The day before the funeral, I had wandered among the sea of flowers piled against the gate of Kensington Palace, where Diana had lived. Three lilies wrapped in cellophane caught my eye. There was a note: “When the carriage passes by, a bit of Britain surely dies.”
I went back this summer to find out if it was true.
Was Britain still mourning the “Queen of Hearts” — the nation’s beloved “People’s Princess”? Or was the royal biographer William Shawcross right when he said the sorrow was “wide, if shallow”?
On arrival in London, I could see that Diana still sells. Tina Brown’s new biography, “The Diana Chronicles,” fought for bookstore window space with the last Harry Potter tome.
People magazine rolled out a fat special edition with its decades of Diana covers. A pop concert at Wembley Stadium celebrating Diana sold out 90,000 seats. Diana’s boys, Prince William and Prince Harry, basked in the adulation of the crowd.
A magazine article recalled the 2002 BBC poll in which the public ranked the 100 most important Britons of all time. Winston Churchill finished first. But Diana was third — ahead of Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth (I and II) and a host of kings, explorers, Beatles and war heroes.
The postcard racks gave me the creeps. Nearly all still sell shots of Diana, but often above or below more recent shots of Diana’s ex, the now seriously graying Prince Charles, with his scandalized lover and second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles.
The tone toward the woman Diana called “the Rottweiler” was especially surprising. Camilla had once been the tabloid equivalent of Cruella De Vil, a conniving palace-wrecker. Now the newspapers respectfully marked her recent 60th birthday.
A poll showed that a quarter of citizens were OK with a “Queen Camilla” if Charles came to the throne. For now, Camilla is leaning toward the title “King’s Consort” — if the day ever comes. Queen Elizabeth II, now 81, needs just eight more years on the throne to pass Victoria as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
“What’s up with the nicey-nice toward Camilla?” I asked Neil Townsend, the cab driver who was taking me to central London from Paddington Station.
“Times change,” he said with a shrug. “Diana was a special lady, but that was long ago now. A lot of people either don’t care what happens to Camilla, or they just say, ‘Whatever makes them happy.’
I had been to Britain a few times since Diana’s death, but this was the first time I made the two-hour drive north from London to her grave at Althorp, the Spencer family estate in Northamptonshire.
If I wanted to be sappy, I could say the skies were crying for Diana on the day I visited. But really, they had been crying for more than two months. It has been the wettest summer in recent memory.
I arrived at Althorp via the Brightons, two small villages on the outskirts of the 14,000-acre estate. Locals had worried that Diana’s grave would turn this horsy patch of countryside into the British equivalent of Elvis Presley’s final resting place. A kind of “English Graceland,” as one newspaper put it.
But the villages showed no signs of T-shirt shops, Diana impersonators or fast-food joints. Just an old coaching inn, a few pubs and large brick homes behind tightly latched gates.
At Althorp, I counted 60 cars in the parking lot. Not bad for a rainy weekday. I paid the entry fee (about $26) and joined the crowd of mostly older British pensioners making their way up the long drive to the visitors center built into the onetime stables. Cattle and sheep munched grass and feed in the green fields beyond.
Althorp has become Britain’s unofficial center for mourning Diana.
Her brother, Charles, the 9th Earl of Spencer, opens the grounds to visitors from July to the first week in September. The twice-divorced nobleman still lives at times on the estate.
Exhibits move rapidly to death
My first stop: “Diana: A Celebration.” The exhibit began with an eye-popper: Diana’s wedding dress. It’s a pearl-and-sequin-bedecked concoction with a 25-foot-long train that had seemed to flow the length of the aisle at St. Paul’s Cathedral on that happy day in 1981.
The exhibits moved surprisingly quickly to her death. Video showed the reaction of the crowds at Kensington Palace as word spread of her death in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. The images were shown on a wall in front of a floor made to look like it was covered in fallen autumn leaves.
On a back wall was the Earl of Spencer’s handwritten statement to the press on the death of his sister that begins, “This is not a time for recriminations” and then lays the tragedy on the stoop of the media that hounded her every move. There’s also his personal copy of the eulogy for Diana at the funeral at Westminster Abbey.
Most of the visitors lingered longest in the long gallery of Diana’s dresses. Diana was a royal clotheshorse (giving away many to charity fund-raisers). You can chronicle her transformation from frumpy girl to international style star in just a few steps as the outfits go from banal to billowy to sleek. Included incongruously, but not inappropriately, is the flak jacket and clear face guard she wore while on a visit to a land mine clearance project, one of the many causes she took up in her last years.
At the end, through a clear pane, are stacks upon stacks of condolence books from around the world.
I found the second exhibit, “Diana: The Work Continues,” disappointing. It chronicles her charitable works, but is little more than a series of photos, videos and placards.
In the small gift shop, visitors perused Diana bone china, Diana earrings, Diana tote bags and Diana wristwatches. The commercialism is odd but irresistible.
I bought a Christmas tree ornament modeled on the shoe Diana wore at her wedding.
As signs point out, all profits go to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, which carries on her charitable and humanitarian causes. Althorp tourism has raised more than $1.5 million since 1998.
