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Spotlight Glares on Diana's Home Village

By Christine Spolar
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 1997; Page A22

GREAT BRINGTON, England, Sept. 3—The Fox and Hounds Pub, the only watering hole in town, ran out of food. The postmistress, weary of reporters and curiosity seekers, locked her door. Even the town historian, a retired doctor who's become an expert on village lore, began to confuse his dates, bushed from talking to everyone who wants to know more about what is becoming one of the most famous burial sites in the world.

The remains of Diana, Princess of Wales, will head home to the hills of Northamptonshire, northwest of London, to a final resting place that is anything but restful this chaotic week.

The church of St. Mary the Virgin, a tiny, sand-colored jewel shadowed by leafy chestnut trees, has become the latest shrine for a country bound by grief. Diana, who died Sunday after a car crash in Paris, will join 20 generations of ancestors in the church's Spencer family chapel Saturday after her funeral in London's Westminster Abbey.

No one here expected the fever of sorrow that has gripped all of Britain over Diana's unexpected death. No one in this thatched-roofed village, home since 1508 to the Spencer family and its estate, ever expected St. Mary the Virgin to turn into a place of pilgrimage to the woman now heralded as "the people's princess."

The Spencer estate, known as Althorp House, is a 16th-century mansion set on 8,500 acres of lush countryside filled with grazing sheep. The church, resplendent with a large stained-glass window, stands about a mile away in a village rarely troubled by traffic; the Spencer Chapel is an intimate, soothing harbor to the left of the altar.

Spencers have been interred here for 500 years. The first was Sir John Spencer in 1522; the most recent was the princess's late father, the eighth Earl Spencer, in 1992. But Diana, the shy, doe-eyed girl who matured into a royal superstar, is the Spencer who may make the 13th-century church a tourist attraction.

"It's too early yet to assess the impact all this will have on our village," the Anglican priest in charge of St. Mary's, the Rev. David MacPherson, told reporters with some measure of understatement. "I'm sure people here will try to carry on as normal, but they may find it difficult."

If the past few days have been any indication, residents of the village of 500 can be assured of one thing: They will be outnumbered by the hour.

Today, hundreds of mourners came from nearby villages and towns to pray, sign a book of condolences and leave flowers in remembrance. Unlike the people who have flocked to Kensington and Buckingham palaces in London -- symbols of the British monarchy -- these are mostly local folks who have come to show their respect.

Visitors were shedding tears for someone they likened to a member of the community -- or at least a woman they remember biking down their country roads or running into at the corner store. They waited in the rain for a chance to bow their heads in prayer. They brought entire families, sisters-in-law and cousins, to spend time under the strong, wooden beams of St. Mary's.

"We're all very sad. This hurts us," said Gillian Edwards, proprietor of the Brington Stores. "You could pass her in the car here. She was the daughter of the county, really.

"I've tried to go over to the church, but it's too crowded. I even asked the vicar: `Can't you close off the village? A lot of the villagers really want to go in.' But it's asking too much now."

It's unclear how this little community will weather the funeral cortege. By Thursday night, the village will be closed to all but regular inhabitants, who will have to wear identification badges issued by the police. About 300 police will help coordinate the last phase of the funeral of Diana.

Buckingham Palace rebuffed questions today about Diana's interment. "The matter is a private family concern," a spokesman said. The Spencer family released a statement this week that the service at St. Mary's will be private and that only immediate members of the family will attend.

The stone church, set on a curve of a road six miles from the closest rail station, has always been open to visitors. The Spencer family chapel is not. The curious have to be satisfied with a peek through tall iron railings at the family mausoleum and the vault that, beneath a stone trap door, holds the ashes of several earls of Spencer -- including those of Diana's father -- and their wives. (Diana's remains will not be cremated.)

The chapel is richly decorated with family coats of arms and busts of long-dead ancestors, famous in their time but never achieving worldwide fame. The chapel, however, also has an American connection: It lays claim to the remains of the great-great-great-grandfather of George Washington.

The Washingtons and the Spencers were cousins. On three different surfaces of the church -- a stone slab, a brass marker and the end of a wooden pew -- the Washington family coat of arms can be seen.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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