Poignant memories of people’s princess

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Cumbrian teacher Sarah Ledger was stuck in a traffic jam on the motorway heading to London 20 years ago today.

She had tears streaming down her face.

As she looked around her across the lanes of stationary traffic she saw that everyone else was doing the same – crying.

Sarah was travelling with her father on the long trip back to London where she was returning to work as an English teacher in Walthamstow.

They were listening to the radio to the continuing coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

“The roads were very congested and it took us 12 hours to get to London that day,” said Sarah, of Stanwix, Carlisle.

“We were listening to the radio when her body was being flown back. We were crying and everyone across all the lanes of the M1 was doing the same.”

Sarah, who works at William Howard School in Brampton, also went into central London for the funeral and joined all those who had flocked to the capital to pay their respects to the ‘People’s Princess’.

“All I could hear was the silence,” said Sarah. “The streets were packed but it was absolutely silent.

“Then what I remember is hearing just the horses’ hooves coming down the road and that must’ve been for a good half a mile. No-one was speaking.

“I can’t remember exactly where I was on the route but I know it must’ve been early on because the boys [William and Harry] weren’t there at that point and they only joined after the cortege passed at Buckingham Palace.”

Sarah then went to join the thousands who went to Hyde Park to watch the funeral service in Westminster Abbey on large screens.

“I was there when Earl Spencer made his speech. It didn’t feel like a pro-monarchy crowd and I should say that I’m not a monarchist.

“I remember they started to rise, stand and clap at the end of it and then it went down the crowd and you heard the wave. You could hear it in the park and also hear it from outside the abbey. You also saw it on the screens and the congregation inside the abbey clapping.”

Something Sarah remembers vividly is when three balloons were released. Still evoking emotions today, she recalls how two stayed low and one flew off much higher into the skies above. “It felt very intense there that day,” Sarah said.

“I didn’t live in central London and didn’t choose to go there that often because I didn’t like big crowds but I found it soothing and peaceful.”

She added: “I really loved Princess Diana. She was four years older than me and I was very puzzled why someone my age would want to marry into the royal family.

“I think that was her gift, she was like me. I also felt sorry for her and worried about her.”

Robin Burgess, chairman of the News & Star’s parent company CN Group, was among those invited to attend the Westminster Abbey funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales.

He was among a number of leading figures representing the regional press.

He was on the council of the Newspaper Society, having recently served as president of the organisation.

It is still the only time Robin has attended a service at the central London abbey. He said: “My memory is of the quietness of London, the silence. There was no traffic and people were not talking, if they were it was in hushed voices and it wasn’t the usual hustle and bustle.

“I also remember where we were sitting – were not that far away from members of the royal family.”

The Cockermouth charity championed by Diana, Princess of Wales – the Mines Advisory Group – was also represented inside the abbey.

It revealed that an Oslo conference for a treaty banning the weapons could be renamed in her honour.

A Carlisle charity worker was also chosen to join the mourners at the funeral.

Richard Stewart, of Monks Close Road, Carlisle, said he was overwhelmed and inspired by the atmosphere at the service.

He was heavily involved with The Leprosy Mission – one of the six charities closest to Diana’s heart – for many years.

He was chosen to join 500 charity representatives to walk behind the coffin from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey.

The country came to a standstill on the day of Diana’s funeral.

Shops and businesses shut early to allow people to tune in and watch on television.

Market places and hubs across Cumbria became ghost towns and streets were deserted, with floral tributes left at key landmarks such as Carlisle’s Market Cross.

A former soldier walked to the top of Helvellyn above Ullswater and released a handful of rose petals in memory of the princess.

One of the most unexpected tributes was made inside Cumbria’s only prison, at Haverigg, where inmates asked if they could be allowed to observe a minute’s silence.

At the end of the televised service 555 prisoners stood alongside wardens to pay their respects.

Special services also took place across Cumbria, including at Carlisle Cathedral and at Penrith Methodist Church, an event organised by Churches Together.

Two days after the funeral the News & Star published a special supplement about Diana’s visits to Cumbria and the impact she had on the county and its people.

It included a message written by the Right Reverend Ian Harland, the then Bishop of Carlisle.

A donation from the sale of that Monday’s paper, featuring the funeral coverage, was given to the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

The Cumberland News, the sister paper of the News & Star, also confirmed it was to host a gala concert in association with Carlisle Cathedral to celebrate Diana’s life and free tickets would be on offer.

Again, the memorial fund would receive donations made at the retiring collection taken at the concert held a month after the tragedy.

Such was the shock, impact and grief that engulfed the nation, condolence books were kept open for at least a week after the funeral.

It was also predicted that Elton John’s rewritten version of Candle in the Wind would become the biggest selling single of all time.

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