The pale pink peonies – flowers that Meghan has said make her ‘endlessly happy’ – are coming into bloom around Frogmore Cottage.
Their sweet fragrance drifts across the lawns and grounds of the five-bedroom home that the Queen gave her and Prince Harry as a wedding present.
For the house and gardens are being perfectly maintained by staff from nearby Windsor Castle, should the couple ever wish to visit.
But that’s unlikely any time soon. Frogmore stands empty as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex remain happily ensconced in their £14.5million, 12-bedroom villa – 5,400 miles away in Hollywood – where they are living rent-free.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are seen in LA wearing masks as they deliver meals to residents in need during the COVID-19 pandemic
When they made their decision to remove themselves from royal duties – and the UK itself – one point of contention was the £2.4million of taxpayers’ money that had been spent on renovating the Grade II listed cottage.
Although Harry offered to repay the cost as part of the ‘Megxit’ arrangements, officials were baffled at how he could ever do so.
But now The Mail on Sunday can reveal that it has been quietly arranged for the couple to start paying rent on the property, beginning last month.
Meghan and Harry are now paying just shy of £18,000 a month to keep Frogmore as their official British base.
It is being described as a ‘rental-plus’ agreement in which they pay more than what the commercial rate would be, enabling them to pay down those building costs with the excess.
When the Sussexes dramatically quit royal duties in January, Palace officials said the couple would repay that taxpayer-funded Sovereign Grant expenditure ‘and meet the running costs going forward.’
The clear impression was that the Sussexes would make a one-off payment of the whole sum, or arrange some kind of repayment plan, and pay any rent separately.
Intriguingly, this is not the case, with the capital costs being recouped via the increased rent.
Frogmore Cottage in the grounds of Frogmore House, Windsor. The UK home of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, Duke and Duchess of Sussex
Yet it would take more than 11 years of payments at the current monthly level to cover the £2.4million, without accounting for interest or running cost of the cottage. There’s no denying Frogmore needed the work.
The house had fallen into a dire state of disrepair after it was split into five apartments for courtiers.
Before the Sussexes moved in, it was refurbished to their exacting standards.
Meghan, 38, had even chosen eco-friendly, toxin-free and vegan paint for the redecoration, which was reportedly overseen by designer Vicky Charles, who was responsible for the interiors of Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire, a hotel and private members’ club popular with celebrities.
The couple agreed to pay rent on the cottage after giving up royal duties, and so allowing them access to the grace-and-favour accommodation, even though it is not clear how much time they will spend on the Windsor estate.
This is the sprawling £14.5million Tuscan-style villa that Prince Harry and Meghan and their son, Archie, have called home since moving to Los Angeles from Canada in March
Indeed, in the past six months, the couple have spent only about two weeks there, while their one-year-old son Archie has now lived more than half of his life outside the UK.
One of the reasons Harry and Meghan moved abroad was their wish for privacy and to put an end, as they saw it, to being in the media spotlight.
But while on the royal estate at Frogmore their privacy was totally protected, in California they are being photographed seemingly on a daily basis.
American paparazzi sit high on a hill overlooking their Beverly Hills mansion and have a view inside.
This week, photographs were snatched of Harry, 35, playing with his black labrador. The pictures – which were swiftly published on American and Australian websites – showed the dog paddling in the swimming pool, which suggests a drone was flown over the house.
The picture quality was so good that a purple plastic dog ball launcher could be seen as Harry laughingly threw it high in the air for the dog to chase.
No UK publication would ever print such intrusive images. As one Los Angeles-based photographer says: ‘Harry and Meghan were always going to be a prime target – pictures of them make a lot of money. They have become the No1 target.
‘It hasn’t been too hectic due to the Covid-19 lockdown but with that now lifting it’s becoming a free-for-all with helicopters and drones up over their property.
‘Harry and Meghan don’t have anything like the protection here that they had in the UK. It’s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire. Whereas in Britain the Press abides by guidelines, there are no rules in the US. The freedom of the press trumps everything.
‘Harry and Meghan are just treated here like any other A-list celebrities.’
As happy as Meghan must be back in her homeland, Harry must regret not having the seclusion offered by Frogmore Cottage.
It lies in the grounds of Frogmore House, a favourite royal retreat for more than 200 years within Windsor Castle’s Home Park, and where the Queen’s parents, George VI and the Queen Mother, spent their honeymoon.
And it is a bastion of privacy, with an armed police guard at each gate (there are at least seven) into the estate.
Moreover, all aircraft are banned from flying below 2,500ft over the area and drones are prohibited to ensure no aerial photography.
Indeed, during the two years Meghan lived in the UK, she and Harry were never photographed at Frogmore, and were only caught on camera unofficially on a handful of occasions.
The couple were free to come and go as they pleased, living a close-to normal life. Meghan enjoyed shopping for flowers and would often walk around the grounds of Frogmore and the private park with Archie strapped to her in a papoose.
However, now holed up in their faux Tuscan villa, owned by US comedian and actor Tyler Perry, they have been forced to erect fences to prevent prying eyes.
Inside, pop art decorations scream celebrity, including the giant illuminated installation spelling out the word ‘theatre’, a billiard room, luxurious gold sofas with matching heavy curtains and dark furniture.
The highlight is the English style library filled with floor-to-ceiling leather-bound volumes. And outside is the obligatory LA swimming pool.
Yet with a value estimated £14.5million, Harry and Meghan are unlikely to be able to buy anything as extravagant as this for themselves.
Wherever they end up living, Meghan, who has a keen eye for interior design, will want a strong say in how their home will be fashioned.
A friend who has visited Frogmore says: ‘It’s not as luxurious as you’d expect. It’s very tasteful because Meghan has great taste, but it’s all very White Company. Clean lines and neutral colours.
‘It was done on a budget – a big budget, admittedly – but it’s not quartz and marble everywhere. There are subway-style tiles in the bathroom and it’s comfortable and homely.
‘It’s a long, thin house so not as grand as people may imagine.’
The Queen’s accountant, Sir Michael Stevens, Keeper of the Privy Purse, revealed that the couple had been allowed a certain amount to spend on the refit and that they had paid the excess whenever their choice of say, bathroom suite, had gone over the allocated amount.
The £2.4million figure was revealed in the accounts for the financial year 2018-2019, and in the last financial year hundreds of thousands more were spent on finishing touches, such as landscaping.
But it’s unlikely the exact total will be made public as it will be absorbed into the general maintenance costs for the whole of the Windsor estate.
Harry is currently being funded by his father Charles out of the Duchy of Cornwall income, but he and his wife are expected to start earning money soon and stand on their own two feet.
As an American citizen, Meghan will also have to pay tax, as might Harry, too, depending on what his immigration status becomes.
Despite her stated commitment to become a British citizen before their wedding two years ago, Meghan didn’t stay long enough in the UK to qualify.
Last year, she renewed her US passport, and has not applied for a British one.
Meanwhile, royal gardeners are still cutting the grass at Frogmore every week and cleaning the house should its residents ever wish to return.
It is still officially their British base and the Queen has made it clear it ‘will remain their UK family home’ so for as long as they want it.
Whether they will ever be back remains to be seen. Certainly, Meghan’s favourite peonies will have withered long before she sets foot again in the Frogmore garden.