On an incongruously beautiful summer’s day in 2004, the Windsor and Spencer families gathered for the first time in seven years in London’s Hyde Park to open the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain.
The Queen offered a heartfelt tribute to her, saying, “I cannot forget — and nor can those of us here today who knew her much more personally, as sister, wife, mother, or daughter-in-law — the Diana who made such and impact on our lives.”
It was a dignified, reflective moment — finally the city that Diana loved so much would forever carry a tribute to her legacy.
Last week, we learnt that the truth about how this 210-metre water feature came to be was much grubbier and more complicated than had been known.
Kenneth Rose was an award-winning memoirist and biographer, who chronicled the lives of the great and good, including the Queen’s family. Throughout his life, he was also an avid diarist, putting pen to paper to record his many meetings and dinners with the powerful and the titled. His establishment credentials could not have been more impeccable. Though Rose passed away in 2014, this week we were treated to a serialisation in the Daily Mail of the second volume of his journals, set to be published later this month.
And there, amid cheeky tidbits (such as Prince Charles’s tendency to talk about the environment at mind-numbing length, to Prince Philip bitingly telling Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York she had let The Firm down) is the revelation that members of the family were opposed to initial plans to build a memorial to Diana’s memory in Hyde Park.
From the moment Diana and Prince Charles tied the knot, Kensington Palace was their London base. Home to a number of members of the family, including the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and Princess Margaret, the Palace was, and remains, a stunning 17th century edifice. Even after Diana’s separation from Charles in 1992, the Princess remained there, as she did after their divorce was finalised in 1996.
Therefore, after her tragic death the following year, it made sense that any significant memorial or tribute to her should be close to the place she called home for 15 years.
The initial plans were for a 2.7 acre memorial garden which would include lavish flowers, walkways, a children’s garden and special places to leave tributes to “the People’s Princess”, all of which would have cost about $18 million.
Now, thanks to Rose, we know that some members of the royal family “didn’t want” the elaborate tribute to their former relative.
On June 4, 1998 — less than a year after the Princess of Wales was killed — he writes about discussing the situation with Princess Margaret, who bitingly said: “Of course we don’t want it. After all, she lived at the back of the house, not the front.
“It will be quite enough of a memorial to restore the grass in front which all these people trampled the week she died. And certainly no 300ft fountain in the Round Pond!”
She was far from alone in her opposition. The following month, on July 12, Rose writes that: “The Queen Mother tells me she is not in favour of a memorial to Princess Diana in Kensington Gardens.”
Later that month Rose writes of having lunch with “Prince Eddie” (AKA the Duke of Kent) at the Michelin-starred French restaurant La Gavroche where HRH similarly vented. Rose records of their conversation, “He is utterly furious about the plans for a memorial garden to Princess Diana in Kensington.”
CHARLES WEIGHS IN
Despite all this, in August that year, Charles approved the plans. Rose, like his royal mates, was less than enthused. “Why should the public be deprived of part of that lovely park to soothe the Prince’s conscience?” he wrote. “I make a point of sitting there for some time this afternoon: utter peaceful delight.”
The Windsors weren’t the only local residents against the elaborate proposal, with local bodies concerned about the impact any new development would have on the genteel area.
Sir Ronald Arculus, the then-Chairman of the Kensington Court Residents’ Association told The Times he was concerned about the impact the “hordes of tourists” would have on the area, including an increase in traffic and rubbish.
“Many people would like to see a small, dignified memorial suited to the historical setting, if it could be sited to enhance and not destroy the amenities of the gardens, which are enjoyed quietly every day by local residents and visitors,” he wrote. “Not a theme park, please.”
Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the then-Chairman of the conservation body English Heritage echoed his sentiments, writing in a separate letter to The Times: “A memorial park must not be a theme park. It cannot provide for a frenzied variety of activities if it is to fulfil its role as a place of memory where people would be free to stroll or to sit, to remember and celebrate the Princess’s brief life.”
The Friends of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens were worried about “grief tourism,” The Independent reported at the time.
In October 1998, the grand plans were binned after the neighbourly disapproval, which Rose termed “splendid news” quipping, “So we shall be spared a Diana Disneyland.”
It would take the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Committee another two years to even agree that a fountain would be the best way to mark her life and it would only be in 2004 that the Kathryn Gustafson-designed 210m water feature would be opened. (In 2000, the Diana Memorial Playground also opened in the park.)
Still, even that wasn’t without controversy. Within a month of the Windsor and Spencer families opening the monument in 2004, it was temporarily shuttered after three people were hospitalised, including a child treated for a head injury, after paddling in the fountain.
“I knew this would happen,” said Vivienne Parry, a writer and friend of the Princess, said at the time. “This is supposed to be a memorial for an icon of the twentieth century. Instead, it is a half-hearted, damp squib that is, quite frankly, dissing Diana even in death.”
After lengthy repairs, the beleaguered project was unveiled a second time, with no pomp and fanfare, after undergoing a number of changes to improve drainage and safety.
In 2017, to mark 20 years since Diana’s death, the famed sunken garden in front of Kensington Palace was replanted with 12,000 white flowers, including tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, roses, lilies, and gladioli among others to create a fragrant wonderland. In November of that year, it was where Prince Harry formally announced that he had popped the question to Meghan Markle.
Sure, Princess Margaret was correct in saying that Diana lived in the back of Kensington Palace. But, like it or not, her memory is still very much smack bang right out the front.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s biggest titles
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