`Gifted, warm and kind'

The Royal Family went a long way towards recapturing the affections of offended mourners yesterday when they left behind their private grieving at Balmoral and joined the throng in London.

In an unprecedented live broadcast last night, the Queen made a generous tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, describing her as "exceptional, gifted, warm and kind". As dusk fell, with only hours to go before the funeral service at Westminster Abbey, it looked as if the Royal Family had satisfied their critics.

It was a day of startling images designed to sweep away the impressions of aloofness and formality that had caused so much public anger during the six days since Diana's death.

The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Princes William and Harry mixed with mourners, reducing many to tears as they surveyed the vast carpets of flowers and tributes that had been laid at Buckingham, Kensington and St James's palaces.

At last, they paid their respects at the Princess of Wales's coffin at St James's Palace before it was moved last night past hundreds of thousands of mourners lining the route to Kensington Palace, from which it will begin its journey at 9.08am today to the Abbey.

The Prince of Wales, Princes Harry and William and members of the Spencer family were in the three-car motorcade that accompanied the hearse. Those they passed stood silently in drizzling rain, some weeping, others throwing flowers. Despite the inclement weather, the route of today's procession was already filling up with thousands of people prepared to camp out. Some predictions put the final crowd at up to 6 million.

As a television audience estimated at 2 billion prepared to witness Diana's funeral service, it appeared that the personal visits and the Queen's televised address had been sufficiently uplifting to avoid the kind of embarrassing crowd scenes that were predicted by some earlier in the week.

The address was made from the Chinese Dining Room at Buckingham Palace and had a backdrop of crowds of mourners outside. It was a dignified performance, although some supporters of Diana's described it as too formal and a little cold.

However, there was no doubting its sentiments as the Queen said: "[Diana] was an exceptional and gifted human being. In good times and bad, she never lost her capacity to smile and laugh, nor to inspire others with her warmth and kindness. I admired and respected her - for her energy and commitment to others, and especially for her devotion to her two boys."

The most moving spectacle of the day was to be seen at Kensington Palace where Princes Charles, William and Harry appeared overcome by the scenes of sorrow and thanksgiving. After flying down from Aberdeen, the princes are understood to have asked to be taken immediately to Kensington Palace, their home since the Wales's separation in 1992.

When they arrived at the gates, they were clearly overwhelmed. Harry, 12, and William, 15, wearing dark suits, black ties and blue shirts, maintained a calm dignity, although onlookers said Harry wiped tears from his eyes on several occasions.

The crowd was instantly won over. Rosalind Wederell from Chatham, Kent, said: "Prince Charles said to me, `We appreciate you coming, we appreciate all the flowers, we are very touched.' [He] seemed overwhelmed and somehow a lot more human than he ever seemed to be before.

"I said to William `You are a wonderful boy' and he smiled at me. Harry took my flowers and shook my hand. It was so emotional. I had taken a day's leave from work today as I felt that I really had to visit Kensington Palace and it was incredible but so necessary that they made this gesture today. Somehow I feel more complete after having spoken to them."

The reaction of mourners was similar at Buckingham Palace when the Queen and Prince Philip returned. Onlookers said they had tears in their eyes as they spoke to mourners and thanked them for their tributes.

At one point, the Queen's apprehension at the anger that had welled up earlier in the week became apparent when a little girl offered her some flowers.

The child's grandmother, Enid Jones from Brighton, said: "My granddaughter gave her some flowers and the Queen was really pleased. She nearly didn't take them and asked if they were really for her.

"We said we thought she needed some. People say they don't care - but they were both obviously filling up with tears."

Kay Foulger, 55, from Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, said she offered the Queen words of encouragement.

"I told the Queen, `Ma'am, it is very brave of you to come here and see us'. You could see she was bearing up but that she had been upset and had had a good weep. I think she has been a bit isolated so far and she could have put a statement out earlier, but I hope she has made up for that now."

The Royal Standard was hoisted to show the Queen was in residence but a Palace spokesman said an incident in which it appeared to hover at half- mast was an accident and not a mark of respect.

The Prime Minister and his wife visited Westminster Abbey to see how preparations were going, as did Diana's sisters, Lady Sarah McCorquodale and Lady Jane Fellowes, and Elton John, who will sing a revised version of "Candle in the Wind". At Westminster Cathedral, a Mass was said. Diana's mother, Frances Shand-Kydd attended.

Last night the Prince of Wales and his sons were back in Buckingham Palace, preparing for their ordeal today.