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It's D-Day for Village Near Diana's Grave

Britain: Residents brace for invasion as princess' brother throws open estate.

July 01, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREAT BRINGTON, England — An observer might easily make the mistake of thinking that the childhood home of Princess Diana is the perfect setting for rural happiness.

The grand Althorp House rises out of a landscape of soft green fields. Nearby is the village of Great Brington, an idyllic composite of mossy walls, a church spire, cottages of golden sandstone and gardens filled with rosebuds and birdsong.

But there is no happiness this summer for the people of Great Brington.

For all of July and August, Diana's brother, Charles Spencer, will throw Althorp open to any visitor prepared to pay $15 for a half-day tour of the estate where the princess is buried. Almost all of the 150,000 tickets have been sold for the lucrative two-month festival of grief designed by Spencer to mark the anniversary of her death Aug. 31 in a Paris car crash.

A foretaste of the Diana season came over the weekend at Althorp, with an open-air concert in the rain. Fifteen thousand damp, shivering fans turned out to hear a cast of Diana's favorite stars, including pop veteran Cliff Richard, singer Chris de Burgh and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.

"I know she is with us here in spirit," an emotional De Burgh told the audience. But some of the listeners were less than delighted by the high prices Diana's brother was charging.

"I've spent 62 pounds [$100] traveling here, a fortune on bed and breakfast, and now I find I have to pay 7 pounds [$12] for a program and stand around in the rain waiting to get in," complained one visitor, Mary-Jane Hogg.

Although the open house is meant to raise money for charity, Spencer--a flamboyant character whose own marital infidelities, wife's bulimia, divorce, quarrels with the "intrusive" media and spats with the British royal family have all been much reported in Britain--has been criticized for cashing in greedily on Diana's memory.

"The dreadful Spencer family is inflicting yet more trouble on local people, and of course no one's very happy about that," said a villager who asked not to be named.

And local resentments over the plans to open Althorp are matched by national-level feuds between different groups trying to commemorate Diana.

Here, as in many other parts of Britain, a backlash has begun against the worldwide mourning, with oceans of cellophane-wrapped flowers, that followed the death of the blond princess who had been married to Prince Charles for more than a decade until their separation in 1995.

Some Britons are embarrassed and bewildered by what they believe was a cloyingly sentimental initial reaction to her death. And the much-publicized quarrels between organizers of the many rival charitable funds and shrines set up to remember Diana have soured public opinion still further.

Now, tight-lipped locals are waiting in dread for their peace to be destroyed by hordes of weeping visitors. They fear that the latest of many plans to raise money for charity from Diana's death will inevitably create havoc as the unwanted guests stream through their village of a few hundred people.

"Of course, people are rather dreading the onslaught," said London lawyer Michael Fowler, who grew up nearby and whose mother lives in the village. "My mother's gone to Spain for the summer to escape the whole thing, the litter, the [buses], the postcards and the flowers. The endless, endless flowers."

So, although the traditional deference of English country folk for their lords still prevents villagers from complaining loudly, they are quietly doing all they can to subvert Charles Spencer's summer plans.

Locals with bitter memories of the crowds of tourists who flocked to Althorp to pay their respects immediately after Diana's death have no plans to make this summer's expected 2,500 visitors daily welcome. There is no tea shop in Great Brington, and its lone pub is shut all afternoon.

"There will be no teas and no toilets for them," intoned Christine Whiley, who runs Great Brington's one shop, a post office and confectionery store. She has, however, stocked up on postcards of Diana at 80 cents each and a memorabilia selection of books, face creams, prints and soft-focus photos, the last a hefty $25 each.

Pretty St. Mary's Church--where Diana's father, John Spencer, and generations of ancestors are buried behind wrought iron in the private Spencer chapel--is now festooned with discouraging signs reading "No Food, Animals, Or Flowers" and "Please Do Not Bring Flowers Into The Church."

A gate is being built to block the direct road between manor and village. Although this will make life more inconvenient for the villagers, they believe it will be worth it if it prevents newcomers from finding their way into Great Brington to park. Police are politely turning away any buses they spot.

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