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Althorp: new Mecca for paying respects to modern-day saint


By Richard Blystone
CNN Senior Correspondent

July 3, 1998
Web posted at: 1:27 p.m. EDT (1727 GMT)

Editor's note: Richard Blystone wrote these reflections for CNN Interactive after covering Wednesday's opening of the late Princess Diana's ancestral home to the public.

In this story:

ALTHORP, England (CNN) - "I was afraid it would be tacky," said one departing pilgrim, "but it was very moving."


A Belgian woman who came to drink in the serene parkland, with its ancient trees and honey-colored stone, complained that now they've taken even Diana's childhood -- her scrawled notebooks, the toys she cuddled -- from her private life and set them under the spotlight she hated and loved.

They came the first day without the volume of votive offerings -- the earrings, bottles of champagne and flowers in their paper coffins -- that we've seen at makeshift Diana shrines. And they didn't leave their trash.

These were not Diana-slammers, these 2,500 people who took the trouble to travel to these rolling hills, an hour and a half north of London.

But many were acutely aware of the cost of too much love, the toxic fascination that eats away the layers of magic and mystery and then is appalled that only the common is left.

Borderline public and private at Althorp

Althorp, England  

From outside the wall, Althorp House glows with tranquility, confidence, dignity and permanence.

For the Spencer children inside, Diana's brother recalled, it was a place that creaked in the motherless night. It was an old man's house, full of the smell of hair oil and the sound of ticking clocks.

The house, with the marble-paved hall where a teen-aged Diana practiced her ballet steps, is not included in the ticket prices.

Television news crews were not let into the grounds at all. One U.S. network gave a visitor a home camera, and asked her to make some shots for them. They never saw her again.

Also out of bounds to the public is the lake island where the princess's body lies, at last beyond the reach of the paparazzi.

A local rumor, authoritatively denied but still believed, says she's not there at all, that it was all a ruse to keep the adoring public from burrowing into her real resting place, the Spencer crypt in the local church.

Public fascination enshrines a princess

In the estate shop -- visitors most welcome -- one can buy Althorp knickknacks and lavender soap.

By the lake, one can see a neat little temple fit for a goddess or a saint.


The shrines, the offerings, the posthumous devotion to Diana -- all suggest that her public has conducted a kind of pop canonization.

Any great religious shrine has its hawkers and hucksters, said Lord St. John of Fawsley, a friend of Diana and of Britain's royal family.

"We're a people with a profound but suppressed imagination," Lord St. John said.

"When we [English] went Protestant at the Reformation, we threw out Our Lady and all the saints ... And into this comes this extraordinary figure, and she is appealing to those very deep emotions ... I have no hesitation in saying that she had certain characteristics of saintliness."

And saints, he noted, do not have to be perfect.

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