Diana 1961-1997: Journey's end - At peace, at last, Diana comes home

Her final resting place is the Spencer family seat. Charles Arthur was there

Charles Arthur
Saturday 06 September 1997 23:02

Beneath darkening skies, the hearse with its awful burden arrived at Diana's final resting place. The journey had taken her along grey tarmac roads transformed into a flower-strewn pathway by the grieving public.

As Diana's hearse made its way to the island in the grounds of her family's ancestral seat of Althorp, people threw blooms and there was a ripple of applause. "Goodbye Lady Diana", a man murmured.

After the 77-mile journey that had taken her past millions of watching faces and thousands of clicking lenses, her last moments were to be private and quiet, beyond the intrusive flashes of cameras and the gaze of people only there to do their job.

It was a time for her family to say goodbye, on newly consecrated ground on the island in a lake amid Althorp Park's sprawling 550 acres.

The park is the private land which has been owned by the Spencer family since it was leased in 1486 to John Spencer of Hodnell, a sheep farmer. Generations of Spencers have lived and died there, to be buried a mile away up the hill, in the St Mary the Virgin Church at Great Brington. Their graves form an unbroken line of history back to the Middle Ages.

Diana, of course, is different. Her brother Charles, the ninth Earl, has made it clear that the decision to bury her on the island aims to keep her grave private, so that her sons and other close family can visit in the future, safe from prurient interest and long-lensed intrusion.

"The family's request for privacy at the burial is strongly reiterated," said Earl Spencer at the end of last week. But the route to the funeral was not private. The day at Althorp started beneath a brilliant blue sky. Some people had slept overnight outside the gates. Hundreds more came to stand and bid a silent farewell to the cortege before it entered the grounds, preceded by the four black limousines bringing the Spencer family and Diana's sons.

The police had allowed for 44,000 parking spaces within a couple of miles of the estate, but been unable to know how many would come to stand outside the east entrance of the grounds.

At 6.50am workers from the Spencer estate began moving the flowers to create a path through the gate so the cars could drive by. In future we may mark this as the point where the nation began to be restored to normality, in that sweeping away of the bouquets left by those trying to share their grief.

But first there was the service, and the narrow verge outside the gates became an outdoor cathedral. When the National Anthem began, all the crowds stood as if waking from a dream. Soon the tears began. More people bearing flowers arrived throughout the service. They listened and they wept, especially when Elton John sang.

The island where Diana was to be buried was consecrated last week by the Bishop of Peterborough. It is a still, enclosed place amid the sculpted, open beauty of the grounds. It was a favourite playing area for the teenage Diana, who lived at the house with her siblings and her father after her parents divorced. Today the house is used most frequently by Diana's sisters, Jane and Sarah, while her brother lives in South Africa. But it is no longer home to any of them, and while the trees will shelter Diana from prying eyes, there is also a terrible poignancy about her isolated, lonely grave. But among the trees there are oaks planted by Diana's sons, William and Harry, and by Diana herself.

Her family decided to bury her there rather than in the church a mile up the hill, in the picturesque village of Great Brington, because the family and the 200-odd villagers were increasingly fearful that it would be unable to cope with the weight of pilgrims visiting the grave in the years to come.

The fear of a second Graceland has been in their minds. "Let's hope that it doesn't turn into a shrine," one muttered before the village was closed off from the world last Thursday evening.

The final leg of the journey had been a symbolic one, from the muted, crowded, polluted streets of London. It was the same route she had driven as a teenager to return to the family home. People thronged the route along the tarmac desert of the M1 and into the open, relaxed green spaces of Northamptonshire. Everything had been prepared: roads were closed and even their grass verges trimmed, as a mark of respect.

But the final mark of respect was one that people could only reluctantly bestow: to allow that last moment of solitude, to let her be alone. She would have been glad, too, that her boys were given time to grieve without the stares, however consoling, of the public. They watched her burial, and then they left Althorp from the rear gates, unseen, with their father.

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