The King and I

Former Gurkha officer decorated by King Charles for 25 years of charity work in Nepal

“Some day out,” I said to my wife, Bev, as I drove along the Long Walk, the tree-lined avenue that runs for 4 km arrow-straight to the imposing grandeur of Windsor Castle.

From the backseat, there was an uncharacteristic hush from my two Nepali children, Alisha and Joe. None of us knew what to expect from last Tuesday’s investiture. We had no idea which member of the Royal Family would be honouring me with the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE).

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Philip Holmes with OBE(Photo: ALL PHOTOS: PHILIP HOLMES)

Intense security checks successfully negotiated, we were ushered past guards in bearskins and breastplates to the grandest of waiting rooms. This was the Waterloo Chamber, adorned with the life-size paintings of the protagonists from the winning side of the bloodiest of battles. I mused on how the previous week I had watched Ridley Scott’s movie, Napoleon.

Bev passed me the investiture booklet. From that we could see that His Majesty the King himself would be presiding. We were further informed that the King would be flanked by two Gurkha orderly officers, a tradition dating back to the reign of Queen Victoria.

It seemed this setting could not be more perfect, given that my OBE citation stated that it was in recognition of 23 years’ service to the people in Nepal. And the timing of this important milestone seemed particularly apt as the landmark 25thanniversary of the tragic death of my first wife, Esther Benjamins, approached on 4 January 2024.

It was Esther’s tragic suicide that led me to abandon what had been a successful career as a British Army dentist to set up a charity in her memory. At the time of her death, we had been living in Church Crookham, in the south of England, the former UK headquarters of the Brigade of Gurkhas.

We had Nepali neighbours and Esther had expressed interest in visiting Nepal, an aspiration that was never to happen. I set up a children’s charity in response to Esther’s suicide note in which she wrote that she had taken her own life because of childlessness. The Nepal connection, albeit tenuous at that stage, influenced my decision to work for children in what was 25 years ago among the world’s poorest nations.

Over the ensuing years, I worked with the innocent, dependent children of prisoners released from Nepal’s jails, a group of street children from Butwal, and above all the rescue of hundreds of child slaves (mainly girls) who had been trafficked into the misery and abuse of Indian circuses.

The latter program involved my going to live in Nepal between 2004 and 2012, by then remarried to Bev. This work spanned not only rescue but also rehabilitation and reintegration of the survivors and the prosecution of the child traffickers. I was proud to work with a committed team that through our daring work resulted in the permanent closure of two cross-border child trafficking routes. This was an unprecedented outcome.

Bev and I returned to live in the UK in 2012 accompanied by our adopted children, then aged five and four. But our passion remained undimmed with, for example, the two of us running the London Marathon the day after the first great earthquake on April 2015. Through this and other events and challenges, we raised funds that provided relief to the 2015 earthquakes, the 2017 floods, and the Covid lockdowns of 2020/2021.

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Philip Inspecting Saplings with Dev Narayan Mandal

We continue to build up a reserve fund at my charity, Pipal Tree, that will allow us to respond immediately to future disasters and save lives. To that end, I look forward to running the Rome Marathon six days after my 64th birthday next March, my sixth marathon raising funds for Nepal.

Clearly, King Charles was well briefed and quizzed me closely about my current tree planting activities in Nepal. The environment is a subject close to the King’s heart, and I was able to share with him how we have been pioneering in Nepal the rapid-growth Miyawaki Method of reforestation with Mithila Wildlife Trust in Dhanusha district, and proven how saplings planted in this manner grow ten times faster than those planted conventionally. It was clear from the reaction of palace aides that this was a very long conversation by normal investiture standards.

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