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Alone (almost) inside Buckingham Palace on the eve of the funeral of

Diana, Princess of Wales, Friday 5th September 1997


In the United Kingdom we are working through a crop of documentaries to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the newspapers have been stuffed with all manner of ‘exclusives’ and trivia.   However, one programme of particular interest to me was Diana, 7 Days, for on the Friday after her death – the sixth day and eve of her funeral – I found myself one of less than thirty members of the public inside a hushed Buckingham Palace, lying at the heart of a capital city stunned and eerily silent against an atmosphere that was almost surreal.

As we all know, Buckingham Palace has continued to open in the summer months and many hundreds of thousands of people have followed in our footsteps since 1997, but that visit was unique, not just because of the sad circumstances, but because we were allowed to split up and wander through huge spaces often without another soul in sight; staff were around, but they were very discreet.

The only way nowadays to get anywhere near to recreating the atmosphere of that visit is to book for the first session of the day, but even then the place soon fills up and the exercise is somewhat futile. Inside the Palace there was no visible or verbal reference to Diana at all: twenty years on, for the 2017 opening, there is in the Buckingham Palace music room an exhibition of some of her possessions, the first of its kind.

Back to Top I have been here several times since but shall never see the like again: the Throne Room  at  Buckingham Palace, deserted and looking as we found it on  the eve of Diana’s funeral in 1997

Tickets for the Palace were like gold dust in those days. It had been open to the public in 1993 to raise money for repairs to Windsor Castle.  1997 was to be the final season, so when in February our local paper offered a London and Buckingham Palace minibreak, a friend and I immediately signed up. When the balance was paid in mid-August the now-divorced Diana, Princess of Wales was still making headlines, as she had for the past 16 years: by the end of the month she was dead.

On Sunday, August 31st came one of those ‘I’ll always remember what I was doing’ moments. A stony-faced but quietly-spoken Earl Spencer was on television saying that although his sister had been hounded by the Press for years, he had never dreamed they would kill her in the end. As the week went on, it was announced that hers was not to be a private funeral organised by the Spencers as the Queen had, purportedly, expected to happen, and there was such public animosity towards the royal family that some claimed the very monarchy itself seemed under threat.

A State funeral on Saturday 6th September in Westminster Abbey would mean most shops and public buildings would close until 2pm, if not all day. Even though there had been a letter (it was early days for e-mail) from the holiday company saying the Palace intended to honour the booking for just two parties because the reservations had been made so long ago and ours was one of them, I still felt it was unlikely to go ahead, especially if the Queen decided to return to London on Friday, the day of our booking, instead of early Saturday morning.


FRIDAY 5th SEPTEMBER

The coach arrived at the meeting place on time at 7.35 a.m. and we were on our way, as the driver put it, “into the unknown” with half the party having cancelled. The newspapers expected the Queen to arrive home about 3.30 p.m.  As we entered outer London the sky was overcast and we saw the first of the notices requesting motorists not to venture into the capital after 6 a.m. the next day. The copper domes on the huge mosque in Regent’s Park where Dodi Fayed’s service had been held only hours after his death were not gleaming on this particular day. The normal queues outside The Planetarium and Madame Tussaud’s simply were not there. Even then, 20 years ago, the post boxes were being sealed to deter terrorists.

During a stop at Covent Garden for a snack the tour leader had a message at about 1.45 p.m. for us to get to the Palace earlier than arranged, if possible. The roads in central London were quieter than I have ever seen, before or since, including the Strand and Trafalgar Square. The driver had a special pass for us to go down The Mall, but it had been closed off because of the massive crowds and the ten-hour-long queue to sign the books of condolence at St James’s Palace which could be glimpsed through the Admiralty Arch. So instead we were directed down Northumberland Avenue, which brought us to The Embankment where straight ahead the union flag was flying at half-mast on the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament.

The public leaving tributes against the wall of St James’s Palace where Diana’s coffin was lying in the Chapel Royal

It was all very real now with flags at half-mast on South Bank landmark buildings as well.  We turned right into Horse Guards Avenue with the Horse Guards buildings ahead, television cameras being set up in preparation for the next day when the coffin-bearing gun-carriage would come across the parade ground through the arch onto Whitehall. Two months earlier I had watched the Beating Retreat ceremony in the presence of the Queen on that same parade ground and had anybody suggested then that by September Diana would be dead I would have said they were mad.

