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MONDAY 4 MARCH 2024

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Farewell to Ashley the Great Raconteur

AMONG FRIENDS: Ashley far left at the Spaghetti House restaurant in London in 2013 with, from left, Alastair McIntyre, the late Bill Reynolds, Ray King, the late Ross Tayne and Tony Boullemier


Ashley Walton, distinguished former Royal Correspondent of the Daily Express died on, January 3, 2023, after a brave fight against cancer. He was 78.

A great raconteur with a wealth of hilarious stories about his travels with the Royal Family, he was a much loved member of the World’s Greatest Lunch Club, whose exploits are chronicled elsewhere in the Drone.


Accuracy was everything for Ashley and, just to make sure no mistakes were made, he wrote his own obituary, reproduced below. It required minimal subbing.

By ASHLEY WALTON

As a 16-year-old Evening Newspaper copy boy, Ashley Walton sat in the Stalls at the Coventry Gaumont ogling Natalie Wood, the star of his favourite film West Side Story.


Years later, as a hardened Fleet Street reporter,  he was sitting beside her in London’s High Court during a libel case, chatting away as if they were old friends, and got a farewell peck on the cheek outside.

“She was impossibly glamorous” he said later. Not bad for a lad from a  Midlands council flat who had a difficult childhood but went on to rub shoulders with Royalty, top politicians, showbiz stars and to write two best sellers.


Ashley, called a “proper reporter” by Daily Express Editor Sir Nicholas Lloyd, moved on from his humble role on the Nuneaton Evening Tribune, to the Street of Shame and spent most of three decades on the Daily Express where he met and shared whisky nightcaps with Margaret Thatcher,  took a London bus ride with the future Princess of Wales, had confidential chats with Prince Charles, a curry with Eric Morecambe and a glass of the finest Krug champagne with Lord Mountbatten.


He had a reputation in the street as an accomplished gate crasher. He proved it by enjoying a very lavish banquet with the Queen as an uninvited guest in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

While travelling round the world, he managed to find time to peer down Joan Collins’s considerable cleavage, and go on patrol with the British Army in the most dangerous part of Armagh.


Ashley got himself blown up in Amman and witnessed the horrors of a couple of IRA bombs in Britain. He also visited Princess Anne’s bedroom, and the drawing room and kitchen of Prince Charles’ lavish country home —uninvited of course.


He was a top player in the infamous Royal Rat pack chasing Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie, and Princess Anne and loving the notoriety, especially the reply when Prince Philip called them “scum”.  “We may be scum Sir, but we are la crème de la scum.” Even Philip laughed.


Ashley operated in a very different world of today’s Fleet Street where journalists are locked in front of their computers often without any contact with the people they write about. The editors he worked with would say “go and talk with Mrs Thatcher, Jeremy Thorpe, Natalie Wood and even the future Princess of Wales. They meant face to face, not on the end of a re-written piece of copy.


He was doing a night shift on the Express when the Editor told him to get a couple of quotes from Mrs Thatcher on a breaking political story. Ashley climbed into a taxi and headed for Flood Street the home of Mrs Thatcher then opposition leader. The policeman on guard called upstairs and Ashley was motioned to go into the first floor living room. There was Mrs T in a pink quilted housecoat. “Will you have a scotch?” it was an order not a question. Ashley was still there an hour later, the second edition beckoned and he rose to leave. He needed a phone to file copy but Mrs T motioned to a cream phone on her desk.  So he filed copy with the future prime minister listening.  


The story made the splash in the second edition. The desk was delighted. So was Mrs T and she was listening and laughing when the desk asked where he was “I’m sitting beside Mrs T and having a drink.” The night news editor told him to “f..k off!” Thatcher heard every word.


She remembered Ashley the following year when he covered her pre-election three-week tour of Britain and singled him out from the media pack, with a “we must have another drink sometime”. The pack were dumbfounded and he did get invited to Number 10 in the weeks following her triumph.


