Althorp locals fear summer tourist invasion

In the nearby villages rumours are flying that Diana was not buried but secretly cremated and her ashes are in the church. Vanessa Thorpe reports
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The Independent Online
WELCOME to Althorp and Queen of Hearts Country! reads the jaunty road sign. Why not stop for a pot of tea at Ye Olde Spencer Tea Shoppe, or perhaps a pint at The Princess of Wales Tavern before walking up the hill to place flowers on the Diana Shrine in Great Brington church?

This is the nightmare vision of the residents of two quiet hamlets on the borders of the Spencer family estate in Althorp, Northamptonshire.

Every day during July and August 2,500 visitors will be invited on to the estate for a fee of pounds 9.50 to visit a new Diana museum, the Spencer family's stately home and the island where the Princess is buried. Most will go on to visit the church.

The tranquillity of the area is already in serious jeopardy. Earl Spencer's plans mean that both nearby Little Brington and Great Brington will feature prominently on international tourist maps.

Richard Scott-Herridge, of Daventry Council, is one of the officers charged with co-ordinating the influx of visitors. "On Wednesday the council will vote on a new provision to protect Great Brington and ensure that we maintain the character of the village. We have got to make sure that anything that happens is sympathetic," he said.

"They are already going to have to widen one road even though coaches will not be allowed on the estate this year. There are going to be new speed restrictions outside the main gate too."

Daventry's conservation officer, Ian Smith, believes public fascination with the area will go on all year round for years to come. "Even this week there are 30 or 40 fresh bunches of flowers at the main gate."

Changes to the villages around Althorp are inevitable, according to village school head teacher Barbara Lomas. "We have already noticed an increase in traffic on this side road. We counted 43 cars going past the school in half an hour, whereas before Diana's death it used to be about 10 or 15."

The Fox and Hounds is the only pub in Great Brington yet landlords Chris and Gail Murray do not welcome the prospect of increased tourist trade. "We are busy enough anyway and we like to be able to give a good service," said Chris. Gail explained that the couple have considered offering tea and cakes. "But then the place changes from being a pub," she said. "Traffic will be a big problem too, because there are lots of farm tractors using the roads."

However, a bizarre rumourmay spark even more interest in the area. In Little Brington and Great Brington, a persistent local conviction that Diana was not buried on her lake isle but wassecretly interred with her late father at St Mary's Church, is causing sleepless nights.

Villagers know that if the theory gains ground their secluded lifestyle will be borne away in a flood of pilgrimage.

Consequently, local historian Alan Burman is gloomy about the future of the landscape and the birdlife surrounding the estate. He also suspects a cover-up about the burial - a vain attempt, he believes, to preserve the peace of Great Brington.

"I would put money on her being in the church. The other story about the island just doesn't seem to work," he said.

"An estate gamekeeper has assured me that the Princess was cremated and then her urn placed inside the Spencer crypt in the church."

A conversation with a gravedigger in a nearby cemetery has only confirmed his suspicions. "He told me there is a real problem with burying coffins in any wet or swampy ground around here. He even said that one coffin rose up and was washed out into a stream, so the island grave just seems impractical to me."

But Mr Burman admits that the bogus burial ploy would have required the unlikely collusion of the Bishop of Peterborough, the man who consecrated the Althorp island and who has flatly denied the cremation story.

The vicar of the church, Rev David MacPherson, is firm in his attempt to counter local rumour. "I know it is a widely held belief in Northampton that Diana is in the church, but the wet concrete around the family vault can be explained," he said.

"After Diana's death it was opened in preparation and then closed when the Earl changed his mind. If the Princess is not buried on the island, my bishop and a lot of other people have been made a fool of," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Earl, Shelley-Anne Claircourt, also denied any suggestion that the Princess was not buried in the middle of The Round Oval lake. "The decision to bury the Princess on the island was taken early on, partly to protect Great Brington. A bridge was built out to the island to take the coffin out," she said.

Yet many villagers give credence to the claims of a taxi driver who says he saw smoke pluming in the dead of night from the chimney of the nearby crematorium at Milton Malsor. Chris Bailey, a spokesman for the group of crematoria which run this site, rejects the story and points out that any official cremation would require the involvement of three doctors.

Even this testimony does not convince some of the mothers picking up children from the village school on Thursday.

"I'm sure she is up there in the church," said one. "After all, the only thing she wanted was to rest near her father. And the church was shut up after the funeral, which was very unusual."

Inside the school, Ms Lomas is more philosophical. "Whether she is there or not, for religious people the church at Great Brington has become an important symbol because there is no visible grave or headstone on the island."

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