Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Princess Diana and Kensington Palace

When I meet people from outside the UK, the conversation frequently turns to the same subject once they discover that I am British and once lived in the Royal Borough of Kensington. Princess Diana. Or, more specifically, the untimely deaths of Diana and Dodi: what do I think of the conspiracy theories; did I ever meet her; would she have married Dodi? etc etc etc
My answers are generally that I don’t think much of the conspiracy theories; I never met her but did see her at very close range just weeks before she died and no, I don’t think she would have married Dodi.

Eleven years after her death, there are people still fascinated by everything Diana and who hope that by visiting the places in which she lived they will feel that little bit closer to the most famous Princess in history. Diana hysteria has calmed in recent years but I doubt casual interest will ever cease in my lifetime. Most Brits have their own Diana story, however distant their connection to her was and I include myself in this.

During the summer of 1997 I was living in Kensington and walked passed the Palace every day on my way to and from work at the Royal Albert Hall. One morning I walked along Kensington High Street in auto-pilot mode, head down while retracing my daily footsteps. I was woken from my reverie by the screeching of brakes. I looked up to see black car just inches away and a concerned face staring at me. I acknowledged the driver who was clearly shocked by the close call and stepped back to allow her to move forward. It was only then that I realised the driver was, in fact, Princess Diana! She was flushed but beautiful with the most luminescent skin I had ever seen. That was the nearest I got to a face to face meeting with Princess Diana!

At the end of August, Diana was killed in Paris. Everyday between her death and her state funeral, I continued to walk by Kensington Palace and watched the piles of flowers, messages and photographs growing daily. The wrought iron fence surrounding Hyde Park was covered with flowers, posters and pictures; the trees were surrounded with tiny candles and night lights flickering 24 hours a day and personal messages of grief and love were left wherever people could find a space. I shared the grief of so many others but I didn’t want to be drawn into this most un-British frenzy of anguish. But there was a feeling of hopelessness which I couldn’t shake off. I really didn’t want to join the long queues at St James’s Palace waiting to pay their respects but I didn’t want to do nothing.

I had never used the internet before but had heard that Buckingham Palace had opened a Book of Condolence online so I thought that may be a way for me to express my personal sense of loss whilst extending my sympathy to Diana’s family – especially her young sons, Princes William and Harry. I did this the day before the funeral and also printed off a copy of “Goodbye England’s Rose” – the re-written lyrics of the song Elton John would sing the following day at Westminster Abbey. On the way home I felt no better. I passed people streaming into Hyde Park clutching their flowers and heading towards the Palace gates. I watched as people came out, crying and shaking, comforting each other and I could no longer remain disconnected from this mass outpouring of grief.

Early the next morning I went to the nearest flower stall and bought a single Bird of Paradise flower and headed back towards Kensington Palace to add my contribution to the millions of others. The flowers were piled up to waist height and it was impossible to pick out any specific messages as there were so many. I walked slowly back to the main road and took my place among mourners of every nationality who stood silent along the official funeral route. As Diana’s coffin appeared, a slow applause began and one or two wails of grief could be heard. But the overwhelming memory I have is of the great stillness that morning. As Diana’s coffin passed by, the sun appeared from behind its cloud and, somehow, reduced the strange feeling of personal loss.

I’d never experienced anything like it and, hopefully, never will again.

So, when I approached those same gates last week my emotions were mixed. I was keen to see the Palace that Diana had called home and where other members of the Royal Family have lived but the memories were surprisingly fresh.
Adult Entry to Kensington Palace: £12.30
Holders of the London Pass can enter free and also receive a 20% discount at the Orangery Restaurant

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