A member of the Royal family who officially opened Prior’s Court almost two decades ago has returned to mark the charity’s 20th anniversary celebration.

The Princess Royal (Princess Anne) was the guest of honour at the 20th anniversary celebrations of Prior’s Court on Thursday, 12 September.

Around 150 dignitaries and guests - many of whom have played a key role in the development and growth of Prior’s Court over the past two decades - were also present at the circus-themed celebrations, which continued on Friday, 13 September and Saturday, 14 September.

The Princess Royal had previously visited Prior’s Court on May 23, 2000, to officially open the school, after it had begun operations the year before.

As during the 2000 visit, The Princess Royal met with Prior’s Court’s founding patron Dame Stephanie Shirley who welcomed Her Royal Highness to the 50-acre site.

Since 2000, Prior’s Court has grown substantially in both its ambitions and its scope, with the Princess Royal able to see the wide-ranging changes in person during a tour of the site, accompanied by Mike Robinson, Prior’s Court Chief Executive, and other members of staff.

The tour encompassed a visit to one of Prior’s Court’s homes for young people in the award-winning The Seasons building, and a look inside the ground-breaking Bread & Beyond; a ground-breaking commercial bakery which provides vocational learning opportunities for young people with autism.

Mike Robinson said: “It was a huge pleasure to welcome the Princess Royal to our 20th anniversary celebrations and be able to show to Her Royal Highness how Prior’s Court has developed since 2000.

“What has remained the same since day one is our fundamental aim – providing young people with autism and complex learning difficulties the skills and tools they need to thrive, as envisaged by our founding patron Dame Stephanie Shirley.

“The Princess Royal was hugely interested in how we go about achieving this aim and learning of the very real difference our practices make to the lives of young people here.”

Following the tour, the Princess Royal watched a selection of Prior’s Court’s young people take part in a circus skills workshop and met with parents, trustees and staff members in two Big Top-style tents set up for the event.

Her Royal Highness also witnessed the presentation of gifts to Sarah Butcher MBE and Lynsey Preston, Director of Care Services and Safeguarding, Health and Wellbeing Manager respectively, who have both been employed at Prior’s Court for 20 years.

After the departure of the Princess Royal, guests, who had been treated to drinks and canapes, enjoyed a circus show in the Big Top before the distribution of celebration cakes produced at Bread & Beyond.

Many parents took the opportunity to thank Dame Stephanie Shirley in person for the difference Prior’s Court had made to their lives. Debra Reid – whose son Peter was working in the bakery during the Princess Royal’s tour - said; “It is impossible to over-estimate how thankful we are as Peter’s parents for all of the effort and hard work Prior’s Court has invested in him over the past ten years. Peter has made huge strides with you. Because of the range of expertise each of the practitioners have, he has managed to get to a position where he can cope with his anxieties and in so many ways thrive.

“We reflected on holiday how far has progressed. We are able to eat out as a family in restaurants, and Peter is able not just to cope with activities and holidays but actually to take delight in them. Prior’s Court has become a second home for him where he feels safe, secure and happy to be. He could not have been in a better place for such a formative period of his life; he has become a young adult of whom we are immensely proud.”

Mike Robinson added: “What was particularly special about our 20th anniversary celebrations was how it combined so many aspects of Prior’s Court’s values and ambitions.

“Being able to see and showcase the progress of our young people past and present, catching up with the parents of those people, interacting with staff past and present, and seeing so many guests who have supported us in so many ways over the years all went to show just how big a grouping the Prior’s Court family has become over the past two decades.

“Thank you to everyone who made the celebration such a memorable occasion.”