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A worthwhile tribute to Princess Diana.
Member Name: kevin121
Date: 28/08/11, updated on 11/02/12 (203 review reads)
Advantages: Princess Diana's family home, for those that liked her; set in beautiful countryside
Disadvantages: Princess Diana's family home, for those that didn't; expensive entrance fees
After suggesting a visit to Althorp to my mother, we thought about the best time to visit. Althorp is only open to the public from July 31 to August 31 every year. A weekday? No, too many HGV's on the M1 and if we wanted to take the direct route through London the Congestion Charge would be in force too. A Saturday? We both had other things to do. We plumped for a Sunday. There should be less traffic driving through central London, and possibly less motorway congestion too, not to mention that Sunday's are free from the Congestion Charge.
I was aware a Hyde Park cycle event was planned for that day, so I duly surfed the net. The only problem mentioned was a road through Hyde Park being closed southbound for the day. Further afield in Richmond and Box Hill there were to be more road diversions in place.
A last minute check (I had stupidly googled 'Hyde Park events') confirmed there were no last minute changes, so off we set towards central London.
Why is this all relevant? Because some two hours later both my mother and myself could be found in my car with our nerves frayed.. We had crawled a total of 20 miles in those two hours, and had yet to see the start of the M1, never mind Junction 16 in Northamptonshire.
A total 1,400 roads in London and Surrey had been shut, some for hours after the cyclists had passed by. My fault entirely - as my mother kept reminding me- for not having checked the Transport For London (TFL) website instead.
By the time we reached the Althorp car park, we both needed this attraction to lift our spirits.
This had better be worth it...
... otherwise I simply couldn't face another three hours in the car with my mother on the way home. And she with me, no doubt.
~ Some history ~
Is there anyone who hasn't heard of Althorp? Now the home of Charles, the Ninth Earl of Spencer, and younger brother of the late Princess Diana, though Althorp's links to Royalty go back almost as far as the 500 years it has been home to the Spencer family.
Robert, First Baron Spencer was at the start of the 17th Century one of the richest men in the country thanks in part to his predecessors marriages into peerage and plenty of lucrative business dealings. The canny chap took it upon himself to meet James I as the Scottish king travelled past on his way to London, escorting him on the last leg of his journey. Not surprisingly, he was soon ennobled, and hereafter the family seems to have close links to the Royal family, albeit not always on good terms.
Fast forward a couple of generations, and Robert, Second Earl of Sunderland decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. Nothing strange in that except this was during the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and when the last Catholic monarch was about to be replaced by William of Orange, a protestant! According to the Althorp guidebook, a great deal of the artwork on display is attributable to him, along with...
... the Grounds
~ The gardens ~
While Althorp's gardens may not be in the same league as those at Versailles, the Althorp gardens are credited with being originally created by the same man, French royal gardener Andrew Le Notre.
If you come here hoping to see much the same design features though, you will be disappointed. The current Earl Spencer is said to be responsible for removing much of the formal planting that was here, and in the process cutting back lots of cypress trees that were grown here, to give a better view of the further reaches of the estate.
And impressive the views certainly are. After the interminable length of time I spent sitting in my car, the walk from the car park to the first building - the Pump Yard - bode well for the rest of the visit. In the field on the left were the remnants of Althorp's very own Glastonbury - they had hosted a concert the night before and a few marquees and the concert stage were in the process of being dismantled. And sheep in the field on the right. Wide open spaces, but as yet the house isn't visible.
The only public toilets on the estate are in the Pump Yard. We availed ourselves of the facilities and pressed on towards the house. The next building you come to is..
~ The Stable Block ~
The horses and grooms have long since gone, but this, more so than the house itself, was the reason I had wanted to come to Althorp. It houses an exhibition dedicated to both the life of Diana, the Princess of Wales and her memory.
The exhibition is split into 5 parts, spaced over two of the stable blocks. The first two parts relate her earlier life, with the other 3 her life from her wedding day onwards. I won't recount all the exhibits here, it would spoil it for those that might want to see it for themselves and those with no interest would find it tedious. Being that it was the main reason we came, I will highlight some of the exhibits I found the most interesting.
Her tap shoes.
I was vaguely aware that Diana had been a keen ballet dancer when she was younger, and still had a love for dancing as an adult (who could forget the dances with Wayne Sleep or John Travolta?) but instead of a worn out pair of ballet shoes were a pair of tap shoes from her early teens. In shiny black leather, what struck me most wasn't the excellent condition of them, but the size. Easily a size seven. Possibly nearer an eight. Why, what big feet you had Diana.
