The Duchess of Cornwall expressed hope that the country is over the worst of the Covid pandemic as she and the Prince of Wales ditched their face masks for a royal visit.

Her comment came during an impromptu walkabout in the grounds of Exeter Cathedral, where she met members of the public in numbers not seen for more than a year.

But the Duchess sounded a cautious note, telling one well-wisher the nation had to be careful and another that she had not quite got round to shaking hands with people again.

Although both royals went mask-free, an aide said: "If they are visiting a museum and the museum’s policy is that it still asks people to wear masks, then they will respect that."

Earlier this month, the Duchess revealed she was looking forward to ditching her mask, telling a Welsh college student: "I can’t wait to get rid of these."

Details of the couple’s visit to the cathedral, which marked the start of their three-day annual tour of Devon and Cornwall, were released in advance – another sign of a return to normality that meant around 100 people turned out in blazing sunshine to welcome them.

The royal couple chat to well-wishers outside the cathedral…

Credit: Chris Jackson/PA

…and meet members of the choir inside the building

Credit: Chris Jackson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The couple, greeted with cheers as they arrived, met representatives from community groups including the Devon Wildlife Trust and Parklife Heavitree to hear about their work.

The Duchess also met workers from the Exeter City Community Trust, chatting to volunteers about its  homeless outreach programme. 

She then made a beeline for a queue of residents who had been waiting for the royals to arrive. She chatted to Exeter resident Sarah Clarke, who said afterwards: "She said it’s lovely to be here and hopefully we’re over the worst of it, and I said ‘fingers crossed’.  She also said we’ve just got to be careful."

Monday has been described as "Freedom Day”, with most legal Covid restrictions in England lifted as the Government moves to step four of its roadmap.

For the first time since March last year, the two-metre rule is no longer being enforced and face coverings are no longer required by law, but the Government has said it "expects and recommends” that they are worn in crowded locations such as public transport.

The royal couple also chatted to Tuesday Masding, a senior healthcare assistant with the North Devon Healthcare Trust.

The NHS worker said after speaking to the Duchess: "We were just discussing the relaxation of rules and how she hasn’t quite got around to shaking hands with people, and I said that’s probably an appropriate reaction."

Prince Charles, who is patron of the Exeter Cathedral Development Appeal, met donors and fundraisers as well as young people from Devon Nursing Cadets to formally launch the Royal College of Nursing Prince of Wales Nursing Cadet Scheme in England.

Prince Charles examines some of the cathedral's historic treasures with the Very Reverend Jonathan Greener, the Dean of Exeter

Credit: Chris Jackson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

He also spoke to staff from the Met Office, who are working in collaboration with the cathedral and Exeter University on climate change research.

The Dean of Exeter, the Very Reverend Jonathan Greener, hailed the visit, saying: "It was a wonderful experience on such a lovely day – the first day of freedom. What more could you ask for?

"The sun’s shining, we don’t have to wear masks, they were both on sunny form – it was marvellous, and they were so interested in what people were telling them."

The Prince later paid a visit to St Sidwell’s Bus Depot in Exeter, meeting the transport workers and "Net Zero Heroes" involved in the city council’s project to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2030.

The Duchess, meanwhile, went to textile and homeware company Weaver Green at Heron Valley Orchards, Loddiswell, in Kingsbridge.