'The eyes of the world were on Northamptonshire': Officers retell policing operating surrounding Princess Diana's funeral 20 years on

Crowds lined the M1 to wave goodbye to Princess Diana.
Crowds lined the M1 to wave goodbye to Princess Diana.

Retired and serving officers, who were working the day the Princess of Wales funeral cortege moved up the M1 into Northamptonshire, have recounted their duties.

Princess Diana may have been born in Norfolk but there is little doubt that Northamptonshire held a special place in her affections - and our county felt the same about her.

Bunches of flowers lined the entrance to Althorp Estate.

Bunches of flowers lined the entrance to Althorp Estate.

Brought to Althorp aged 14 at that moment she became Lady Diana - the moniker the world would come to know better than any other. But when tragedy struck 20 years ago - she was sent home again and the county received her back like they always did. An occasion befitting Northamptonshire's own princess.

Sir Chris Fox, the then Chief Constable cut short his holiday upon hearing the news from Paris, instantly realising that what was unfolding would have implications for Northamptonshire.

He said: “We immediately started pulling together what initially was a relatively routine plan. But after a couple of days, when the funeral arrangements were announced, it was obvious it was going to be much more than that.

“One of the real challenges was knowing just how many people would be coming to attend, how they would get here and so on. There was the issue too of the route which was largely along rural roads which didn’t make it easy to police. I recall certain pinch points along the way where we provided an enormous length of rope and asked the crowds to pick it up as the cortege approached and use it like a human fence. It worked brilliantly.

The hearse on the way to Princess Diana's resting place.

The hearse on the way to Princess Diana's resting place.

“It was not like anything I had ever done before. I’d policed public disorder in the miners’ strike and twice been involved with Nottingham Forest after their European Cup wins, but this was nothing like it.

“I remember feeling very proud of the people, from all parts of the country, who came to see the funeral cortege pass through Northamptonshire that day. They were incredibly friendly and helpful. I went along the route about 20 minutes ahead of the funeral cortege and the crowds were literally three to four deep all the way.

“I was aware the eyes of the world were on Northamptonshire and of the potential for all manner of things to happen.

“But in the end, thanks to Phil Vickers, who put so much into the policing operation and the excellent work of all our officers and Special constables, we were able to say this was a job well done. We could go home that night and say with confidence, “We did OK”.

Police officers on duty at Althorp Estate.

Police officers on duty at Althorp Estate.

Superintendent Phil Vickers, the then area commander for Daventry, which covered the Althorp estate, was at the end of a family holiday in Portugal when the news came through of the Princess’s death and he recalls flying home in a plane that was eerily silent as fellow passengers took in the news.

“It was clear early on that we would have to put an operation together that would be of the highest professional standard but one that also had to be respectful of the Spencer family.

“Nothing, however, could have prepared you for the sheer numbers on the day, the media scrutiny and the feeling that the world was watching.

“I remember there being a lot of emotional officers on duty that day. I was intensely proud of what we did. Earl Spencer thanked me personally on behalf of the force and I was presented with an MBE in the 1997 New Year’s Honours List by Prince Charles who thanked Northamptonshire Police for their work that day. It was by far the most memorable event I was ever involved with in my policing career. Nothing compared with it.”

John Spencer, was part of the Road Policing Unit, he said: “Organising such a large operation at such short notice was incredibly stressful, it was all hands to the pump. On the day itself I was in the cortege escort party, from the M1 to Althorp. I was nervous as we picked up the cortege from Rothersthorpe services. In some respects it was a good thing we didn’t have any more time to think about what we were doing as the nerves would have been greater.

“The emotion in the air was tangible. The crowds were five or six deep at some points and throwing flowers at the hearse. It will forever be etched on my memory.”

Inspector Julie Mead was a dog handler at the time and remembers it like it was yesterday. She said: “Due to the high media interest, the dog section were assigned to work within the grounds of Althorp as reporters were scaling walls and hiding in the undergrowth.

"We found several. That first morning it was overwhelming to see a number of people arriving to leave flowers at the gates and the genuine grief that they were feeling was very apparent.

“The dog section was given ‘Wedgewood Cottage’ within the grounds to base ourselves which was kind of the estate as we were there 24/7. I also remember Earl Spencer took time out to thanks us all for our support, which was a remarkable thing to do having just lost his sister.”