marrying Prince William on April 29 that year.

She also took a tour of the facilities, met children and parents/carers who use EACH’s vital services, and planted an oak tree to symbolise the opening.

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By her own admission she was nervous, but the “inspirational” work of EACH moved her to pass on a heartwarming message.

In her speech the Duchess said: “Today I have seen again that The Treehouse is all about family and fun.

Street entertainers at the opening of the Treehouse

Street entertainers at the opening of the Treehouse - Credit: Archant

“For many, this is a home from home – a lifeline, enabling families to live as normally as possible during a very precious period of time.

“What you do is inspirational, it is a shining example of the support and the care that is delivered, not just here, but in the children’s hospice movement at large, up and down the country.

“The feelings you inspire – feelings of love and of hope – offer a chance to families to live a life they never thought could be possible.”

The Treehouse was built after a hugely successful fundraising campaign, supported by the East Anglian Daily Times and BBC Suffolk, raised £3million to fund the building.

The Duchess of Cambridge visits the EACH Treehouse in Ipswich.

The Duchess of Cambridge visits the EACH Treehouse in Ipswich. - Credit: Archant

The previous building run by EACH, which was also based in Ipswich, was just a bungalow which soon outgrew the weight of demand after it first opened in March 1999.

During her visit, the Duchess was presented with a posie by six-year-old Tilly Jennings, from Felixstowe, who was diagnosed with a heart condition as a baby and had received care at the hospice, and Bethany Woods, then aged 10, who suffers from a rare form of muscular dystrophy.

She also heard Bethany, from Ipswich, perform a rendition of the song, Rainbow Connection, from The Muppet Movie.

Various dignitaries greeted the Duchess on the day, including the Lord-Lieutenant of Suffolk, Suffolk High Sheriff, Suffolk County Council’s chairman, the mayor of Ipswich, and EACH executives, including Graham Butland, who still holds the role of chief executive.

The Duchess of Cambridge opens The EACH Treehouse Hospice, Ipswich
Tilly Jennings

The Duchess of Cambridge opens The EACH Treehouse Hospice, Ipswich Tilly Jennings - Credit: Archant

He said the day “became a production” thanks to the performers and electric atmosphere which had built up at the St Augustine’s Gardens site. The occasion also helped to “catapult” EACH into the international spotlight.

Mr Butland explained before she made her speech the Duchess spent around ten minutes with the family of Mackenzie Cackett, from Halstead in Essex, who were at The Treehouse for end of life care at the time. The four-year-old died just a couple of months later following a battle with brain and spinal tumours.

Mr Butland said: “She was extremely nervous. I was pretty sure seeing him would touch her so suggested she did the speech first and she held herself together really well. The chairman was not used to doing speeches at all and of course neither was she, and not just to the 200 people in front of her, but Sky was beaming it out to the rest of the world.

“As she stepped down I was able to say ‘well done maam’ and I could see a sigh of relief coming over her.

Duchess of Cambridge joins in a music class during her visit to the Treehouse, part of the East Ang

Duchess of Cambridge joins in a music class during her visit to the Treehouse, part of the East Anglia's Children's Hospices - Credit: PA

“We feel at EACH we have grown up with her. We’re very proud to have her as our patron, but more proud of the services we offer.”

Mr Butland took up his role in 2003 after retiring from his job within the NHS.

He was approached by the palace about an event which could mark the Duchess accepting the royal patronage, which was how it came about that she came to open the “first class” Treehouse.

“I can still see the bungalow now in my mind,” Mr Butland said.

Duchess of Cambridge leaves after her visit to the Treehouse

Duchess of Cambridge leaves after her visit to the Treehouse - Credit: PA

“It was totally out of keeping and when I first came to EACH they said then they wanted to build a purpose built building in Ipswich, then it went like a rocket from there.

“Not only has it provided a first class facility for Suffolk and north Essex, which is the most important thing, but also it’s raised our profile internationally which the Duchess has played an important part in.”

A Royal guest

Organising a Royal visit was a first for the communications team at EACH.

Duchess of Cambridge makes a speech during her visit

Duchess of Cambridge makes a speech during her visit - Credit: PA

The scale of what needed to be done ahead of the Duchess arriving was completely “new territory” according to Simon Hempsall, the charity’s head of marketing and communications.

“There was a lot riding on it, It was her first public speech and our first Royal visit,” he said.

“We were inundated by requests from the media from around the world and the day itself was like nothing we’d experienced before – the sheer scale was unimaginable compared to what we were used to as a small local regional comms team.”

Hundreds of media outlets – including radio, local and national newspapers and TV news crews, such as Sky and CNN – wanted a slice of the action, not to mention the scrum of photographers who all wanted to be there to capture the Duchess’s visit on camera.

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge visits the East Anglian Childrens Hospice in Ipswich to officially open

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge visits the East Anglian Childrens Hospice in Ipswich to officially open the Treehouse.

An area was set up for around 60 photographers, reporters and correspondents. Despite a number of photographers not being permitted a pass, many still turned up on the day which meant an additional press pen had to be set up outside The Treehouse grounds.

Around seven satellite vans were parked in the car park as the world’s media descended on Ipswich, which overnight propelled EACH into the national and international spotlight.

However, all the hard work and preparation paid off as everything went “perfectly” on the day.

Mr Hempsall said: “A calm came over us all just before she arrived, we covered absolutely everything. We were all really proud, she met all the families, had a full tour and it was a really enjoyable day.

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge

HRH The Duchess of Cambridge

“Moving from such a small bungalow to a purpose-built, fantastic facility made a massive difference to the support we can offer local families. Right from the word go when we launched the appeal the support was amazing and created this wave of community spirit to get the building built.

“We feel proud we are seen as leaders in our field and long may it continue.”

Kate receives flowers from Bethany Woods and Tilly Jennings

Kate receives flowers from Bethany Woods and Tilly Jennings

Kate had a guided tour of the new hospice

Kate had a guided tour of the new hospice

Kate in a music session at The Treehouse

Kate in a music session at The Treehouse - Credit: Archant