She'll always be 36. Beautiful. Stylish. Wistful eyes, but sparkling smile. The center of a dysfunctional royal fairy tale with a surprise...
She’ll always be 36. Beautiful. Stylish. Wistful eyes, but sparkling smile.
The center of a dysfunctional royal fairy tale with a surprise grisly ending.
It was 10 years ago this summer that I went to London for the royal funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The flag-draped coffin moved slowly, flanked by red-coated Welsh Guards in tall, black bearskin hats. I stood with the hundreds of thousands of mourners on the curbsides, the silence broken only by the clip-clop of horses’ hooves on blacktop. Hundreds of millions more people watched on TV. The day before the Sept. 6, 1997, funeral, I had wandered among the sea of flowers piled against the gates of London’s Kensington Palace, where Diana had lived.
Three lilies wrapped in cellophane caught my eye. There was a note: “When the carriage passes by, a bit of Britain surely dies.”
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I went back this summer to revisit Diana’s legacy. Was Britain still mourning the self-proclaimed “queen of people’s hearts”? Or was the royal biographer William Shawcross right when he said the sorrow was “wide, if shallow”?
On arrival in London, I could see that Diana still sells. Tina Brown’s new biography, “The Diana Chronicles,” fought for bookstore window space with the last Harry Potter tome.
People magazine rolled out a fat special edition with its 17 years of Diana covers. A pop concert at Wembley Stadium celebrating Diana sold out all 90,000 seats. Diana’s sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, basked in the adulation of the crowd.
I had been to Britain a few times since Diana’s death, but this was the first time I made the two-hour drive north from London to her grave at Althorp, the Spencer family estate in rural Northamptonshire.
Locals had worried that Diana’s grave would turn this horsy patch of countryside into the British equivalent of Elvis Presley’s final resting place. A kind of “English Graceland,” as one newspaper put it.
But the villages showed no signs of T-shirt shops, Diana impersonators or fast-food joints. Just an old coaching inn, a few pubs and large brick homes behind tightly latched gates.
At Althorp, I counted 60 cars in the parking lot. Not bad for a rainy weekday. I paid the entry fee (about $26) and joined the crowd of mostly older British pensioners making their way up the long drive to the visitors center built into the onetime stables. Cattle and sheep munched grass and fed in the green fields beyond.
Althorp has become Britain’s unofficial center for mourning Diana. Her brother, Charles, the 9th Earl of Spencer, opens the grounds to visitors from July to the first week in September. The twice-divorced nobleman still lives at times on the estate.
Dresses and condolences
My first stop was in the visitors center, where the exhibit “Diana: A Celebration” began with an eye-popper: her wedding dress. It’s a pearl- and sequin-bedecked concoction with a 25-foot-long train that had seemed to flow the length of the aisle at St. Paul’s Cathedral on that happy day in 1981.
The exhibits moved surprisingly quickly to her death. Video showed the reaction of the crowds at Kensington Palace as word spread of her death in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997.
Most of the visitors lingered longest in the long gallery of Diana’s dresses. Diana was a royal clotheshorse (giving away many to charity fundraisers). You can chronicle her transformation from frumpy girl to international style star in just a few steps as the outfits go from banal to billowy to sleek. At the end, through a clear pane, are stacks upon stacks of condolence books from around the world.
I found the second exhibit, “Diana: The Work Continues,” disappointing. It chronicles her charitable works but is little more than a series of photos, videos and placards.
In the small gift shop, visitors perused Diana bone china, Diana earrings, Diana tote bags and Diana wristwatches. The commercialism is odd but irresistible. I bought a Christmas tree ornament modeled on the shoe Diana wore at her wedding.
As signs point out, all profits go to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which carries on her charitable and humanitarian causes. Althorp tourism has raised more than $1.5 million since 1998.
In the afternoon, Lord Spencer strode into the gift shop. Shop girls swooped up copies of books for him to sign for those willing to buy.
Some visitors moved forward for the chance to meet Diana’s brother and chat for a moment as he autographed (“So nice of you to come,” he said to a middle-aged British couple), while others retreated at his rather assertive sales pitch for a $40 book on Spencer family history.
