The young Diana, Princess of Wales, and her teenage flatmates were advised to check under their own cars for bombs after she started dating Prince Charles, one of her friends has revealed, as she unveiled a blue plaque at their laughter-filled London flat.
Virginia Clarke, one of the four girls who lived at 60 Coleherne Court with the then-Lady Diana, said they received no other help from the palace after being besieged by the press, with the friends "revelling" in beating the press at their own game.
Describing the situation as "surreal", she said they had been advised to investigate under their own cars.
"Sadly none of us had read the handbook for bomb spotting so we didn’t know where to begin with that one," she said.
Calling the Earl’s Court home a place to "cherish", she said she knew the late Princess would have been "thrilled" to have a blue plaque there in her honour.
Mrs Clarke, then Virginia Pitman, lived at the flat on the Old Brompton Road with Carolyn Bartholomew, Ann Bolton and Lady Diana, from July 1979 to the royal engagement in 1981.
Diana outside her flat in Coleherne Court, London, before her engagement to the Prince of Wales
‘D was pretty happy when she lived here’
Joking that it was "not quite as Netflix would have you believe in the Crown", she said the girls lived "very happily with much laughter".
"I think it’s pretty well known that D was pretty happy when she lived here so it’s great to be here to cherish this place in her name," she said, delivering a speech ahead of the English Heritage plaque unveiling.
Detailing how they had lived an ordinary life until Diana "one day met up with Prince Charles", she said their lives soon changed with a knock on the door from a gentleman she thought was from the local garage before learning he was in fact from the Daily Express.
"That was when we were joined by the world’s press," she said.
"I think it’s fair to say we had absolutely no idea how to handle them. They were professional, seasoned reporters who descended on us from everywhere.
"They were desperate for comments and photographs, looking through the windows.
"We used to call them by their full names. Always "Mr" in some desperate attempt to put some distance between us. We thought if we were polite, we never lied – we just evaded the truth – and smiled, they would be gentle with us and step back a bit.
"Eventually we had to shut the curtains day and night and push through the crowds to get to work, and it was really intimidating."
Princess Diana's former flatmate Virginia Clarke and English Heritage chairman Sir Tim Laurence unveil a English Heritage blue plaque to Diana, Princess of Wales
Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA
‘The situation was surreal’
Detailing how the young women, aged 19 and 20, gloried in getting one over on the tabloids, she added: "Interestingly, none of us, including Diana, received any help.
"I’m not sure who might have helped us, but there might have been someone. Some PR or palace person, I don’t know.
"The only thing I remember being told was we should look under our cars for bombs. Sadly none of us had read the handbook for bomb spotting so we didn’t know where to begin with that one. The situation was surreal."
Speaking to a small crowd outside the flat today, she said: "It was at Coleherne Court that Diana learned to play cat and mouse with the press, with the backing of us flatmates.
"We formed a team who together began to play this crazy game of avoiding the press.
"We thought it was really funny at the time, and Diana revelled in it."
One of Diana’s favourite occasions, she said, was ahead of a weekend date with Prince Charles when she escaped without the press noticing thanks to a fake start.
"She took her suitcase, and came round the corner here and sat in the car," Mrs Clarke said. "All the press jumped into their cars and revved the engines.
"Then she went ‘ooops’, in a sort of slightly over-dramatic fashion as if she’d forgotten something, got out of the car, came back inside, got a second suitcase, came down the stairs and got into a taxi and went in that [the other] direction.
"I think it was 1.30 in the morning when the doorbell finally went and a sad voice said ‘is Diana ever coming out again?’.
"She was thrilled with that success."
Mrs Clarke added: "Later in life when she dropped her royal status, it saddened me to realise she no longer had her friends around her and the cat and mouse game became very lonely and not quite so funny."
‘I know she would be thrilled to have her own’ blue plaque
The blue plaque can now be seen on the wall of the Coleherne Court building, where Diana lived when she worked in a nursery.
The new English Heritage blue plaque to Diana, Princess of Wales, outside her former flat in Earl's Court
Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA
She was nominated for the English Heritage plaque for her work supporting the Red Cross and Aids charities, along with five other women honoured this year.
"Strangely I have a clear memory of discussing blue plaques with Diana in her car as we drove around London," said Mrs Clarke.
"So I know she would be thrilled to have her own, and that’s why I’m here."
According to Andrew Morton’s biography, Diana later described her 18 months at the flat as the happiest time of her life: "It was nice being in a flat with the girls. I loved that – it was great. I laughed my head off there."
Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage, said: "Diana was one of the world’s most famous women and she used her fame and influence to raise awareness of issues such as homelessness and landmines.
"She played a critically important role in helping to destigmatise illnesses such as HIV, leprosy and depression.
"It is fitting that our blue plaque remembers her at this place where her life in the public eye first began."