A Day I’ll Never Forget

23 years ago I was asked to represent the Meningitis Trust at the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales, the lady who without meaning to or knowing gave me the drive to get up and live after loosing my legs.

I first thought I was being asked to join the precession of charity workers to walk behind the gun carriage which carried her coffin the 4 and a half miles from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey, which would have been a challenge considering my amputations but the day before the funeral a special delivery arrived from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, an official invitation and various security passes to attend the actual funeral service at Westminster Abbey.

I’ve sat and watched all the documentaries over the years and even now I can’t quite believe I was actually there, it was such a surreal day. I remember the day like it was yesterday yet when I see the footage of the funeral it doesn’t quite seem possible that Mum and I along with a handful of other charity representatives were there in Westminster Abbey to witness her final farewell in person.

I remember getting dressed up first thing on that sunny September day and boarding the very first train to Waterloo. The train was full with countless other people, all heading to London to line the funeral route. But Mum and I had security passes in our hands and instructions to give our taxi driver which would get us to Westminster Bridge, we then had to walk across the bridge to the Abbey. I’ve never realised how noisy London is until that day. There was silence, no cars or busses, no shouting, no horns, no alarms or engines, nothing but the sound of people deep in thought, you could actually hear birds singing, not one aeroplane was in the clear blue sky. It was London at its most beautiful.

This photo was taken outside Westminster Abbey by the Royal Press photographer Arthur Edwards

Walking across the bridge I looked across to a couple walking slightly behind us on my right, I turned back to Mum and said “Blimey Mum, that fella behind looks just like Tom Cruise”, I glimpsed again and gulped “And the woman looks a hell of a lot like Nicole Kidman!”

We queued up at the Great West Door entrance to the side of the Abbey and were silently led to our seats, there were 5 empty rows of seats in front of ours, we could see the High Altar and the Great North Door Entrance was the other side of that, I couldn’t believe my eyes when in waddled Pavarotti who sat in the front row directly across the isle from us. We could hear a hum of movement but still no voices. I remember looking at this strange Metal frame that sat alone in the middle of the isle just in front of the Altar, I asked Mum what she thought it might be, “Probably something to put flowers on Soph” she guessed.

We couldn’t see the main part of the Abbey, our area was right out of sight of everything I remember thinking we won’t be able to see anything as we were so tucked away. The Abbey had filled up, the choir started and everyone stood up, then in what seemed to take hours people began to appear from the direction of the main entrance, first came the church officials, then the empty seats in front of us started to fill, I looked up and first recognised Prince Edward, then Sarah and Prince Andrew sat directly in front of us, I pinched Mum and looked as more of the seats filled with people I couldn’t name but recognised, then in the front row just 5 rows in front of us stood Queen Mother and the Queen. I glanced at Mum who clearly was thinking the same as me “OH MY BLOODY GOD!!!”.

We had no idea what was happening outside, we had no clue that those 2 boys had just walked behind their mums coffin. We didn’t know the route or the Gun carriage, we knew nothing.

We heard the strangest noise, a rhythmic thud and grinding squeak, got louder and louder, it took ages for me to work out what that noise was, but then we saw them, the 8 Welsh Guards carrying the Princess’s coffin appeared directly in front of us, we could see those 8 poor lads red faces straining as they rested the coffin on the metal frame directly in front of us, I remember seeing the sweat on their foreheads, I remember shaking thinking “Princess Diana, my Princess Diana is laying right there in front of me” tears were pricking my eyes. Those guys had the whole world watching them as they carried her in that lead lined coffin on their shoulders, they were amazing.

Prince Phillip, Prince Harry, Prince William and Prince Charles laid flowers at the coffin and then took their seats alongside the Queen. The Welsh Guards filed past us.

The service was beautiful, I remember crying listening to Elton John sing, but when I looked towards the two princes I felt awful that I was crying yet they were so composed, this was their Mum, I had only met Diana once, why should I be allowed to cry. These 2 young lads had lost the woman they loved most. I had my Mum sat right next to me. I did my best to swallow back the tears.

The one part of the service I distinctly remember was Earl Spencer’s speech, when he finished the Abbey was silent, then from outside we could hear a strange crackling noise, it was difficult to hear what it was a first, then it got louder and louder like a wave coming towards us, it was like electricity, over a million people were applauding outside, then people in the Abbey started “What do we do?” I looked at Mum, then looked at the seats in front front of us, we clapped a little, they didn’t. It went on for an uncomfortably long time.

The service ended, we left the Abbey and quietly made our way out to the street, there were still crowds of people, still quiet, we walked back over the Bridge and got a Taxi to Waterloo and a train back to Guildford.

It wasn’t until later that day when we saw the TV coverage that we saw everything that had happened before the service and after, we had no idea.

I often say to people “I was at Princess Diana’s funeral” but I don’t think anyone really realises, I wasn’t just there in London that day, but I was right there, sat just a few seats away from her coffin in Westminster Abbey.

Princess Diana was an amazing, beautiful woman who touched people’s hearts in life and in death, I will never forget the day she married Prince Charles, the day I met her and she held my hand and the day I sat with her family to say goodbye to her. I will never forget her.

Meningitis took so much from me, but I truly believe it has given me so much, so many opportunities have opened up to me because of my illness, so many people have come into my life. To me, I feel blessed to have survived and so fortunate to have had so many amazing experiences because of it.