How a call from Buckingham Palace saw a Welsh student become the first royal harpist in 130 years

Getting a call from Buckingham Palace would be a surreal experience for anyone - let alone a second-year student from Ceredigion sharing a flat with friends.

So when someone claiming to be from the palace phoned not long before the new millennium, it came, to put it mildly, as a surprise to Catrin Finch.

"I was living in Willesden Green in a flat with five others," she said on ITV Cymru Wales' Face to Face programme.

"It's 9:30 in the morning and the landline rings - because we only just had mobiles then - and my flatmate comes into my bedroom and goes 'Cat, the palace are on the phone', and of course, we all thought that was the most ridiculous thing."

But the palace it was, and they had a proposition that would set Catrin on the path to becoming one of Wales' best-known musicians. 

Preparations for a new millennium were afoot. To mark the occasion, the Prince of Wales wanted to revive the position of royal harpist.

It was a role that had been unfilled since the days of Queen Victoria - 130 years prior.

For the young Welsh harpist, just two years into her course at the Royal Academy, it meant student life took on a whole new dimension.

"Periodically I'd pack the car up - I had this quite rusty bucket of a Ford Sierra estate at the time - and put a fancy dress into my bag and bowl along to Buckingham Palace.

"It was like another world, and then I'd get home in time for last orders with my mates probably!"

Catrin aged 11 playing at the World Harp Festival in Cardiff

For Finch, originally from Llanon near Aberystwyth, it's always been a life less ordinary.

A child prodigy, she won the World Harp Festival as an 11-year-old.

At 16, she attended the prestigious Purcell School in London, before winning a place at the Royal Academy of Music.

A wide-ranging career has seen her collaborate with everyone from Sir John Rutter to Seckou Keita, a Senegalese musician who plays the Kora, a traditional, harp-like, African instrument.  

Along the way she's earned high acclaim for her innovative use of her instrument.

But there have been challenges too: none greater than when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018.

"Nobody can ever prepare you for that, really. But it happened and I managed to get through it."

"I had amazing care at Velindre", a cancer hospital in Cardiff.

"People often ask me what it's done to change my life, and when you get diagnosed with something like cancer, it does make you think because you're faced with the depths of despair.

"But I was lucky and I got through my journey with cancer. It does kind of bring that perspective on life."

Catrin Finch was speaking to Adrian Masters for the latest episode of Face to Face

Now cancer-free, the 41-year-old has been reflecting on a tumultuous few years in her life. 

In 2017, Catrin - the mother of two daughters with former husband Hywel Wigley - came out as gay and met her now wife, Natalie.

"I look back on my life actually and it's as if I sort of rushed through it in a way.

"I got married when I was 23, was pregnant with my first daughter by the time I was 25, and had two kids by the time I was 30.

"I think by my thirties, for the first time I took a step back, and I realised that there were some things that that weren't quite sitting right in my life.

"So I actually came out as gay in 2017 and met my wife, fell in love with her, and she was the catalyst I suppose to this big change in my life."

With the world emerging from the pandemic, Catrin is looking ahead to the next stage of her career, and the chance to help the next generation of harpists.

Later this year, she's helping bring the World Harp Congress to Cardiff, an event featuring nearly 300 musicians.

"I think as I move into sort of the second part of my career I'll probably do a lot more teaching.

"I probably want to give back a little bit of what I've received - so to do more with the younger generation of musicians and try and make sure that something is left behind."

Ever aware of the world around her, Catrin recorded a special arrangement of the Ukranian folk song Verbovaya Doshchechka during her visit to the ITV Cymru Wales studios in Cardiff.

It's a gesture of solidarity with the people of that war-torn land, and Catrin said there are plenty of other musical stories she wants to explore.

"Of course there are always things I still want to achieve, and there are still places I want to go and play.

"I'm very much of the mindset that I roll with the flow a little bit and seize opportunities as and when they come, and you never know what they're going to be.

"That's what makes my life as a musician and performer and artist a bit of a privilege. Because we do just kind of travel the world and we see where the path will take us next."

Watch the full interview with Catrin Finch on Face to Face on Thursday 24 March at 10.45pm on ITV Cymru Wales, or catch up here