Meghan Markle joined Prince Harry for their first official royal outing together
Four days after announcing their engagement, the pair visited Nottingham, about 125 miles north of London, where they started their day greeting enthusiastic fans in the town center.
The couple arrived to cheers from the crowds outside the National Justice Museum. Meghan, in an ankle-length navy coat, often put her arm on Harry’s back as they walked slowly down the barriers.
While the two were greeting the crowds, one bold fan asked what it was like to be with someone like Meghan “as a ginger.”
“It’s great isn’t it … unbelievable!” Harry joked in response.
Among the lucky fans scoring a quick chat was Caroline Cartwright, who told Meghan she and husband Andrew were big fans of Suits. “I told her Mike [her love interest on the show] should be here,” Caroline told PEOPLE. “She said, ‘I don’t think he would be today!’ She is just as beautiful as she is on TV. She is absolutely perfect, most wonderful and perfect for him.”
Claire Kelsall handed Harry a celebration card made by her daughter Ruby, 7. “The card had ‘Congratulations Harry and Meghan.’ She drew a picture of the ring and it had a picture of the couple inside,” Kelsall, 28, tells PEOPLE.
“I told him that we are really big fans and would see him at the wedding. He was very, very pleased and asked where Ruby was. She is in school. I told him we’d come and see him at the wedding. He was very pleased with the card and put it inside his coat.”
She adds, “They are a lovely couple. They looked lovely together.”
When the actress met people she made a point of introducing herself, saying, “Hi, I’m Meghan.”
Waiting for the couple earlier was Frank Shelton, 79, and his 8-year-old barn owl, Kim. “Harry’s brought his bird so I’ve brought mine,” Shelton said affectionately. “This is something different,” he said of the couple’s news. “It was good with William and Kate — and this is the equivalent.”
Their first stop was the Nottingham Contemporary, an art center hosting a celebration for World AIDS Day. The event was backed by the Terrence Higgins Trust, for which Harry has done some work, including opening a pop-up shop for HIV testing last month.
“Is that Prince Harry’s wife?” asked Ale Araphate, 21, the captain of a football team for Champions For Change. “She is beautiful. Only a prince can have a lady like that!”
Sandra Spence, center manager for the Terrence Higgins Trust, said, “They were very relaxed. They fed off each other, which is unusual in a couple but nice to see. It was refreshing to see two people who actually gelled, as opposed to two people who needed to be together.”
Chris O’Hanlon, who is a peer mentor for Positively UK, a charity that helps people newly diagnosed with HIV, talked to them about his own diagnosis and the importance of fitness in dealing with HIV.
“I spoke to Meghan about my passion for yoga,” said O’Hanlon. “I said, ‘You are a big yogi and love your yoga.’ She said, ‘Absolutely, I love incorporating it into my life, it is something I have always done.”
He said the couple were “so natural” together: “They are very personable. It is very easy to talk to them because they are so open. They have a very jokey attitude. They seem amazingly comfortable together. You can see that it’s a perfect match.
“This may have been her first official engagement, but she was a complete natural at it. She was incredibly observant about what we were talking about, and very interested. She picked up on quite a few things that I was saying, particularly in terms of my own diagnosis. She was very empathetic.
“Not only will she make a good addition to the royal family, she will make an excellent ambassador to any of the causes she puts her heart and her mind to.”
Meghan also showed off her natural ease with kids.
As she met Lorraine Dube, 29, a volunteer with the African Institute for Social Development, and her son Ezekiel Wong, two, Ms Markle tried valiantly to coax him out of his shyness, stroking his arm and chatting to him.
“She is absolutely lovely,” said Lorraine Dube, a volunteer with the African Institute for Social Development who introduced her 2-year-old son, Ezekiel Wong. “You can tell that she loves kids. Ezekiel was very shy. She was trying to get him to say something. In the end he said thank you as she walked off, which I thought was really cute. She said he was a cute little boy.”
During a Buckingham Palace briefing on Tuesday, spokesman Jason Knauf said Harry was “looking forward to introducing Ms. Markle to a community that has become very special to him” in reference to Nottingham. It is there that he helped set up the Full Effect project to tackle youth violence and gang culture. For her part, Markle “cannot wait to meet many of the young people Prince Harry has told her so much about,” Knauf added.
In announcing the couple’s wedding date (May 2018) and venue (St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle), Knauf also noted that Meghan would be shifting from her longtime charity associations (including World Vision Canada and the United Nations) and moving toward partnering with Harry’s charities.
“Ms. Markle is incredibly grateful for the opportunities that she has had with World Vision Canada and U.N. Women,” Knauf said. “Through those organizations, she has been able to meet incredible smaller organizations around the world — but she has made the decision that she wants to start a clean slate and focus on the U.K. and getting to know this country and traveling around the Commonwealth.”
At Nottingham Academy, Full Effect mentors work with young people to provide positive role models and help them through difficult situations. During their visit, Harry and Meghan were set to catch up with Chantelle Stefanovic, who joined Harry at the recent Obama Foundation summit in Chicago.
Harry’s visit on World AIDS Day is seen as significant, say experts in the field. “He has been incredibly valuable,” says Dominic Edwardes of Terrence Higgins Trust. “Last year we saw a five-fold increase in people coming forward for testing” one day after Harry did the same.
“Apart from his great sense of humor and his ability to talk to people and his real interest in the people he met was his impressive knowledge and passion for HIV,” says Edwardes. “He is genuine about his interest in the subject.”
Edwardes adds, “He spoke to people who were testing for HIV and people living with HIV and he just connects with people. He is full of humor and people enjoy talking to him. It helps to humanize the condition and allow people to see those HIV affects.”
He says the prince “has a huge impact in getting people to think differently about HIV. There’s been a 20% reduction in HIV transmission in the last year. His voice in encouraging people to test is really important in the fight against HIV.”