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At Spencer Family Estate: a Long Wait to Say Goodbye

Island where Diana was buried
Diana was buried on an island in a lake on her family's estate. (AP)
By Christine Spolar
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 7, 1997; Page A25

GREAT BRINGTON, England, Sept. 6óRoss Thorley soaped down his Rover hatchback early this morning to make a proper showing. Alec Smith pulled on his old Royal Hussars regimental jacket and headed for a ridge high over Northamptonshire. And 5-year-old Katherine Brett, who just learned how to spell the name Diana, awoke to cut down the biggest sunflower from her mum's garden to take to the prettiest princess she'd ever seen.

"I growed it myself," the little girl said. "It's for Diana."

The road to the final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales, cut through a windy English countryside that no one could call lonely today. Here in the place where she grew up, Diana was all anyone wanted to see this late summer day and all anyone, it seemed, wanted to remember.

Nearly a week after Diana died in a car crash, thousands of Britons turned out to throw flowers and a few silent kisses in her path as a hearse took her from London to a private burial at her family's estate near Great Brington. By the time the hearse drove up to the iron gates of her ancestral home, strewn with a cellophane forest of bouquets, the mourners had grown into a crowd looking for an elusive peace.

Hearse enters Spencer family estate
The hearse bearing the princess enters the gates at Althorp, north of London, where Diana was buried. (AP)
Diana was buried on an island in a small lake on the estate in the presence of only 10 people -- her mother; her two sisters and their husbands; her brother; her two sons and their father, Prince Charles; and her butler, Paul Burrell. The family chose not to have her buried in the ancestral chapel because it could not accommodate the many people expected to visit her grave. The Spencers have announced that they will open the island to the public for a few weeks each year.

"This week's been a disaster," said a woman who found her way to Althorp by 11 a.m. "I've been crying every day. I came here to try to come to grips with it, really. I'm not sure it can be done."

By 6 a.m., fully nine hours before her burial, the grass and gravel shoulder on the highway linking London and Northampton began sprouting lawn chairs and sleepy mourners. By 9 a.m., before the first hymns were heard at her Westminster Abbey funeral, bicyclists were pedaling through the village of Duston and past police lines to take up a roadside vigil.

When the funeral ended shortly after noon and the hearse began its 77-mile journey north, a somber and steady stream of mourners began trudging toward Althorp, the family estate. They walked for miles, and no one was heard to complain.

"Two days ago, we decided we had to come," said Eileen Thorne, who wrapped herself in a jacket and pulled a lawn chair up to the side of the road that the hearse would follow when it left the highway. "We want to be part of something. There's a personal satisfaction in saying goodbye this way -- and maybe then we can get on and deal with it."

For Alec Smith and his wife, Evelyn, the day began at 5:45 a.m. -- early enough to put on their funereal best and stake out a spot where they could see the princess they had once met. Smith, 67, had belonged to an army regiment that Diana supported. He shook hands with her in July 1987. He said today he'd never forget her.

"Both of us wanted to do this. There was no way we couldn't come," he said. "We're just so glad they're bringing her home."

Although Diana -- and 20 previous generations of her Spencer family -- called this region home, few who lined the roadways today had a close personal connection with the princess. One woman recalled that Diana came into the local grocer's for bread; another remembered seeing her in a dress shop. Most came to pay their respects to a woman whom they had seen only in magazines and news clips -- but who, they somehow knew, understood their daily lives.

Ross Thorley had planned to watch the funeral on television. When he realized the motorcade would be coming past his door, he hustled this morning to wash the family car. "She'd understand this," the 40-year-old equipment operator said as he stooped to wash the windshield. "I want to be out there as a matter of respect."

Down the road from Thorley's small red-brick home on Brant Lane, grocer Terry Jones had plastered his walls with posters of Diana. Jones usually delivers the daily papers to the Althorp estate. But for the past two days, the Spencer family had been too distraught to receive visitors, even working ones. Jones decided he'd mourn the only way he could on Harlestone Road.

"I'm known for my displays," he said with a bit of pride. "She was such a lovely lady. I don't think she'd appreciate all these long faces. She'd want to see people getting on."

Shortly after 11, some people drew up around the gates of Althorp and settled in for the day. Quiet picnics sprang up. Radios, tuned to the BBC, were turned up so mourners could hear the funeral beginning in London. The Brett family was just climbing down from their bikes after a five-mile ride to the gates as the broadcast began.

By the time Kim, Eddie and young Katherine walked up to place their lone flower, the lord of the Althorp manor -- the ninth Earl Spencer -- was paying tribute to his sister. His words filled the street and troubled some hearts.

Kim Brett, an X-ray technician, held her daughter as Spencer spoke. Here was a man openly angry at the press and angry at the paparazzi who had chased his family through the streets for years. The crowd listened, a bit stunned at the fervor and a bit shamed.

"I don't know," Kim said softly. "Probably we're all slightly guilty. If she wasn't so interesting, people wouldn't have wanted to know about her. If she was less interesting, perhaps we wouldn't have cared so much now. I hope he can come to understand that."

With the end of the broadcast, the mourners sat and waited for something that would make their own hurt go away. Fresh arrivals brought flowers. People stood in the sun for hours, thinking that a vision of Diana would help them move on.

For many, the end of the long wait brought little peace. They had their first disappointment when the dark-windowed cars carrying the princes -- who had traveled by train from London -- pulled up to Althorp. Where was William? Who recognized Charles? No one came out from behind the glass to say.

An hour later, at about 3:30, the last hope for finding something good in this tragedy came over the hill.

Motorcycles rolled by first. Then the dark, gleaming hearse, strewn with broken flowers, appeared. But the gates of Althorp opened and closed in a blink of an eye, swallowing up the hearse. The crowd, anxious for hours, seemed instantly confused.

"It happened too fast," said Lindsay Smathers, a schoolteacher. "It's all happened too fast."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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