During a brief spell on the Camberley News he was schooled in the art of gate crashing by legendary News Editor David Ellis. He rented a dinner jacket to climb, with his boss, over the wall at the nearby Sandhurst Military Academy. The Academy was holding a glittering June Ball and the local paper was not invited. Over the wall, a couple of Babycham into champagne glasses, and the two were inside mingling with the invited guests. 


 Ashley used the same advice of “blending in” in China slipping into the Great Hall of the People to see the Queen tucking into sea slug the traditional feast delicacy. Earlier the Palace had denied that the Queen would be faced with such a morsel. Ashley witnessed it and the slug went on front pages worldwide.


On another occasion he blended in to drive confidently up to the front door of Gatcombe House the morning after the Queen bought the rambling dilapidated manor for Princess Anne. He and loyal photographer Steve Wood toured the entire building before being unmasked, the film taken by police — but the real film was hidden in Walton’s socks. The two played the same game when Prince Charles bought Highgrove, but this time only managed the ground floor before being ejected.


Nothing stops a hack getting to the big story.  Banned from a dinner dance in Palm Beach, Florida, Walton sneaked past the Secret Service to watch Diana dancing with John Travolta. There was no spare seat, a technique he had used in China, so Walton crouched at the nearest table pretending to be seated. The ruse worked for some time before the lady next to him pointed out that Ashley was also peering down her formidable cleavage. “Do you like them?” asked Joan Collins. Ashley laughed so much with the other guests round the table that he collapsed on the floor and was carried out and dumped on the lawn by two burly bodyguards.


Ashley was Daily Express Royal Correspondent for 13 years at the height of the tumult over Diana and Fergie.  He was not in awe of any Royal but he was always polite and treated them with respect.


After retiring from the Street of Shame Ashley in much demand as an after-dinner speaker, delighting audiences with his hack’s tales.


He also wrote a bestseller about Diana with Don Coolican, in the gushing style of Barbara Cartland under the name Janice Dunlop which sold well in the US and UK and was translated into French and Japanese.  He also co-wrote with Phil Dampier The Duke of Hazard a best seller about Prince Philip’s gaffes. The hardback was presented to Philip at Sandringham by Prince Harry as a Christmas present to his Grandfather. Philip’s reaction is not known but his quotes became famous.


Walton first spotted the future Princess of Wales waiting at a bus stop in Earls Court. When she got on, Walton politely asked “Do you mind if I come with you?”  Diana laughing said “It’s a bus!”  That brief journey and the copy and photos provided a relationship which lasted through years of covering her engagements all over the world. He was among those she called at home to reveal exclusive access to her off the dairy social events, gold dust in tabloid circulation wars.


The story everyone seemed to like best about Walton’s antics was the time he knocked on Eric Morecambe’s front door in Harpenden. Eric was recovering from a heart attack and visitors had been banned by Joan his wife.  Walton had met Eric previously as Chief Reporter on Eric’s local paper the Herts Evening Echo. 

Joan said no but Eric heard his voice and Ashley was in. Joan, on her way to the shops, said that Eric needed to rest. But Eric had other ideas “Do you fancy a curry?” he said and the two went to the Harpenden Tandoori.  


Ashley got a great exclusive which was used all over page three of the Express. He paid the bill and couldn’t resist putting the £12 receipt on his expenses. The Managing Editor brandished the expenses. “A curry with Eric Morecambe,” he bellowed. “Pull the other one” and deleted the bill.


Ashley called up Eric who was only too pleased to dial the Managing Editor personally. “Walton is so desperate for his money that he got someone to impersonate Eric Morecambe,” shouted the by now very angry executive. When it was pointed out by the News Editor that it was indeed Eric on the phone he was still disbelieved and Ashley never got his £12.


He crashed Princess Michael of Kent’s wedding in Vienna and shared a glass of Krug with Lord Mountbatten before being, yet again, led outside. On the lawns of the High Commission in Delhi Prince Charles, clearly knowing that Ashley had met Lady Diana Spencer, asked his opinion of her. Ashley was glowing in his praise of the Prince’s future bride. What else could he say?