The next stop for visitors was a tour of the Spencer ancestral home. The family has been prominent since the 15th century.
After all the displays and buildup, it was time to visit Diana’s grave. A short walk along a wooded path leads to the Round Oval, a lake with a small island in the middle where Diana is buried. You cannot see a grave. Only a small Grecian urn marks the island. Diana’s grave is deep in the thicket.
A path leads around the lake, past an oak tree planted by Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela of South Africa. At the far end is a little temple marked DIANA, where visitors gather to trade memories and take pictures.
“I’ve been wanting to come here for years,” said Rochelle Cain, 39, of Farmington Hills, Mich. “I was a great admirer. She understood other people’s emotions. She was a natural.”
A quiet resting place
Publicity was the Pandora’s box that Diana opened herself but could never shut again. In death, she has what she rarely found in life: peace and quiet. The only living things near Diana’s grave are the ducks and geese in the oval, swimming by with their babies.
The British visitors who had stopped by for the day were more than satisfied with the sedate site. But some Americans who had traveled thousands of miles thought it not enough for the woman then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had proclaimed “the people’s princess.”
Libby DeChiaro, 44, from Freehold Township, N.J., came to Althorp with a group of seven relatives and friends spanning three generations.
“This is the main reason we came to the United Kingdom this year, to see Althorp,” she said. “We grew up following her life. She became a princess. It’s every girl’s dream. It didn’t turn out very good. But I have to say, this is not very impressive considering what she did for the world.”
Back in London, it was pouring. It was a good time to visit the National Portrait Gallery, which has a small exhibit of photos of Diana over the years, from the “Shy Di” of the engagement to the sleek, savvy style-maker of her later years.
The rain abated, and I took a long evening walk from the Black Lion Gate at the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens. I passed the playground, renamed for Diana, which had already closed for the day (adults without children are allowed in only for a half-hour in the morning anyway).
At the gates of Kensington Palace, the cascade of flowers that stretched like a carpet in the days after Diana’s death was, of course, long gone. But a sign on the wrought iron fence advertised an exhibit on Diana.
Once I had walked these paths with hundreds of thousands of people in the days just before the funeral. Now I was almost alone, winding my way to the much-criticized Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain at the south end of Hyde Park. (The fountain was designed by Seattle-based landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson.)
The moatlike circle is supposed to symbolize Diana’s openness. To me it looked like a long drainage ditch or perhaps a banked go-cart track.
I walked onward. The light bulbs flickered on outside Harrods, the department store owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, the father of Diana’s last lover, Dodi al-Fayed, who died in the Paris car crash with her.
Back at my hotel over Charing Cross Station, I reread a 2006 article from the Observer newspaper by Mary Riddell. “When the chips are down, the mugs glazed and the tea towels printed, Britain still cheers on its monarchy, sometimes beyond the point of reason. Diana was absurdly sanctified, in life and death,” she wrote.
Across from me sat Richard and Jan Gaskell, dressed in the fancy garb they had worn to a tea party to honor those involved in charitable work around the country. The Gaskells, who live in Kent, help teach disabled people to sail.
I asked if they thought Diana had been mourned too heavily or forgotten too lightly. Neither, really, they said.
“She was a nice young girl who was caught up in something that went out of control,” Richard Gaskell said. “It was a sudden tragedy, and people reacted to that tragedy. But so many things have happened since.”
“But,” added Jan, “she will be remembered. One day, her son will be king.”
If you go
The ancestral home of the Spencer family in Northamptonshire is open to the public from the first week in July to the first week in Septembe.r Tickets are about $26 for adults. www.althorp.com
Information on sites in the city can be obtained through VisitLondon at www.visitlondon.comor 800-462-2748. Information on the royal palaces (Kensington, Buckingham and St. James’s) can be found at www.royal.gov.uk. Diana spent much of her adult life at Kensington Palace.
Exhibits: “Diana, A Princess Remembered” at Kensington Palace runs through Dec. 31. “Diana, Princess of Wales” runs through Jan. 18, 2008, at the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square.