"She adores being a granny," a family friend tells PEOPLE

When 3-year-old Prince George and 18-month-old Princess Charlotte arrive at granny Carole Middleton’s manor house in Bucklebury, they can’t wait to see what’s new in her menagerie.

There, around a pond in the splendid garden, is a children’s paradise filled with ducks and chickens. “It looks absolutely beautiful,” a family friend tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The children love to come and play.”

This haven of tranquility — 50 miles west of London — is where Carole, 61, and her husband Michael, 67, have lived their 36 years of married life. Today, it’s where their elder daughter, Princess Kate, and son-in-law, Prince William, turn when they need a home away from home. From backup childcare (it was Carole who looked after the kids during Will and Kate’s spring tour of India) to setting an example for her three children (Kate, 34, Pippa, 33, and James, 29), the former Carole Goldsmith —who once worked as a flight attendant before founding her wildly successful Party Pieces business with Michael — is her family’s rock.

“I don’t think anything fazes [Kate] — she just takes everything in her stride,” says the friend. “A lot of this comes from her mum. Carole’s lovely, and she just doesn’t let anything faze her.”

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As the holidays approach and families gather for festivities, seasoned observers say Carole is taking on an unprecedented role in the upbringing of the next generation of royals. (She has even been welcomed into the front seat of Queen Elizabeth’s Range Rover!)

Carole was also center stage when William visited Africa over Easter. George and Charlotte were taken to the local church in Bucklebury, with the little princess being held by Kate while George sat quietly in a pew.

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“They all joined in with the hymns,” a villager tells PEOPLE, noting that the youngest family member experienced a few fussy moments. “Charlotte has certainly got a good voice! She had her moment. I think she believed the vicar went on a little too long with his sermon.”

For much more on Carole Middleton, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Wednesday.

And, as is often the case, Carole was on hand to help soothe her.

Observes Robert Lacey, royal historian and consultant to the Netflix series The Crown, “Carole is doing the things a nanny or governess used to.”

“Some locals think that Carole has changed since Kate joined the royal family, but to me she’s still the exact same person,” says a third Bucklebury resident. “She still goes to the pub with her girlfriends for a glass of wine and a gossip and is always really fun and approachable, relaxed and happy. She’s just as much fun as anybody else.”

The family friend adds, “She adores being a granny and always tells people, ‘I’m loving it.’ “