It took six years for the Princess Royal to reschedule her visit to Exeter and District Community Health Services trust - her 1993 visit had to be cancelled because of bad weather.

But, in February 1999, she fulfilled her promise and was there to open a new extension of the Sidmouth Victoria Cottage Hospital.

For someone who organises royal visits 'once in a blue moon' - the previous one was by the Duchess of Kent in 1990 - trust public relations manager Alan Connett thinks it is 'an enjoyable part of the job'.

The smooth running of such occasions owes a lot, he adds, to the well- oiled royal machine which goes into action as soon as a royal visit is agreed.

Through the Lord Lieutenant of the county two, maybe three, inspections of the premises are organised - the police and Lord Lieutenant's staff walk the route and discuss security arrangements, crowd management, media handling and the details of who is to meet the royal visitor.

Eight pages of guidance notes from the Lord Lieutenant's office helped, says Mr Connett.

'Apparently bowing and curtseying is optional but preferred, and I expect one or two bedroom mirrors bore witness to a lot of practising.' It is worth asking 'the daft questions' of the Lord Lieutenant's office, he adds.

'It is better than seeing things go awry on the day.'

The Princess Royal spent about 50 minutes at the hospital. She saw the new extension, unveiled a plaque, accepted a posy from a student nurse and shared a cup of tea with volunteers from the Comfort Fund (part of the League of Friends), which had funded the£800,000 extension costs.

'The visit went like clockwork,' says Mr Connett. 'It lifted the profile of the hospital and provided some good PR.

'Normally the opening of a hospital extension might merit a few lines in the weekly paper but this got into the evening paper and on to local TV simply because we had had Princess Anne.

'It also went down well with patients, staff and volunteers and having a royal visitor definitely has the edge over visits by politicians.'

The costs are no greater than for any other official opening, Mr Connett adds. 'But there is lots of gain for the NHS.'

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