At 2:30 p.m., Lord Spencer strode into the gift shop. Spencer is not only an earl but also a viscount and a baron, and you address him as Lord Spencer — a catch-all fancy noble version of “mister.” Shop girls swooped up copies of books for him to sign for those willing to buy.
Some visitors moved forward for the chance to meet Diana’s brother and chat for a moment as he autographed (“So nice of you to come,” he said to a middle-aged British couple) while others retreated at the rather forward pitch to buy a $40 book on Spencer family history.
Diana’s island and hidden grave
The next stop for visitors is a tour of the Spencer ancestral home. The family has been prominent since the 15th century — about two centuries before Queen Elizabeth II’s family made the move from Germany to Britain with George I.
After all the displays and build-up, it was time to go visit Diana’s grave.
A short walk along a wooded path leads to the Round Oval, a lake with a small island in the middle where Diana is buried. You cannot see a grave.
Only a small Grecian urn marks the island. Diana’s grave is deep in the thicket.
A path leads around the lake, past an oak tree planted by Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela of South Africa. At the far end is a little temple marked DIANA, where visitors gather to trade memories and take pictures.
“I’ve been wanting to come here for years,” said Rochelle Cain, 39, of Farmington Hills, Mich. “I was a great admirer. She understood other people’s emotions. She was a natural.”
Publicity was the Pandora’s Box that Diana opened herself but could never shut again. In death, she has what she rarely found in life: peace and quiet. The only living thing near Diana’s grave are the ducks and geese in the oval, swimming by with their babies.
Not befitting a princess
The British visitors who had stopped by for the day were more than satisfied with the sedate site. But some Americans who had traveled thousands of miles thought it not enough for the woman then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had proclaimed “the people’s princess.”
Libby DeChiaro, 44, from Freehold Township, N.J., came to Althorp with a group of seven relatives and friends spanning three generations.
“This is the main reason we came to the United Kingdom this year, to see Althorp,” she said. “We grew up following her life. She became a princess. It’s every girl’s dream. It didn’t turn out very good. But I have to say, this is not very impressive considering what she did for the world.”
Sue Wetherell, 45, of Jackson, N.J., agreed.
“I wish there was something more for people to look at after coming all this way,” she said. “People want to be close. That’s the way she was when she was alive. She wasn’t standoffish like the rest of the royal family.”
Diana: Back in London
I walked back up the path, past the house, past the visitors center, past the gift shop with its Diana memorabilia. The grounds of Althorp stretched out to the horizon on all sides. A magnificent place. But in the end, all these amazing riches couldn’t create a happy ending for Diana.
Back in London, it was pouring. “The London monsoon,” they call it. Two inches of rain fell in an hour. It was a good time to visit the National Portrait Gallery, which has a small exhibit of photos of Diana over the years, from the “Shy Di” of the engagement to the sleek, savvy style-maker of her later years.
Most of the images are regal or stylized. But my favorite is an outtake from a photo session with her sons for a Christmas card soon after her divorce. Diana leans over, laughing at something Harry has done, while William breaks up in the background. A rare happy, informal moment in a family that seemed forever formal and often unhappy.
The skies parted enough in the evening that I took a long walk from the Black Lion Gate at the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens. I passed the playground renamed for Diana, which had already closed for the day (adults without children are allowed in for only half and hour in the morning anyway).
At the gates of Kensington Palace, the cascade of flowers that stretched like a carpet in the days after Diana’s death was, of course, long gone. But a sign on the wrought iron fence advertised an exhibit on Diana.
Once I had walked these paths with hundreds of thousands of people in the days just before the funeral. Now I was almost alone, winding my way to the controversial Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain at the south end of Hyde Park.
The moat-like circle is supposed to symbolize Diana’s openness. To me it looked like a long drainage ditch or perhaps a banked go-kart track.
Even if it hadn’t looked all the more pathetic because it was drained of water for repairs, the “fountain” seemed like an ill-conceived and hopelessly abstract tribute to the princess.
‘One day her son will be king’
Golden light streamed through the storm clouds on the horizon, lighting the tops of the trees. I walked past Queens Gate, where I had stood 10 years before with my wife and then-3-year-old son to watch the funeral procession pass by on its way to Westminster Abbey.
The light bulbs flickered on outside Harrods, the department store owned by Mohamed al-Fayed, the father of Diana’s last lover, Dodi al-Fayed, who died in the Paris car crash with her.
Back at my hotel over Charing Cross Station, I re-read a 2006 article from the Observer newspaper by Mary Riddell. She felt Diana mania added up to less than the fall of the British Empire.
“When the chips are down, the mugs glazed and the tea towels printed, Britain still cheers on its monarchy, sometimes beyond the point of reason.
Diana was absurdly sanctified, in life and death.”
Across from me sat Richard and Jan Gaskell, dressed in the fancy garb they had worn to a tea party to honor those involved in charitable work around the country. The Gaskells, who live in Kent, help teach disabled people to sail.
I asked if they thought Diana had been mourned too heavily or forgotten too lightly. Neither, really, they said.
“She was a nice young girl who was caught up in something that went out of control,” Richard Gaskell said. “It was a sudden tragedy and people reacted to that tragedy. But so many things have happened since.”
“But,” added Jan, “she will be remembered. One day, her son will be king.”