Military pallbearers and a single wreath accompany body

It was an occasion marked by a sombre simplicity: no band or military orders echoed across the tarmac of RAF Northolt, just the wind and the slow march of the pallbearers.

At one minute past seven, lit by the sunshine of an August evening, the coffin carrying the body of Diana, Princess of Wales, was removed from the aircraft's cargo hold, draped in a gold and maroon Royal Standard flag.

A sombre Prince Charles emerged from of the aircraft, accompanied by the Princess's sisters Lady Jane Fellowes and Lady Sarah McCorquodale.

The pallbearers, from the Royal Air Force's Queen's Fleet Colour Squadron, dressed in dark grey uniform and wearing black arm bands, slowly raised the coffin to shoulder height, turned and moved slowly away, the setting sun glinting on their immaculately polished shoes.

They slow marched the coffin the 117 steps to the hearse, followed by two escorts with ceremonial swords and a wreath bearer, carrying a single wreath from the Spencer family.

Prince Charles swept a hand through his hair as Diana's sisters stepped into a waiting Daimler to follow the hearse on its journey to an undisclosed mortuary.

Diana had been returned to a country she sometimes seemed to hate - she often said the only reason she stayed in Britain was to be near her two sons; she had planned to return to Kensington Palace yesterday morning, to be reunited with William and Harry after her holiday.

Stiff-backed, Prince Charles then spoke to Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, and to George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence. Among the waiting dignitaries were Lord Airlie, the Lord Chamberlain, head of the Queen's Household and the Base's chaplain, dressed in a striking scarlet robe - a single splash of colour among the black suits.

Prince Charles, looking serious but composed, had fiddled nervously with his cufflinks during the coffin's slow procession. He walked back to the waiting plane to return to Balmoral - Buckingham Palace said he was "going back to the boys".

Tony Blair and the other dignitaries waited until the plane was airborne before dispersing, leaving the tarmac once again to the wind and the setting sun. It had taken just 12 minutes for Diana to arrive home.

Their plane had touched down at RAF Northolt some 18 hours after her fatal accident in Paris yesterday morning.

Outside the air base, hundreds of people craned through wire mesh fences and laid bunches of flowers outside the main gates.

A crowd of about 200 photographers, camera crew members and journalists kept well back behind the crash barriers as they watched the solemn arrival of the princess's coffin.

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