It was at this point that the London I know so well became an unfamiliar place.  Whitehall from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square was still fairly busy with traffic, but there were no crowds gathering at this stage. At intervals opposite the end of Downing Street and near the Cenotaph cameras and commentary boxes draped in a purplish-bluish material had appeared, as had the occasional stalwart royal watcher armed with a folding chair and sleeping bag. Of course all that would change in the next few hours. Parliament Square led to Westminster Abbey where the railings were stuffed with bunches of flowers and the Garden of Remembrance had become a carpet of flowers and wreaths.

Here the gatherings of people proper began, bringing blooms, tying messages to the railings and reading those left by others. It was very quiet. The West Front railings, through which the coffin would enter the next morning were festooned with flowers, balloons, toys, photographs of the late Princess and messages, all of which would have to be removed, we thought, but in the event it was decided not only to leave the public’s tributes on the Abbey lawns and railings, those at Buckingham Palace were to be left as well.

Hillary Clinton at the West Door of Westminster Abbey

Outside the Palace itself my own overriding memory is, obviously, of the sea of flowers and the nagging thought that perhaps Diana would have preferred people to donate to a charity instead, but that’s just my own thoughts. The day was overcast and cool, so I was not aware of any perfume, but the silence was very striking, with none of the loud sobbing and calling out, a feature of the funeral procession itself, which in recent weeks Prince William, who was then only 15, has revealed both confused and distressed him.

Buckingham Palace 5th September 1997, shortly before the Queen and  Prince Philip’s arrival from Scotland: the flowers were piled waist-high

Right to the end I thought we would be turned away from the Palace, even as we went through the Ambassadors’ Entrance into the courtyard, rarely seen at that stage by the public thanks to Queen Victoria’s ‘extension’, the most recognisable but architecturally least interesting elevation  that  faces The Mall. No photography was allowed beyond this point, but the memory is crystal clear that although there were thousands of people only a few hundred yards away there was no noise. What we could see, though, through the entrance arches were flowers piled up against the front railings.

As we waited in the courtyard to be taken through the green-roofed portico and through to the Grand Staircase I really did think the visit was over when the royal standard was suddenly raised, indicating that the Queen was back. Some accounts in the Press have said there was fear for her safety when she got out of the car outside the gates to see the flowers. We, standing in the courtyard behind the palace facade were not aware of anything going on at all.  In the event, her appearance seemed to diffuse the tension that had been building for days, deftly fanned by certain newspapers.

There were just two of us on the Grand Staircase – an unbelievable experience that can never happen again

More of the Palace is open nowadays (the ballroom for example) and the route has probably changed so I am not able to identify exactly where we were when very loud hammering and banging suddenly started. In a joke I said it was the Queen trying to get in. As it turned out it was workmen removing partitions installed while the she is away for the summer, to allow her through to prepare for the live speech to the Nation. We had already left that area when she and Prince Philip appeared, accompanied by a set of flunkeys, but  he stopped and asked a couple from our group if they had enjoyed the visit, and told them take their time as it was now raining heavily.

My own favourite – the Yellow Drawing Room with the Queen Alexandra portrait

The Queen made her speech live at 6 p.m. from a room facing the Mall, by which time we were back on the coach and passing the Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral on Victoria Street, where the late Princess’s mother was arriving with the Duchess of Kent.


SATURDAY 6th SEPTEMBER

 We were staying at the then Jarvis Hotel close to the M1 motorway at Watford. The only reason to go back into London on the Saturday would be to see the funeral cortège, which some of our party did while the rest of us watched on televisions the hotel staff had been instructed should be tuned in only to the BBC!

After the service at Westminster Abbey the coffin was transferred to a hearse and driven through flower-throwing crowds towards the M1 motorway and Diana’s Northamptonshire ancestral home, the road we would be taking as soon as it was reopened.  We took the short walk to the motorway bridge.

I am a keen photographer but somehow to me it seemed not quite right to be brandishing a telephoto lens at the hearse of someone who had been hounded for years, so the photograph with the outriders, hearse, Earl Spencer’s limousine and a police vehicle was taken on a tiny disposable camera at, what I hope, was a respectful distance.

Diana Princess of Wales 1961-1997 Those photographs not taken by Marilyn Roberts have been retrieved from the Internet and are assumed to be in the Public Domain