Dear mum and dad...
A short letter, carefully written by Diana when she would have been at boarding school aged around 9. It recounts a recent power cut at the school, when she had had to take a candle to bed. Hardly a gripping yarn I grant you, but from the viewpoint of a child it's an event worth writing home about which is touching.
Have you ever met anyone famous?
Apparently, they always seem smaller than you imagined when you meet them. Well, go into the second exhibition block and the first thing you see is Diana's wedding dress. Yes, That Dress. The lighting in this area is the dimmest in all the exhibit areas, perhaps that is to give greater effect to the dress or to stop the material from deteriorating, but it does bring out the sparkly bits in the train. The dress is undoubtedly meant to be one of the exhibition's highlights. When seen close up, it doesn't seem as blancmangy as it did at the time. I remember the crinoline skirt being incredibly wide, with an over the top length train. Looking at the dress here, it seems more petite and has the 25 foot train neatly curled up around it. Yes, it looks rather dated, and the big sleeves are terribly frou frou, but 'Smaller in real life' was my verdict. "Dingy" was my mother's verdict. Rather harsh I thought. Diana's mother, Mrs Shand Kydd had paid £1050 for the gown together with the bridesmaids dresses in 1981. Whatever you think of the dress, that was a bargain price and turned the unknown Emmanuels into household names.
Certainly the largest exhibit, and well worth seeing is that of Diana's post-marriage clothes. Down one side of are her 'day clothes' - mostly formal skirt suits she wore on official engagements. The other side hold some of her evening dresses. While the day suits seemed quite dowdy to me considering her age, the evening dresses are for the most part gorgeous. Interestingly, they show how her style evolved over the last 10 years or so of her life. A few of the earlier evening dresses look quite matronly and have big puffy sleeves, although perhaps at the time they were considered the height of fashion. After all, it was the era of leg warmers and ra-ra skirts. The 28 different pieces all have written descriptions including the year they were made, and by whom. Catherine Walker was obviously one of Diana's favourite designers, as more than half of those on display are her designs, but other designers included are Versace and Dior. A nice touch is that the Spencer family have taken the trouble to find photos of Diana actually wearing each piece which are displayed on the wall behind the clothing.
The home movies.
In both areas, there is footage playing, on a loop, of Diana. The earlier home footage includes clips of her and her brother Charles larking about - her two older sisters don't feature heavily in the exhibition - from small children to her teenager years, all taken by her father. Later footage includes that of her on official engagements, such as meeting those afflicted with Aids and Leprosy. The last of all, is news footage taken in London in the days after her passing. All the movies are silent, there is no intrusive voiceover. There is also plenty of room to stand and watch the footage, without those who are looking at the exhibits in the same room standing in the way.
As well as the exhibition, the Stable Block houses something else of interest, and that is the café. When we arrived it was lunchtime and heaving with visitors. There was a fairly good selection of sandwiches and baguettes, with soup for those wanting something hot, and some delicious cakes. Canned drinks were £1 each, filter coffee and hot chocolate around the £1.90 mark each, which is reasonable considering that is probably what I've paid when I visit cafes closer to home. A filter coffee, hot chocolate, tuna sandwich, danish pastry and slice of chocolate cake came to around £11.50. The service reminded me of a fast food joint. There was only one queue, but four or five staff serving, all very young but efficient. There is plenty of seating outside on the cobbled courtyard, although beware the wobbly tables if you don't want a spilt drink. Inside to the rear of the café some seating has been kitted out in some of the old stable areas. That's fine if you aren't claustrophobic.
We had actually stopped here for a bite to eat before looking at the exhibition, and probably spent around an hour between the two, before we headed off for a walk around the grounds. We had entered the Stable Block from the south. If you exit through the north as we did you'll get a wonderful view - the first - of Althorp house. Here, too, is a row of tiny cannons. These, the Guidebook tells me are from the battle of Navarino in 1827, which the Fourth Earl had taken part in. Quite how he acquired them is anyone's guess, but they do make for a good photo opportunity, as you'll see.
~ Around the Round Oval ~
We decided to make the most of the nice weather and walk around the outside of the house towards the lake before we went inside. The lake, or Round Oval as it's called, is where Diana was interred in 1997. My first impression is how small the lake is. It's probably half the size of the lake in Crystal Palace park and smaller even than that at the RHS Wisley garden, for those familiar with either of the two. There are benches placed every few yards surrounding the lake, and thoughtfully Althorp have provided some sand filled buckets to the side of most, although I don't recall seeing anyone smoking while we were there. Like any other pond, there are lots of ducks, which are very cheeky, and seem to expect titbits from anyone sitting down.
