SPECIAL REPORT

Visiting the Althorp Shrine

BARRY CAME August 31 1998
SPECIAL REPORT

Visiting the Althorp Shrine

BARRY CAME August 31 1998

Visiting the Althorp Shrine

SPECIAL REPORT

BARRY CAME

Diana lies buried in a tranquil spot, the kind of rustic glade that has often inspired melancholic musings. To successive generations of Spencers, the place has always been known, with a touch of English upper-class eccentricity, as the Round Oval. It features an ornamen tal lake of dark green water, set within a grove of leafy beeches and ringed with manicured lawns and gravelled pathways. In the middle of the lake is a tiny island, from which rises a 5.5-metre-high white marble monument. This marks the site where, on a hot September afternoon a year ago, the Princess of Wales was finally laid to rest after a remarkable funeral witnessed by an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world. The massive tidal wave of grief that swept the planet that day has long since receded. Everywhere, that is, except for the Round Oval. For every morning and every afternoon this summer, around the shores of the little lake in England’s rolling Northamptonshire hills, the tears still flow.

“For heaven’s sake, don’t ask me to explain,” says Alison Carruthers, a young mother from Colchester on the Essex coast, as she struggles to hold onto her composure. She sits on a bench overlooking Diana’s grave, not far from a lakeside summer house that has been transformed into a miniature version of a Greek temple, painted the color of saffron. A quiet knot of mourners is gathered in front of the temple, gazing reverentially up between two black columns to where the princess’s celebrated profile is silhouetted, also in black. The young woman on the bench is herself garbed from head to toe in the same sombre color. In one hand, she clutches a half-dozen long-stemmed white roses, wrapped in cellophane. In the other, there is a sodden mass of tissue. “I really don’t know why I’m blubbing like this,” she confesses between sniffles. “It’s just that coming here, seeing her again in those videos, so young, so pretty, so alive—it’s the sense of loss I suppose, all so very overwhelming.”

There have been similar scenes of distress at the Round Oval all summer long, ever since Diana’s younger brother, Charles, decided to fashion a memorial to his sister on the grounds of Althorp, the 216-hectare estate 100 km north of London that has been the Spencer family’s ancestral home since 1508 (it is pronounced “Altrup” by the cognoscenti). More than 2,000 people a day—in separate morning and afternoon shifts—have passed through Althorp’s gates since the memorial opened on July 1, each of them paying roughly $24 to gaze across at Diana’s island grave, roam the 121-room mansion where she grew up and wander beneath the same towering oaks she once played under as a child. By the time the memorial closes on Aug. 30—the day before the first anniversary of Diana’s death—Althorp is expected to have played host to 152,000 visitors.

Diana’s brother Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer to reign at Althorp, has been widely criticized for the work he has wrought in rural Northamptonshire. He has been castigated for the admission price, questioned about the size of the proceeds slated for his sister’s charities, mocked for the “tastelessness” of the inaugural pop concert he staged and derided for the “vulgarity” of the exhibitions he has arranged in what used to be Althorp’s stables. Even the Archbishop of York has joined the chorus, choosing to publicly bemoan the earl’s efforts to create what he described as a “cult of Diana” unworthy of her memory.

No matter what the critics are saying, however, there seem to be few complaints from the paying customers. “I think the earl is to be congratulated,” remarks Beryl MacDonald, a 58-year-old retired nursery-school operator from Wiltshire, as she sits in the shade of a spreading lime tree on a warm August afternoon along with her daughter and two elderly female companions. The four are sipping California Zinfandel and enjoying a picnic lunch of cold roast duck and potato salad after having spent the morning touring the Spencer estate. “I was a bit surprised by the opulence inside Althorp House,” MacDonald continues. “But everything else was exactly as it should have been. The mood was sombre and respectful, the exhibits tasteful, the staff polite. And the atmosphere at the grave by the lake was very moving.”

This sentiment is echoed by visitors inside Althorp’s stable block, a handsome, Italianate construct of honey-colored ironstone that once accommodated 100 horses and 40 grooms. The stables have been converted into two exhibition halls, tracing Diana’s life from her infancy through her marriage to Prince Charles to her championing of the causes—land mines and leprosy and cancer and AIDS—that won her world renown. Childhood articles are on display: a rag doll, a toy car, an elementary-school report card, her first passport. So too are 28 of her often spectacular designer gowns, including the wedding dress with the 25-foot-long train she wore on the day in 1981 when she married Prince Charles in St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In each exhibit hall, there is a film, compiled from home movies shot by her late father, the 8th Earl Spencer, and edited by his successor, Diana’s brother. Visitors watch Diana grow from a chubby toddler into a gangly teenager, a happy bride and, finally, a proud mother. The current earl told a BBC television interviewer earlier this summer that he had been “absolutely drained” by editing the films. “It was really sad to see this little girl running around and to know what happened to her when she became older,” said Spencer. ‘There was a shot in slow motion of her laughing in a boat with her sons at an amusement park. Although it was silent, I could really hear that laugh. It was such a joyous laugh and I will never hear it again.” Nor will anyone else, which is as good a reason as any to explain why so many of those who choose to visit Diana’s grave on the island in the lake cannot resist the urge to shed a tear.