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MONDAY 4 MARCH 2024

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EULOGY
Family wedding that Ashley was cut out to attend despite not being there

Joan Walton with the cardboard cutout of her husband Ashley in 2015

TONY BOULLEMIER mentioned this picture in his eulogy at Ashley Walton’s funeral

For all the news that Ashley Walton disclosed, he was responsible for one bit of censorship. And it happened after his son Nic got married.


Ashley had suffered a severe hernia and his doctor advised him not to drive down to deepest Cornwall for the wedding. But Nic was determined he should be there in some shape or form. And the shape took the form of a beautifully made full-sized cardboard cut-out of Ashley, which Nic placed on the stage at the wedding breakfast.


And so, when Joan asked me to read out Ashley’s speech, I found myself doing it with my arm round a 6 foot tall piece of cardboard.


The resulting photograph seemed like a perfect item for the Daily Drone website.


But when I asked Ashley if he’d mind me sending it over, the answer was: “Er, NO!”


Ashley Walton, former Royal Correspondent of the Daily Express, died on 4 January, 2023 aged 78. Tony Boullemier gave an affectionate eulogy at Ashley’s funeral in St Albans on 10 February which the Drone is pleased to carry in full.


EULOGY TO ASHLEY

By TONY BOULLEMIER

I have known dear old Ashley for 51 years. He was a top man in so many ways. A great reporter, a wonderful raconteur with a sharp mind and a great wit. And a best-selling author. 


A wonderful husband for Joan; inspiring father for Nic and Ollie. And a great pal for me and my wife Marie.  


I met him when we came down to London from Newcastle in 1969. I joined the Daily Express and Marie got a job on the subs desk at the Kilburn Times newspaper.


This was the paper that was guaranteed a front-page murder or bank robbery on Kilburn High Road almost every week. And orchestrating coverage of these events was the paper’s news editor, one Ashley Walton, even then a slick operator.


When the editorial staff threw one of its many drinks parties at the Swiss Cottage pub, Marie invited her old friend from Newcastle Joan Reigar. She and Ashley met up. And they were inseparable ever after. Marie moved on to a new job at the Hertfordshire Evening Echo and who should come along as her new boss in the St Albans office than Ashley Walton.


By now we were all close pals and in 1973 when Ashley married Joan we were very pleased to offer our house at Potters Bar for the wedding breakfast. 


When I saw Ashley for the last time, just two weeks before his death, he was still upbraiding me for sending him off on his honeymoon far too early with tin cans attached to his car bumper and a condom covering its exhaust pipe. “We were only going to the Cotswolds,” he protested. “We got there so early, I had to do it twice.”


Of course Ashley was a star at the Evening Echo and a move to Fleet Street was his obvious next step. I recommended his name to Brian Hitchin, our news editor and he offered Ashley some shifts.


In no time at all he was given a staff job.


He continued his upward path. And by the time Marie and I moved to Northampton to launch our own newspaper, Ashley had been promoted to Royal Reporter. He absolutely loved his job and he even named his dog Scoop. Because scoops were what he got! Some of them are listed in the in the obituary he so professionally penned himself for the Daily Drone website. 


There were very close encounters with Princess Diana and the future King Charles lll, not to mention Eric Morecambe, Joan Collins and a late night whisky, alone with Margaret Thatcher in her sitting room. 


As he said, he was one of the first to spot Lady Diana as a future bride for Prince Charles. And her old home was just up the road from us in Northampton.


He arrived at our door one day with photographer Steve Wood and two other cameramen en route to Althorp where Lady Di was allegedly thinking over Charles’s marriage proposal. We were all waylaid in the stable yard by her dad, the old Earl who demanded to know why we were following Diana and why three photographers were carrying nine cameras.


Suddenly a door opened and out stepped Diana, flashing that unforgettable smile, aimed mainly at Ashley. “Hello, boys nice to see you, she said. “Don’t worry about them, daddy.” And with that she was gone, tramping away on her own across the fields, no doubt pondering Charles’s proposal.


Some years later Ashley again stopped off for lunch with us en route to Althorp. This time he was in the company of an up-and-coming reporter whom he introduced to us as Andrew Morton. And of course, when Morton, met Diana, because of Ashley, it set off a chain of events that was to change royal history.


Over all of this time our families had become great friends. We spent weekends at one another’s homes where Ashley’s endless store of anecdotes were in great demand at dinner parties. And we took numerous holidays together.


We had both taken up skiing – for Ashley it was essential for following the royal family around the Alps. In fact, we both did so much skiing we were nearly as good at it, as we thought we were. And Ashley was additionally adept at nailing down the best Alpine chalets for lunch and chic restaurants for dinner.


Our children and Ashley’s boys Nic and Ollie got on brilliantly. Nic and our Richard raced each other down the slopes and 12-year-old Ollie would pootle down the trickiest of pistes with our daughter Kerry, the pair of them chattering non-stop like an old married couple.


Every Boxing Day we would spend at each other’s houses and Ashley would inevitably arrive for lunch via a morning at Sandringham, covering the Royal Family’s church outing. He would observe every scrap of body language, every uttered aside, every fashion statement and we were the first to hear about it.


As his editor Sir Nick Lloyd said, Ashley was “a proper reporter” and when chief subbing at the Express I always marvelled how he could spin just one quote into a splash or a page lead.


It was at Sandringham – in the woods – where he had an alarming encounter with the Duke of Edinburgh. Ashley made a perfectly reasonable request for a quote in praise of some recent prompt actions by the crew of the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Duke responded by thrusting his face right into Ashley’s. And they were actually touching one another nose to nose, when Philip told him to Eff off!


Yes, Ashley always got close to the story, like the time he was sent to Gran Canaria to find why Robert Maxwell had drowned at sea. He phoned the news desk from the hospital room right next to where the autopsy was being carried out. “What’s happening in there?” asked the news desk.

“They are removing the top of Maxwells’ head with a circular saw,” reported Ashley and held his phone to the door so the news desk could hear the sound. I gather this was replayed to the whole Express newsroom when the call was put through the office Tannoy. 


Of course, all good things have to come to an end. In 1996 he received the brown redundancy envelope in another round of crazy cuts by the Express that have seen the paper’s fortunes spiralling ever downwards. He was free to spend more time with his allotment and his beloved garden and he became an enthusiastic cyclist. 


But you can’t keep a good journalist down. He went on to edit two weekly newspapers and became a leading member and entertainer at the ‘World’s Greatest Lunch Club’ for retired journos. 


And he got back to book writing. He had already written Charles and Diana, a Royal Romance which sold very well. But he surpassed this by miles with Duke of Hazard, the Wit and Wisdom of Prince Philip, written in partnership with Phil Dampier.


This and its spin-off titles like What’s in the Queen’s Handbag have sold nearly 100,000 copies at the last count. Myself and other book-writing journos are speechless with admiration.


As I said, we last saw Ashley just before Christmas and he was not at his best. Like Spike Milligan he told us he was ill, but he still managed to raise a smile, recalling endless antics and anecdotes about the incredible people he had met and worked with.


He was so skilled at gate-crashing events and getting himself right at the front of any queue, he’d even received a personal blessing from John Paul, the Polish goal-keeping Pope.


And when Ashley presents his Press pass at the Pearly Gates, I fully expect the old Pope will be there to welcome him in.   

FUNERAL REPORT

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