© Marilyn Roberts 2017 -
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.
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-
On Sunday, August 31st came one of those ‘I’ll always remember what I was doing’ moments. A stony-
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-
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-
It was all very real now with flags at half-
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-
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.
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.
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-
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.
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-
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.