Village in dread of Diana pilgrims

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The Independent Online
GREAT BRINGTON is a quiet type of place, with its one pub, one shop, one school and one church, and last week, despite unseasonally bad weather, the Northamptonshire village still managed to retain its picture- postcard appeal.

Lovingly tended perennials were coming into bloom and, in the brief intervals of sunshine, birds tweeted gaily. A sign outside the quaintly named Tick Tock Cottage announced honey for sale. The cares of the world seemed a long way away.

But appearances can be deceptive. The fact is that the 200 or so inhabitants of Great Brington are very worried. A timebomb is ticking away in their midst which threatens to blow their rural idyll to smithereens in just over a fortnight's time.

For the village lies in the shadow of the walls of the mighty Althorp estate, which on 1 July will open its gates for the first time to those wishing to visit the island grave of Diana, Princess of Wales. All but around 7,000 of the 152,000 tickets (or "invitations", as they are rather grandly called) have been sold at pounds 9.50 a head and the estate will be open for two months until 30 August. This means that around 2,500 people will be arriving every day.

How many of them will choose to take in Great Brington as part of their visit remains to be seen. But most of the villagers want to discourage them.

Of course, Great Brington has already had its share of visitors. In recent times Althorp House has been open to the public for two months every year and in 1997 around 10,000 people passed through its doors. But that was before the death of the Princess.

In the immediate aftermath of the fatal crash in Paris, the village was besieged by those who came to pay their respects and to lay flowers outside the gates of the estate. Even now they still come and many of them visit the village church of St Mary the Virgin, which houses the Spencer family vault.

In the past, about 2,000 people a year visited St Mary's, many of them Americans drawn by the fact that the great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington is buried there. Today, numbers are around 500 a week. Coach parties have also begun arriving - only the other week three coachloads of Germans turned up. If coaches are spotted by the local police, they are politely turned away.

But the numbers due to arrive from the beginning of next month are altogether more alarming. Cars are the villagers' major worry, and for that reason a gate is soon to be erected in the road to prevent visitors to the estate from driving into the village. It will also, of course, prevent the locals from driving out of it in that direction, but it seems to be a price they are willing to pay if it means their quiet lanes are not to become a glorified car park.

To add to their troubles, villagers are also having to put up with the proliferation of journalists who come to Great Brington on an almost daily basis from all over the world.

Last Thursday, as well as the Independent on Sunday's reporter and photographer, two other hacks were tramping Great Brington. One was Belgian, the other a German woman clutching a copy of Majesty magazine. Both were somewhat disconsolate, having encountered the wall of silence that has been erected in the village on the orders of the parish council. Locals have been instructed not to speak to members of the press, on the grounds that the more they talk the more likely it will be that people might come to the village. Loose talk costs quiet lives, apparently.

Recently a French TV crew was reduced to knocking on every door in the village in the hope of finding someone willing to speak to them. Tony Evans, the recently elected leader of the parish council, chose not to return my calls.

"We really have been inundated," said Christine Whiley, one of the few villagers happy to talk to the press. She is also one of the few villagers happy to have more people aroundbecause she runs the local post office and general store, and more visitors mean more business. In the wake of the Princess's death, her shop has been completely altered to allow extra shelving for Diana postcards (50p each) and framed photographs of Althorp House (pounds 15).

"We really don't know what the impact is going to be," says Shelley-Anne Claircourt, who is Earl Spencer's spokeswoman. "The reason numbers have been restricted from the very beginning was to try in some way to control the numbers coming into the village."

But she admits it's something of a suck-it-and-see approach and the whole thing will be reviewed in time for next year. In the meantime, the villagers sit and wait.