As the plane left the runway at Sydney airport on the 1st of September 1997, all the people travelling with me on the first of three specialised tours I led overseas, knew we were flying into history in the making.
The day before Diana Princess of Wales, considered the twentieth centuries most beautiful woman, who was known and loved by millions, had left us.
Nothing could have ever prepared us for what was to come, as our tour group arrived to stay for five days at the Royal Overseas League in the heart of St James’s in London.
We knew we were at the centre of a peaceful storm as hundreds of people, who increased to thousands as the days of that fateful week we were there ticked by, streamed down the streets towards St James’s palace, the Mall, Kensington Palace her home and Buckingham Palace to lay their floral tributes.
All the members of the tour were immediately drawn to walk together down the same path and we were totally overcome by what was happening. It was hard to believe how high the flowers grew in the days we were there.
Each day leading up to the funeral we spent some time nearby where we viewed the hundreds of thousands of floral memorials and heartfelt messages left by those who loved and admired this extraordinary woman.
The most poignant memory of all was the ragged blankets, soiled and stained, tied with string and a note attached saying, Diana, even the homeless will miss you.
I answered those who asked when we returned home to Australia why we witnessed scenes of grown men openly weeping, women and children huddled together in groups crying deeply for this lovely and still very young woman.
For me it was because she had been a ray of hope to everyone no matter who they were or where they came from or their colour or creed. She had been appropriately named by politician Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister of England, the People’s Princess.
Diana, Princess of Wales had a spirit that demanded there was hope out there on the horizon for us all as we struggle, stumble and sometimes fall in life. She made everyone feel very special.
Diana had been a lovely icon in a world of rapid change offering a helping hand up, caring openly for those who were ill with deadly diseases and offering her warm comforting motherly affection openly and without reservation to those who needed it.
Hugs were her speciality.
On the day of the funeral we awoke in our accommodation at the Royal Overseas League overlooking Green Park in the centre of London to thousands of people streaming silently across a city smothered by an eerie stillness without a car in sight, across the streets and parks all with a singular purpose of paying homage to loveliness.
As we all walked to the Mall near Buckingham Palace just before the gun carriage came along and, even though they were packed ten deep on the street, the silence of the people almost became unbearable and we retreated back to our rooms to quietly grieve and pray with everyone else.
The moment when her brother Earl Spencer completed his funeral oration sitting in groups in a few rooms together is infused in our memory. The clapping started on Hyde Park, was taken up all around the building we were in and then suddenly burst into Westminster Abbey where some two thousand people picked it up ensuring the clapping became deafening
Being a mother of three boys, I felt deeply for William and Harry, who were her pride and joy. Losing her at this point of their life would be so very hard. More than any royal child before she came along, she had tried to prepare her boys well to take up their positions in modern life by sending them to schools outside the palace walls, giving them as ‘normal’ a life as she could manage.
Our bus turned up just after the funeral had been broadcast around the world and we left London a city still in silence virtually behind the car taking her body away to Althorp the family seat of the Spencer family, following it out of London along the road to our destination the place where our study tour was to really begin, the ancient cathedral town of Bury St. Edmond’s in West Sussex.
That evening late, following a church service with the people of Suffolk, a few of us slipped across the ancient market square to the great Abbey gate formerly the secular entrance to one of the richest of all the Benedictine monasteries in England until it had been destroyed in the Dissolution of the monasteries.
This place was where the blood of many martyrs had been spilled often, and now in the confines of the ruins of this great ancient space, alongside others openly grieving, we lit copious ‘candles in the wind’. We placed them in great sand trays set up by the town’s Lord Mayor for the purpose of remembering the wondrous Diana and it was a heart-wrenching experience.
This emotionally charged beginning to our debut journey together through the evolution of the English House heightened our experience. Guided by well respected historians such as Margaret Richardson, curator of the John Soane Museum and English design and cultural historians Ann and Alan Gore, who documented the history of the English House and Garden in film and word, we visited and enjoyed the company of those who shared our interests.
