The men behind princess's funeral share their stories

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By Kent and Sussex Courier | Friday, August 31, 2012, 08:00

"EVERYTHING was going fine until I got to Wellington Arch and I realised the timing wasn't right – I suddenly thought 'I wish I wasn't doing this'."

Clive Roberts is visibly nervous as he recalls the monumental pressure that rested on his shoulders.

The then mounted police inspector at Great Scotland Yard was about halfway through leading Princess Diana's funeral procession between Kensington Palace and Westminster Abbey.

Alone at the front with minimal radio contact and two watches (one on his wrist and the other strapped to the horse's saddle along with the key timings), the eyes of the world were on him.

He had to complete the two-mile route in exactly one hour, 47 minutes and 20 seconds, the time set by the Army.

"If I got it wrong and I didn't arrive at Westminster Abbey until five past, or I arrive at five to, I can't just say 'sorry, I messed it up' – it's a one-off event," said the 59-year-old.

The father of three, who now lives in Southwood Road, Rusthall, met Diana before she became a princess when she visited the police training college in Hendon, London.

He also played a key role in her wedding to Prince Charles. He was part of the escort to St Paul's Cathedral and led the newlyweds' carriage to Waterloo station before they went on honeymoon.

The former pupil of the now-defunct Huntleys Secondary School for Boys in Tunbridge Wells described the atmosphere in central London in the week building up to her funeral as "really peculiar" and "subdued".

He recalled the mountains of flowers at St James' Palace, Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace: "There was an overwhelming smell of flowers. People came from all over, and even people who hadn't really had any great time for Diana suddenly decided it was something they had to do."

Without a marching band to set the pace and the route being extended just 72 hours beforehand, Mr Roberts set off from Kensington Palace followed by four police horses, Welsh Guards on either side of the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery carrying the coffin, and four police horses at the rear.

As Mr Roberts and his horse Rupert began the journey, he was met by a group of 200 women wailing in grief who began to throw flowers in front of the procession.

"I thought 'God, this is going to be awful if we're going to get this all the way'," he said.

"Fortunately the horses didn't react, because often if you throw something towards a horse it will shy away."

Everything was running to schedule until an unexpected turn of events outside Buckingham Palace.

He said: "As I neared Queens Gardens at the bottom, there was a group of people on the right hand side, and I thought 'who are they'?

"As I got nearer I recognised the Duke of Kent. I got a little bit closer and thought 'hang on, that's the Queen at the front'.

"We were told nothing about this. All the royal family were waiting for the procession to pass."

The usual protocol for the police officer in charge of an escort is to raise their hand to their head and salute the Queen while shouting "escort, eyes" in the direction of where Her Majesty is standing to the rest of his escort.

Then, as they pass, the same officer then shouts "escort, eyes front".

"But we're doing a royal funeral, it's all quiet, how can I shout?" he said.

Only having a few seconds to make a decision, Mr Roberts decided the Queen's seniority eclipsed funereal procedure and performed the salute just loudly enough for her to hear. In accordance to protocol, three of the four officers turned right while the officer on the far right still looked forward.

"At the time I saw her mouth something, and I later played it back on television and she actually mouthed 'thank you', so I'm assuming that was to me."

The procession then stopped briefly at St James' Palace to allow Princes Charles, William and Harry, and a group of Diana's charity workers, to join on foot between the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery and the four police horses at the rear.

Shortly after, when they reached Wellington Arch, the pressure started to heighten.

"There were billions of people watching and it had to be one hour, 47 minutes and 20 seconds. I was thinking 'oh God, this is awful'. I started to sweat," he added.

"I thought there's no point panicking, I've got to carry on."

After minimal radio contact up until then, as he turned right towards Whitehall he was informed the Queen, who was being driven, had not crossed the route to get to Westminster Abbey.

He immediately radioed control asking them to confirm when the Queen had arrived at Westminster Abbey.

With about 400 yards until the Abbey, he contacted New Scotland Yard only to hear "oh yeah, didn't anyone tell you?" She had arrived, having been driven down Birdcage Walk.

This meant he had lost valuable time and had to pick up the pace for the remaining 400 yards. Much to his relief he arrived at Westminster Abbey 11 seconds early, and the coffin was taken through the west door at 11am.

"It would've been terrible if it had been late," he said. "I'm sure the repercussions from on high on Monday morning would have been very severe."

Mr Roberts served with the Metropolitan Service for 27 years before retiring in July 2000, but his role on September 6, 1997, will always be his strongest memory.



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