She gave up quite a bit, Lavender Patten, when she agreed to come to Hong Kong, but as the Governor's wife she's now got quite a lot. She has her own maid to look after her clothes, while he has his valet, something they managed without, back in their little flat in London. She's also got her own social secretary, to organise her day, and a grand house with a staff of 65. The house is a green oasis in a sea of concrete and glass, surrounded by 70-storey skyscrapers and 6 million whirling capitalist ants. The next day she was opening the garden to the public and expected 35,000 to turn up and gape.

She is slender and elegant, approachable yet evasive, nicely amused by the fantasy life she is now leading. We were in the garden, she holding her Norfolk terrier Whisky, not to be confused with her Norfolk terrier Soda, and he wanted to get down. 'He loves barking at gardeners,' she said. 'He has quite a choice here, as we have 12 . . .'

She described their grand arrival in Hong Kong nearly two years ago and the official welcome as they approached the harbour in the Governor's yacht, Lady Maureen, which has a crew of 12. 'I was rather stunned. Fireboats sent up cascades of water, there was a 17-gun salute and overhead came a fly-past of helicopters.' Helicopters? 'Yes, six of them. Far more than I've ever had in my life . . .'

All of this is fairly predictable. We know that being Governor of Hong Kong has always been a magnificent position, and that when it goes, that sort of life will not be seen again. Being Governor of the Falklands was never quite in the same league.

And yet, some of her more feminist friends still think she rather let the side down, sacrificing so much, for the sake of her husband's career, especially when you consider her own life.

She was born in 1944 - one month after the death of her father in Normandy. He'd been a hurdler in the 1936 Olympics. When war broke out, he'd just started a career in ICI. He was 33 when he was killed. One dying wish was that if the unborn child was a daughter, he wanted her called Lavender. Poor you, I said.

'That's what one of my godmothers told my mother, so I was christened Mary Lavender, to give me an option later on, but I've always liked being Lavender.'

Even with the obvious nicknames? 'I was called Lav at home by my brother and Lavvy at school. We used the word 'bogs' at school, rather rude, we thought, so it never struck anyone that being called Lavvy was funny.' Chris today calls her Mary Lavender, when teasing, or Maria Lavanda, when being kittenish.

She went to Roedean, where her mother had been. From before the war, her mother had carved out a career for herself, rising to be editor of the Builder. Then she remarried and moved to Nottinghamshire with her new husband.

In 1960, when Lavender was 16, her housemistress at Roedean called her into her study and told her that her mother had died - killed in a car crash. (It was her own error, by all accounts, perhaps due to falling asleep while


'Afterwards, I walked in the school garden with my best friend and I remember making jokes and laughing. I felt awful afterwards, to realise how I'd reacted, but I gather this can happen. It takes some months for grieving to begin.'

The stepfather then moved to South Africa, and by the time Lavender got to Oxford, to read classics at St Hilda's, she was homeless, with nowhere to go in the holidays. 'I stayed with aunts and other relations, but never felt relaxed. I felt I was a nuisance. When my brother got a grotty flat in Lewisham, I stayed with him and that felt a bit better.'

At Oxford, she decided she wasn't clever enough for classics, so changed to law. She met Chris Patten, then at Balliol, and he became her feller, or whatever it was called in the early Sixties. But when he went off to America after graduating, she did the dirty on him. 'I wrote and told Chris I'd met someone else. I suppose it was a bit cruel, but I half expected he'd rush back and claim me.'

He didn't, so she married the other bloke, and realised quickly it was a mistake. After two years, it was over.

Perhaps, with hindsight, there was an element of insecurity in her decision. She was looking for a home. Two years later, she rang Chris, said Hi, how are you getting on. He turned out to be free as well, so back together they came, got married in 1971, had three daughters.

One day in the winter of 1977, when Kate, their eldest, was four, and Laura was two, the central heating in their small flat broke down, so they dragged out an old two-bar electric fire.

While Lavender and Chris were in the bedroom, the two little girls were playing in the living room. The fire was switched off, but somehow, mucking around, the girls turned it on. 'I heard the most awful screaming and rushed in to find Laura's hand stuck against the bars of the fire. It was being melted by the heat. I had to force her hand away. It's a most horrific memory which still haunts me.' Laura, now aged 19, has had many operations on her hand, the latest, and very successful, one being last July.

Did you feel fated, that you were a person to whom terrible things happen? 'In bad moments I did feel that, thinking surely nothing else can go wrong, but on the whole I don't think that way. I'm not superstitious.'

