The Middletons: "normal" grandparents for a royal

Britain's royal baby will spend a childhood mostly surrounded by the stiff grandeur of the palace, but the home of ordinary grandparents, the Middletons, could offer a touch of normality.

Proud parents of Prince William's wife Catherine, Michael and Carole Middleton could not have a more different background from the royal grandfather who will be vying for the baby's affections, heir to the throne Prince Charles.

Descended from a long line of coal miners, the then Carole Goldsmith was working as an air hostess for British Airways when she met Michael Middleton, who was a flight dispatcher. They married in 1980, had three children, and made millions in a party supplies business.

Now as they await the birth of their first grandchild, just how big will be the role of the hardworking Middletons and what impact will they have on the future monarch?

These days the former Kate Middleton is grandly known as the Duchess of Cambridge, but she remains very close to her parents.

Her socialite sister Pippa -- whose figure-hugging dress at the royal wedding gave her one of the most famous bottoms in Britain -- is also part of her close circle along with her brother James, an entrepreneur.

Writing in the society magazine Tatler, Celia Denison describes the Middleton clan as "like a traditional Mafioso family; tight-knit, with a very clear boss".

And that boss is Carole -- "matriarch, financial director, fashion muse, groovy down-with-the-kids-mum and, significantly, chief grandparent to our future monarch," says Denison.

The attractive 58-year-old has been spotted shopping with Kate for a crib, and is expected to be a major source of support in the weeks after the birth. She and Pippa will reportedly be at the hospital when Kate goes into labour.

Prince Charles has said he is "thrilled" by the prospect of becoming a grandfather, and Kate and William are thought to get on well with his second wife Camilla, who already has five grandchildren of her own.

But as William's mother Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997, Carole will be the only "official" granny on hand.

"I would expect Carole, like lots of grandparents, will be giving Kate a lot of help in the first weeks -- whether it's helping with feeding or just taking the baby for naps so Kate can have a sleep," Claire Irvin, editor of Mother & Baby magazine, told AFP.

For second-in-line to the throne William, the Middletons' home in the idyllic village of Bucklebury in Berkshire, southern England, became a sanctuary.

"William delighted in the closeness of Kate's family, the relaxed atmosphere in the house and the humdrum nature of their daily lives," royal biographer Penny Junor wrote.

"With them, he could do everyday things and feel like any normal person."

Luxurious but informal, it was a place where he could forget his royal duties and the endless media attention -- and it could prove a similar haven for his first child.

There have been rumours that the Middletons faced snobbery from William's aristocratic circles -- his friends reportedly used to whisper "doors to manual" when Kate entered a room in a reference to her mother's past as an air hostess.

Carole is from a more working-class family than Michael, and has faced sniggers for slip-ups such as chewing gum as she watched William graduate from his military academy, or saying "toilet" instead of the upper-class's preferred "lavatory".

But the royal family appear to have welcomed the Middletons, and Carole in particular is thought to get on famously with Queen Elizabeth II's 92-year-old husband Prince Philip.

Michael and Carole are models of English discretion, refusing to speak to the press -- which is more than can be said for Kate's uncle.

Tattooed and shaven-headed, Carole's brother Gary Goldsmith -- who until recently had a home in Ibiza named "Maison de Bang Bang" -- gave a detailed interview about the couple to a gossip magazine.

Still, royal-watchers expect the baby to spend considerable time with the Middletons and predict that this contact with a "normal" -- albeit rich -- family will have a grounding effect on the future monarch.

"It certainly would be helpful for she or he to grow up with normal expectations of what to do and say and to understand a bit more about real, normal people's lives," Patrick Jephson, Diana's former private secretary, told AFP.

There have been suggestions that Kate will spend several weeks after the birth at her parents' home, but Jephson suspects that would prove impractical.

"You cannot have the world's most famous baby living secluded in a nice part of rural England," he said.

"There are good reasons why royal people live in palaces. This baby will live in palaces not just because they're comfortable -- but also because they're safe."