Northamptonshire was once known as the county of “spires and squires”, the home to wealthy landowners and several fine medieval church spires. It is an inland county, landlocked between eight others, Lincolnshire in the north (England’s shortest county boundary at 62ft) Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Rutland.
It has also been said that the county has more stately houses than any other county in England and Althorp is one of the best. Built in 1508, Althorp has been the stately home of the Spencer family for nearly 500 years and is the final resting place of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.
On arriving at the western gate there is a long walk down to the house along an avenue of thirty-six oak trees, which have been planted for every year of Diana`s short life. A large herd of deer could be seen from the road sitting beneath the trees in the shade. Fallow deer have been roaming the parks 13,000 acres (5,300 ha) since the early sixteenth century. Currently there are separate herds of rare black fallow deer, sika and red deer.
The first buildings I approached were The Stables, built around 1733 was once home to over 100 horses and 40 grooms, today it houses a small museum displaying items from the life of Princess Diana including the tiara she wore on her wedding day and one of the bridesmaids dresses.
There is also a glass case containing books of condolence from all over the world which have been received at Althorp. Some of the former stables have been converted into a small gift shop and wonderfully large café. The gift shop had a wide range of items, exclusively designed and manufactured for Althorp including an informative guide book to the house and a number of signed copies of historical novels and histories of Althorp, written by the present Earl, Charles Spencer.
The café offers a range of freshly made sandwiches, cakes and snacks as well as hot & cold drinks. The courtyard is a very pleasant place in which to sit for a bite to eat and a drink and there is a dedicated picnic area close by. I enjoyed a large slice of a carrot cake and a beautifully presented Caffè mocha. The serving staff were both friendly and professional and all of the food and drink was reasonably priced.
The interior of the house has a fine collection of furniture and ceramics and a very impressive collection of portraits. The House is an Art Gallery, a treasure trove for lovers of portrait art, from Sir Peter Paul Rubens to Sir Anthony Van Dyck, there didn’t appear to be a space on the walls, which didn’t have a portrait hanging from it. There was a `free flow` system operating on the afternoon I visited but the guides in each of the rooms were always willing to answer questions and pass on interesting and sometimes amusing snippets and anecdotes as I strolled from room to room.
An imposing oak staircase leads visitors up to three particularly striking portraits of the present Earl Charles, his father John, the 8th Earl of Althorp and his sister Diana. The Library still contains one of the largest private collections of first editions in Europe. There were several magnificent four poster bedrooms in what is essentially a family home which is open to the public for three months during the summer. Family photographs of the present Earls family, a collection of board games, a drinks table for house guests and a used snooker table testify to that! It was a beautiful and fascinating house to walk around, there was so much to see, visitors can easily expect to spend an hour and half viewing the house at their leisure.
After visiting the main house, we took a leisurely stroll amongst the trees and briefly stopped at the tree which Nelson Mandela planted when he visited the house in 2002. We walked on a little further to the Oval Pool and Temple. The Temple was moved from the Admiralty in London to the banks of the Round Oval in 1926 and since 1997 it has been dedicated to the memory of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.
It contains a black silhouette of her in the middle, set in white marble. Bunches of fresh flowers and short notes of remembrance are still left at the Temple by some of the thousands of visitors.
The island in the middle of the pool is the last resting place of Diana, the nations Queen of Hearts. Her burial place on the island is marked with a white memorial plinth and urn. One hundred white rambling roses flourish on the island and white-water lilies cover the water.
Log benches circling the oval pool provide a comfortable place in which visitors can sit and rest their feet whilst they collect their thoughts. It is a peaceful place allowing time for reflection on your memories of the life of Princess Diana and the stunning sights viewed within the House and Park. I enjoyed my time at Althorp enormously and would recommend a visit to anyone interested in stately houses, art, ceramics, furniture and local history. I must check out the Literary Festival and Food & Drink Festival over the next twelve months.
Althorp is about 6 miles (9.7 km) northwest of Northampton and is clearly signed from the M1 junctions 16/18 and from junction 1 of the A14 (westbound only)
To view the official Althorp video click here
Disclosure: My visit was courtesy of the Althorp Estate. The views and comments expressed are as usual my own.