As the girls got older she did some voluntary work then, in 1987, aged 43, she decided to start the career at the Bar she'd never had, doing her pupillage as a barrister and then joining chambers specialising in Family Law. Despite coming into the profession late, she had begun to establish herself.

These days, of course, she would probably have done the reverse, going into her career first, then taking a break for children. Which does she think is the better way? 'For me, starting late. I don't think I was confident enough in my twenties to work at the Bar. In those days it was very hard for women - and, of course, it still is. But the most important thing was my children. I wanted to build a relationship with them before I went out to work, deep enough for it to last for ever.'

So, come 1992, what a dilemma. Only four years into her career. Two of her daughters still at school. 'It was obviously good for Chris to take the Hong Kong job. No, it wasn't on the rebound from losing his seat. It was for positive reasons. And no, it didn't occur to me to put my foot down and say my job also mattered. I was quite prepared to lay my career aside for a few years. My main concern was for my family. Disrupting their lives was a real worry. We did some soul searching, knowing it would lead to separations, missing experiences in their teenage lives we'd like to have shared.'

Kate, at the time, was somewhere in South America, on her year off, pre-university. 'We never managed to consult her properly, as she always reminds us, but we talked it through with Laura and Alice.' Laura, aged 17, was at a comprehensive in London, and decided to stay. Alice, aged 12, was at Godolphin and Latymer, the west London private school, where Kate had gone. She plumped for Hong Kong.

Kate is now in her second year at Newcastle University, reading Spanish and Latin-American studies. They will miss her 21st birthday next month but will see her at Easter and give a party for her in London. Laura has left school and is doing a secretarial course. She lives in their London flat. 'And coping very well. She was on the phone yesterday. The central heating broke down, which seems to happen in our life, but she's got it mended.' Alice is at an international school in Hong Kong. It took her a term to settle in, but she now enjoys it more than her London school, which was all girls. Her new school is mixed and very cosmopolitan.

Good job you did leave Britain when you did. While you've been away, Tory MPs' wives have had a dreadful time, what with female researchers and so on. She smiled. 'Yes, it hasn't been too bad a time not to be at Westminster.'

There was some family drama last year when Chris had his heart problem. (One cynical side-effect was that Hong Kong share prices went up - investors hoping it would be the end of his confrontational approach to China). 'The problem was discovered when he had a bad pain one afternoon while playing tennis. After a week or two of tests, the doctors discovered two arteries were significantly blocked and took immediate action to clear them. We both found it hard to accept there was anything wrong. A heart condition sounds frightening and made us think he'd be an invalid. In fact, it's the opposite. He's fitter now than he was, but it was very scary at the time.'

Lavender is the patron of 57 Hong Kong charities and organisations, and spends a lot of time opening things, meeting people. As a representative of the Queen, she can't have a professional job, but she's clearly very busy. All the same, it can't be all that fulfilling, charming for England, waving the flag.

'I do miss my career, having intellectual problems to wrestle with. I have given a lecture to the local university on Family Law and maybe I'll do some more. But on the whole, I do enjoy it. I'm glad we came. It is a fascinating time to be here, at this historic moment. Hong Kong is the busiest city I've ever seen. It can be exhausting, but never boring.'

She plays golf once a week, getting her handicap down to 28, and also tennis with her husband. She sees a great deal more of him than she did in London, as he was stuck in the House of Commons most days and evenings, but they are not always alone together. Government House has hardly been empty since they arrived, with locals to entertain, cabinet ministers or VIPs arriving on official visits, British stars such as Elton John passing through (and being invited for lunch, naturally), or old family friends coming for a week's holiday in the sort of posho place they're not likely to experience again.

She was careful during our chat to say nothing that could have any political significance. Between now and 1997, when Hong Kong passes over to China, there are many delicate negotiations still to be done. But she has made one change that could be of interest to China watchers. (No, not refusing to wear a hat. She arrived in one, but has done without since. Tut tut, what sort of Governor's wife is this, muttered one or two elderly expats. Chris at the same time dropped his plumed hat.)

The change is to the interior of Government House, getting rid of much of the English-style furniture and redecorating. 'None of the furniture was very distinguished. The Japanese took over the house during the war and most things of interest had gone. The house did need a few things doing to it, so we took the opportunity to furnish it differently. Chris and I went to antique shops and bought most of the pieces ourselves.'

Chinese pieces, of course. So Government House, for the first time in 140 years is now decorated in the Chinese style. All ready for its brave new Chinese future?

'I'm not saying that was the reason. It happens to be to our taste. But it does seem to be more appropriate, as Hong Kong is 97 per cent Chinese, don't you think . . . ?'

(Photograph omitted)