Leaving Her Guards High and Dry, a Dejected Di Stomps to the Sea

updated 01/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was 2:20 P.M. on Dec. 31, a typically quiet New Year's holiday at the Windsors' Sandringham retreat in Norfolk, when suddenly the retinue of security guards assigned to protect Princess Diana bolted into action. Her Royal Highness was...missing! For an hour, palace officers and local police searched in vain. Nobody, it seemed, knew where to find Diana.

Nobody, that is, except Jim Bennett, a free-lance photographer on a stakeout who had seen the Princess—alone—speeding off the grounds in her Land Rover. He followed and from a distance of 50 yards snapped away using a 500-mm telephoto lens. He captured the Princess walking dejectedly along the beach at Snettisham, seven miles from Sandringham. Said Bennett: "In all my years of covering the royal family, I have never seen any one of them out at such a lonely place without at least three policemen."

But alone Diana was. Wearing Wellington boots, an oversize red quilted jacket and with a tartan scarf wrapped around her head, she splashed through the surf with her hands jammed in her pockets. Clearly, something was amiss. That something, suggested the Sunday Mirror, was an argument with her husband, Prince Charles—a row that so infuriated her that she not only fled, but turned off her beeper and the police monitor in her Land Rover so no one could find her. "Maybe she's bored to the back teeth with her at times utterly tedious husband," offered the Daily Express.

At 3:20 P.M. Diana returned on her own. Within hours the London tabloids were in a feeding frenzy. The Mirror called the seaside ramble Diana's "lost hour" and promised to reveal "the shocking secret of how Princess Diana risked her life on a solitary walkabout."

To concerned royal watchers, Diana's unscheduled outing signaled continued marital woes for 1991. Meanwhile, "the Queen will be asked to remind her children," said a security officer, "how dangerous it is to go off somewhere without proper protection."

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