The Last Farewell: The gates close on an extraordinary life

Althorp became a new place to explore for Diana after the separation of her parents. Charles Arthur pays his respects to the Spencer's ancestral home
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When the gates close this afternoon behind the cortege of Diana, Princess of Wales, she will have reached her final resting place, back inside the grounds where she player happily as a teenager and - by a quirk of fate - where she met Prince Charles and so began her rise to fame.

For 20 generations of the Spencer family, Althorp Park (and nearby St Mary's Church in the village of Great Brington) has been the full stop punctuating their lives. Though she lived in a world of mass media and instantaneous communication, and her image is recognised round the world, the centuries of tradition that have shaped her family means Diana must be no exception; she is returning to the fold in the sweeping, wooded grounds where she once lived.

It was here on the 550-acre estate that she used to practise ballet on the sandstone balustrades, and splash in the swimming pool installed in the grounds by her father Johnny. It was here, too, that in 1977 she met her future husband, Prince Charles. A shy, gawky 16-year-old, she was introduced to him while he was there on a shoot. At the time, he appeared more interested in killing birds than making conversation. She thought: "What an unhappy man."

Her final resting place will be on an island in the middle of a lake, hidden from would-be pilgrims; a memorial will be placed inside the grounds which will be open to the public at certain times of the year. The Spencer family have insisted that the internment should not be a public spectacle; they cancelled a procession over the one-mile between the church at Great Brington and Althorp to avoid that.

While flowers carpeted the west and east entrances of the estate yesterday, the gates remained closed. Hundreds of sheep, the original source of the Spencers' wealth in the 14th century, grazed contentedly on the rolling fields.

In June 1975, aged 13, Diana moved to Althorp with her father, elder sister Sarah and younger brother Charles following the death of the seventh earl, her grandfather Jack.

The next two summers were abandoned, happy ones: when she was alone she would metaphorically thumb her nose at protocol by dancing in the marble entrance hall beneath the portraits of long-dead ancestors - the sort of pictures that had scared her during visits as a young child because "the eyes followed you around the room".

She also became a well-known face in Great Brington. The village has the feel of a place that has let the years slip by. It has one small post office (which has been doing a busy trade in the past week selling prayer cards and commemorative Diana mugs). There is one pub, the Fox and Hounds, the stone entrance steps of which have been worn concave by the hundreds of pairs of feet that have climbed them since it was built in 1700. Almost every one of the 200-odd buildings in the village is either Grade I or Grade II listed, and the Althorp estate retains a covenant on each house which allows it to veto changes of use. There is no tea-house, no petrol station, no supermarket, no newsagent.

The Spencers first became associated with Great Brington and Althorp more than 500 years ago. In the 14th century many peasant farmers forfeited their lands in the area because the Black Death had killed so many workers and devastated trade so badly that few could afford enough seed to grow sufficient crops to pay their land rents. Land reverted to pasture, and its ownership reverted to the lord of the manor. In 1486, John Spencer of Hodnell leased the land.

The Spencers were professional graziers from Worcestershire, with huge flocks of sheep which they farmed for wool, meat and hides. Althorp was ideal grazing land, and sheep farming had low overheads. The Althorp estate was first enclosed in 1512; many of the woods in it were planted in the past 250 years by the family; the original woodland was cleared in Roman and Saxon times.

In 1516 the Spencer Chapel was added to the main hall of St Mary's Church, which dates back to 1206, on the hill at the highest point of the village. In the neat graveyard outside, the action of rain and lichen has erased many of the names on the headstones, though the Spencer graves stand in their own area, with etching so deep that even the centuries cannot obliterate them.

The longevity and aristocratic status of the Spencers is forcefully demonstrated when one learns that the Diana who is buried today is not the first Diana Spencer to have been associated with a Prince of Wales - though she was the first to marry one. In the 1730s, according to the local history: "Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough [who was Diana's grandmother] had wanted to marry Diana off to the Prince of Wales, but her plan was thwarted by Sir Robert Walpole, First Lord of the Treasury." Ironically, when Diana met Charles on that fateful afternoon in 1977, he was being pursued by another Sarah - Diana's older sister. That, of course, fizzled out.

To reach Althorp from the village, one follows a narrow road down the hill for a mile, turning to follow the old sandstone wall that surrounds the estate. A few hundred yards from the western gate, the wall suddenly drops to the ground, giving the visitor a breathtaking view of the main house, set among fields and trees in a plan first completed in the 1660s by Andre de Notre, an Italian architect who also designed the gardens at Versailles. At Althorp, he dug out an oval pond in the pleasure gardens, filled in the moat which had surrounded the main house and planted it with trees and shrubs. Avenues of trees were planted, stretching away from the mansion.

In the 1850s, Samuel Lapidge, the headman to the landscape designer John "Capability" Brown, designed a pond and island in a wood on the estate, and the arboretum. As a teenager, Diana enjoyed going there with her brother Charles to play. Somebody said their adventures were straight from Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. Today she returns to the same special place.

It will be peace at last for someone whose life was at times so troubled; as her brother Earl Spencer had said, she is going to a place where no human being can ever trouble her again. And the gates at Althorp will have closed on an extraordinary chapter in our history.