They generously opened their homes and hearts to us all in an overwhelming gesture of hospitality and friendship ensuring our first tour became more than a memorable journey.
At the end, while we all still felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, we also in many other ways felt reborn, determined after witnessing first hand such a terrible tragedy, to make every minute of our own lives in the future count, and to not take anything in our lives for granted.
On the final night of our tour back in London amid an aesthetic scene of great beauty, we agreed how privileged we had all been there to say our goodbye to this very special ‘English Rose’ and we all toasted Princess Diana, an extraordinary woman of influence for all time.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Full text of Earl Spencer’s Funeral Oration
‘I stand before you today the representative of a family in grief, in a country in mourning before a world in shock.
We are all united not only in our desire to pay our respects to Diana but rather in our need to do so. For such was her extraordinary appeal that the tens of millions of people taking part in this service all over the world via television and radio who never actually met her, feel that they too lost someone close to them in the early hours of Sunday morning. It is a more remarkable tribute to Diana than I can ever hope to offer her today.
Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.
Today is our chance to say thank you for the way you brightened our lives, even though God granted you but half a life. We will all feel cheated always that you were taken from us so young and yet we must learn to be grateful that you came along at all. Only now that you are gone do we truly appreciate what we are now without and we want you to know that life without you is very, very difficult.
We have all despaired at our loss over the past week and only the strength of the message you gave us through your years of giving has afforded us the strength to move forward.
There is a temptation to rush to canonise your memory, there is no need to do so. You stand tall enough as a human being of unique qualities not to need to be seen as a saint. Indeed to sanctify your memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being, your wonderfully mischievous sense of humour with a laugh that bent you double.
Your joy for life transmitted where ever you took your smile and the sparkle in those unforgettable eyes. Your boundless energy which you could barely contain.
But your greatest gift was your intuition and it was a gift you used wisely. This is what underpinned all your other wonderful attributes and if we look to analyse what it was about you that had such a wide appeal we find it in your instinctive feel for what was really important in all our lives.
Without your God-given sensitivity we would be immersed in greater ignorance at the anguish of Aids and HIV sufferers, the plight of the homeless, the isolation of lepers, the random destruction of landmines.
Diana explained to me once that it was her innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected.
And here we come to another truth about her. For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained throughout a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness of which her eating disorders were merely a symptom.
The world sensed this part of her character and cherished her for her vulnerability whilst admiring her for her honesty.
The last time I saw Diana was on July 1, her birthday in London, when typically she was not taking time to celebrate her special day with friends but was guest of honour at a special charity fundraising evening. She sparkled of course, but I would rather cherish the days I spent with her in March when she came to visit me and my children in our home in South Africa.
I am proud of the fact apart from when she was on display meeting President Mandela we managed to contrive to stop the ever-present paparazzi from getting a single picture of her – that meant a lot to her.
These were days I will always treasure. It was as if we had been transported back to our childhood when we spent such an enormous amount of time together – the two youngest in the family.
Fundamentally she had not changed at all from the big sister who mothered me as a baby, fought with me at school and endured those long train journeys between our parents’ homes with me at weekends.
It is a tribute to her level-headedness and strength that despite the most bizarre-like life imaginable after her childhood, she remained intact, true to herself.
There is no doubt that she was looking for a new direction in her life at this time. She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment that she received at the hands of the newspapers. I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling.
My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this – a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.
She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate and I do this here Diana on your behalf. We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair.
And beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned.
We fully respect the heritage into which they have both been born and will always respect and encourage them in their royal role but we, like you, recognise the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead. I know you would have expected nothing less from us.
William and Harry, we all cared desperately for you today. We are all chewed up with the sadness at the loss of a woman who was not even our mother. How great your suffering is, we cannot even imagine.
I would like to end by thanking God for the small mercies he has shown us at this dreadful time. For taking Diana at her most beautiful and radiant and when she had joy in her private life. Above all we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister, the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds’.