June 29, 2011 12:00 PM

As a newly minted royal, Kate Middleton can expect some company as she navigates her new life. She’ll have her own ladies-in-waiting (also known as personal assistants) and a team of advisers at her beck and call. But chances are, the future Queen’s new entourage won’t include a mailman with whom she’s on kissing terms. Only one man has known that honor: Ryan Naylor, who has made deliveries to the Middleton family’s home in quaint Bucklebury, a small village in Berkshire, for the past 16 years. When Naylor stopped by to congratulate the bride-to-be soon after her engagement, Kate hurried out to give him a hug and a peck. “She’s lovely—very ordinary and down-to-earth,” says Naylor. “The best thing to have happened to the royal family for years and years.”

That’s a sentiment shared by many, especially in Bucklebury, where Kate, 29, grew up in very comfortable surroundings, sharing a large red-brick home with her parents, Carole, 56, and Michael, 61; sister Philippa (“Pippa”), 27; and brother James, 24. Descended from coal miners on one side and tradesmen on the other, the Middletons aren’t the kind of landed gentry who usually rub shoulders with royals. But Carole and Mike made a very good living from their successful mail-order party-supplies business, enough to indulge in ski holidays and send their children to private schools.

As a young girl, shy Kate was close to her more extroverted sister, with whom she enjoyed usual childhood pursuits like joining the local Brownies troop, earning needlework badges and taking farm trips. Her mild manners were initially an impediment at her $30,000-a-year high school, Marlborough College, where Kate arrived midterm, having been bullied at her previous school, according to her old school chum Gemma Williamson. “She didn’t hold herself well. The poor girl—we felt sorry for her,” Williamson says. By her second term, however, she had blossomed into a “smiley, happy, sporty girl,” captaining the hockey team, playing tennis and running track. Although she wasn’t one for wild parties, Kate did show early flashes of the “naughty sense of humor” that Prince William would later say he admired, reportedly mooning schoolmates on occasion. However, says Williamson, on the whole “she was the most kindhearted woman. There are always cliques at school, but she would have time for absolutely everyone. That was what made her special.”

William obviously thought so when he met the fellow art history major in their first year at St. Andrews, in 2001. (He switched to geography later on.) The prince soon became a weekend fixture in Bucklebury, sharing a corner table and a bottle of wine with his lady at the Old Boot Inn and basking in the warmth of kitchen-table banter with Kate’s close-knit family.

After graduating in 2005, Kate worked for the family business and split her time between Bucklebury, London and the rented farmhouse on the Welsh island of Anglesey that she’ll share more permanently with William now that they’ve wed. Her new job with his family business will be a little more fraught, as the world monitors her every move and, inevitably, makes comparisons with the late Princess Diana. But William’s got her back on that one: “No one is trying to fill my mother’s shoes,” he has said. “It’s about making your own future and your own destiny, and Kate will do a very good job of that.”

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