Ashley was happily married for more than 49 years to the former Joan Reigar whom he met at a party, They have two sons Nic and Oliver. He had two grandsons, Max and Luke, born in Cape Town, South Africa, where they live. He adored his family.


Ashley had a difficult childhood, both his parents went off with someone else and he spent long periods with his Scottish grandparents. He remembered spending Christmas Eve alone in a flat aged 9 or 10 while both his parents celebrated with their respective lovers.


After leaving Fleet Street Ashley became a cycling instructor for school children throughout Hertfordshire and saw another side of life. He also worked for two prominent charities, The Herts Community Foundation and Earthworks, a working environment for adults with learning difficulties. 


“I loved my job” said this proper reporter, “I would do it all again if I could.  How else would I have been able to ski down glorious slopes or dine beside the pyramids or play tennis under the palm trees of Mauritius.”














Lunching again, this time with Bill Reynolds, who also died of cancer


ROGER WATKINS, founder of the World’s Greatest Lunch Club, writes:


We’ll all miss Ashley tremendously: he was a great operator in the best traditions of Fleet Street and a wonderful, amusing pal and raconteur.


I recall Ash telling me two stories from his days on the World’s Greatest:


When he was a new recruit, Mike Steemson sent him over to the Cartoonist to ask Mike O’Flaherty and Paddy Clancy to return to the office. ‘How will I know them?’ Ash asked. ‘At least one of them will be at the bar drinking in just his underpants,’ said Steemson. True enough. There they were. ‘Mike wants you back in the office,’ he said nervously. ‘Tell him to fuck off,' came the reply. Ash returned to the building to report this exchange. ‘Oh, good,’ said Steemson, brightening visibly, they’re on their way back then’ as Ofers and Paddy, suitably dressed, strode in.


Another tale also featured O’Flaherty (why did they always?) who was so over-refreshed one evening that Arliss Rhind ordered Bob McGowan and Ashley to take him down to Charing Cross and put him on a train to Sevenoaks where he lived. Job done, they thought they deserved some liquid reward. When they eventually returned to the office, Rhind said: ‘All OK, then? Got him on the train all right?’ 'No problem, boss. Mission accomplished.’ ‘Oh, is it? Who the fuck is that slumped in the corner then?’


Later that evening, to prevent his charge from giving him the slip again, Ashley delivered Mike by cab to his front door, pressed the bell and fucked off sharpish.


Ash and I left the Express in the Great Sock Drawer Cull of ’96 and I didn’t see him again for more than 15 years. One day, though, Carol and I were sauntering along the seafront in Grand Canaria (as you do) when we came upon Mr and Mrs Walton lurking and reminiscing outside a bar. It was where he and the press pack gathered when he was writing splashes on the ‘drowning’ of Robert Maxwell in the early nineties.


Naturally, he subsequently joined the World's Greatest Lunch Club (80 meetings; 15 years). It was shortly after his last lunch with us in October that we learned he had cancer. So sad.


 CHRISTOPHER WILSON: I was very fond of Ashley and note that in his autobituary he makes no mention of his brief spell in the Hickey office. Either he'd fallen out with the desk and been sent to Siberia, or someone on high had the brilliant idea of a journo eugenics experiment, mixing news and gossip, but in he came by parachute.

 

Either way he enriched our days with his presence, though probably he hated being distanced from his true confreres, and pretty soon he was back in the newsroom. But he left behind some lovely bon mots — we had a fresh-from-Oxford trainee called Leanda Dormer (now respected Tudor historian Leanda de Lisle) who he promptly renamed Patti O'Dors (Dormer window = patio doors). 


Dear man, and a true emblem of the fun we had back then.


FUNERAL REPORT

CHRISTMAS 2014: Ashley, far left, with members of the World’s Greatest Lunch Club, in Joe Allen, London, and guests