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20 years on, flowers and tributes back at gates of Diana's palace

The mood in the capital is more muted than it was in 1997, but the Princess of Wales is still being remembered... fiercely by some, fondly by others

Diana, Princess of Wales
Diana, Princess of Wales
The entrance to Kensington Palace, strewn with flowers and tributes from people mourning Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 years ago
The White Garden at Kensington Palace, created to celebrate the life of Diana, Princess of Wales
Tributes attached to the Golden Gates of Kensington Palace, London, ahead of the 20th anniversary
One of Princess Diana’s outfits, an Emanuel suit dress worn in Venice (left), is on show at Kensington Palace
The statue of King William of Orange which stands in front of Kensington Palace, the home he bought, and where he died in 1702

By Lindy McDowell

He stands just beyond those great and famous gates, one hand rakishly on hip, a cane in the other. A sword hangs from the waist of his frock coat. His boots are spurred and his wide hat is festooned with plumes.

The bronze statue of William III, or King Billy, as he is better known to us here, was erected in front of Kensington Palace in the early 1900s.

William bought what used to be called Nottingham House back in 1689 for £20,000. It stood in the country village of Kensington and was far, in those days, from central London and its pollution and thus an ideal home for the asthmatic king and his wife, Queen Mary.

They both died here. She in 1694; he, having developed pneumonia two weeks after a fall from his horse, in March 1702.

By the time of his death, he was not a popular monarch. Many English people viewed their Dutch king as a bit of an outsider.

Other monarchs have lived there, too. It is where Victoria was born and where at the age of 18 she was informed that she was now queen.

But of all the royals associated with Kensington Palace, it is Diana, Princess of Wales who remains, in death, its foremost chatelaine.

Twenty years ago, the entire world was witness to those unforgettable images of the massed, grieving crowds and the ocean of flowers lapping around the palace gates.

Diana, the most famous woman on the planet, had been killed in a car accident in Paris and the famously restrained British public had erupted with a volcanic outpouring of emotion that defied all precedence, even, according to some, all explanation.

Twenty years on, the scenes outside the palace this week have inevitably been much more muted.

But Diana is remembered still. Fiercely, by some. Fondly, by others. In death, she remains an icon. A legend.

And, it has to be said, a bit of a tourist attraction.

The gates of Kensington Palace are still adorned with her picture, with fresh bunches of flowers, and with written messages.

She was the People's Princess and this is the people's enduring homage.

Some of tributes, it has to be said, do have a bit of a third-form art class look about them.

There are a couple of collages of glossy pages from the likes of Hello! magazine. There is a pink hand-knitted bird, stones painted with her name, framed photographs, cards, candles.

Some of the flowers have wilted, but most are fairly recent. A young man tapes a bunch of sunflowers to the gate as an elderly little lady adjusts the bouquet she left earlier in the week.

The messages run to a theme ...forever in our thoughts ...your sons have done you proud ...Queen of Hearts.

A few appear to have been spontaneously scribbled. One, in French, is on a torn notebook page addressed to 'Chere Diana'.

There's a rambling message flapping on a piece of kitchen roll and, on a square of plastic tagged to the railings, another which reads, "Diana, our beautiful queen of hearts, we will always love you".

Tourists stand in front of the famous gates to pose for selfies, with the palace as backdrop.

Camera crews from around the world have been coming and going as the anniversary of the princess's death approaches.

Felix from Sydney tells one television presenter that he was in London back in 1997 and remembers well the shock and the grief of those days.

She always had a smile on her face, he says, but he thinks hers was a hard life. It feels like a sort of deja vu being back again for the 20th anniversary, he adds.

Also back for the 20th anniversary is Catherine Murray, who lives in England but is originally from Wicklow.

Catherine recalls the sense of shock when she heard the news that day in 1997.

On the Monday morning, she and her husband, who is English, came early to the Palace before they went to their work in Mayfair.

She remembers the sheer size of the crowd, the volume of flowers, the emotion.

Surveying the palace gates alongside Marie Kearney, Catherine McDonald and Joan Graham, all from Wicklow, Catherine tells me she feels the royals could do a bit more to commemorate Diana.

"But this is very much the public's tribute to her. And this anniversary will be the last big one, won't it?"

The ladies have been to Althorp to see where Diana is buried. "It's very dignified," says Marie, "the public are not allowed to visit the actual grave. But I do think it's an appropriate place for her to be buried."

I broach the delicate subject of the not always warm relations between the Republic of Ireland and the British royal family, but the women immediate brush that aside.

"People think the Irish hate the British. But we're not all like that. And those days are long gone, anyway."

They agree that Diana broke the royal mould and that changed everything too.

Twenty years on, they still remember her with great affection.

She was indeed the People's Princess, they say. In Wicklow, too.

Inside Kensington Palace, an exhibition of Diana's clothes draws large crowds. The queues are out the door, slowed up by security checks within.

My bag was checked, although not very meticulously. My jacket, which I'd thrown on the counter to be checked too (I'd assumed) wasn't even touched. Maybe there's a belief that terrorists would not think to carry weapons in their jacket pockets.

The dresses on display, ranging from the wide-shouldered excess of the early '80s to the pared down elegance of the '90s, are familiar from photographs of Diana.

The gown she wore when she danced with Travolta. The checked blouson suit she wore at Balmoral on honeymoon.

Her sons William and Harry were visiting the white-flowered Princess Diana memorial garden in the grounds of the palace today. There is another, more controversial memorial a bit further away, in Hyde Park. The Princess Diana memorial fountain - which has been widely criticised as an inadequate tribute.

One observation is that it isn't so much a fountain, more a drain.

Built with 545 pieces of Cornish granite, water flows from its highest point down the channels in two directions.

The first time I saw the fountain was a few years ago on a grim winter's day and I did think back then that it was a rum memorial to such a vibrant young woman.

This week, though, in the brilliant London sunshine, it was thronged with young children - and a few adults - obviously having a ball.

Nearby, a sign advises that while visitors are welcome to sit on the side and paddle their feet in the water but, "please don't walk on the memorial or in the water".

"Memorial fountain water", it adds, "is not suitable for drinking".

Nobody appears to have shared this wisdom with the dozens of children, many in their swimsuits, splashing happily through the water, lying in it, and I'm pretty certain, downing the odd mouthful of it.

Diana, though, would surely have loved to see so many little ones having such a great time.

Watching it, you couldn't help but smile. Even if your inner health and safety expert had concerns about the obvious hazards of small children running on hard-edged, wet Cornish granite.

Earlier this year it was announced that princes William and Harry are to commission a more traditional memorial to their mother to mark this 20th anniversary of her death; a statue that will stand in the grounds of Kensington Palace.

"Our mother touched so many lives.," they noted. "We hope the statue will help all those who visit Kensington Palace to reflect on her life and her legacy."

It will be erected in the same grounds as that great bronze of King William III.

Two royals - each seen as outsiders in their own way - who left their indelible mark on the palace they both called home.

And on the history of these islands.

Belfast Telegraph


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