We walked to the far end, where a summer house, here since 1901, is now dedicated to Diana. The central silhouette in marble is attractive, and flanked by two stone tablets. One features part of Earl Spencer's speech at Westminster Abbey, the other is a quotation from Diana about her charitable works. It is certainly very elegant, and worth the walk from the house, although it was one of the busier points of interest with visitors when we were there, with quite a crowd gathered taking photos and quizzing the attendant there.
We followed the path all the way around the lake and back towards the house. This will take you past the oak tree planted here by Nelson Mandela when he came to pay his respects after Diana's funeral, although it's off to one side and unless you're paying attention you could easily miss it.
~ Althorp House ~
If there are any drawbacks in inheriting such a lovely house, I'm sure low down on the list must be how to furnish it. I doubt that Charles Spencer lies awake many nights worrying about interior design.
All the rooms which are open to the public look like they have been largely undisturbed for many years, from the wallpapers to the bed coverings. If Raine Spencer had ever left her blowsy fingerprint in the decoration, it won't be found in the public rooms.
There are five bedrooms on display, which are all very traditionally furnished with four poster beds. The Queen Mary bedroom has what must be the tallest four poster I've ever seen - not that I'm an expert - nigh on 15 feet top to bottom. These, we were told, are all regularly used by guests of the family. Quite frankly, I'd enjoy staying here for the brilliant views from the bedroom windows despite the beds looking really uncomfortable. No doubt the family's quarters are more modern.
One thing we spotted was a little secret door cut into the wall of what I think was the Princess of Wales bedroom. Secret passages? It took me right back to reading the Famous Five. Sadly, it leads to nothing more exciting than a small washroom, according to the room attendant.
~ Charles Spencer... ~
.. is hardly there since his latest marriage this year to an American, so don't go expecting to bump into him.
In all fairness to the current Earl, visitors to most other British stately homes know very little about their owners, and without any preconceived notions they arrive with an open mind. This Earl is slightly different. As well known for his " I stand before you today, the representative of a family in grief..." eulogy, as for his tricky love life, what does the cad bring to the table (or his house)?
Walking around, there were some simple touches which reminded me that we were in a family home and not a fusty museum.
In one room is a pile of board games, well worn and all quite old. In another was a biography of Wallis Simpson, placed for any wandering eyes to see it. Another Royal outsider, who totally got up the Queens nose? Some informal family photos are also scattered throughout the public rooms, of the Earls' children, as well as, yes, some of Princes William and Harry as little nippers.
Most surprisingly of all, for me, was a large modern painting by Mitch Griffiths. Having pride of place in the centre of the Picture Room, and surrounded by paintings some of which are 200 years older, is one called simply Britannia. Bought by the Earl last year, it features the daughter of actor Ray Winstone in a study of what the artist calls the disposable, celebrity obsessed nature of modern Britain. Aside from the two paintings in the hallway - of the current Earl and of his late sister - this was the only one which was remotely modern, and a stark contrast to any others on display here.
I don't know whether Earl Spencer feels he lives under the shadow of his older sister, or if he finds it a burden being saddled with the public's association of her memory, but his family estate is a well run and thriving business. To appeal to as broad a range of visitors as possible, rather than simply charge the one admission price as most stately homes do, Althorp has three options to choose from. The cheapest option is intended for those that simply want to visit the gardens, ie walk around the lake and see the Exhibition. Those that would like to see more can choose to look around either the ground floor rooms, or the ground and upstairs rooms. Those less steady on their feet or requiring wheelchairs only have the option of the first two as there is no assisted access to the upstairs rooms in the house.
~ The Visitor Guide Book... ~
.. is well laid out, with plenty of colour photos as well as some Althorp background, and a foreword by Earl Spencer. At £5 it is expensive, but in fairness it is printed on high quality paper, and gives a room by room account for those doing the whole tour. Without it, or the audio tour which you can hire when you enter, I don't think we would have noticed as much in each room. For those not interested in buying a guide book, there is a smaller visitor pamphlet which everyone gets on arrival, which includes a decent enough map of the grounds.
~ Recommended? ~
Althorp as I've said, will only remain open to the public until the end of August. Summer is probably the best time of year to visit anyway, given that the gardens looked wonderful, so yes I would recommend it. A big plus for me, was that there are no tours around the house, you turn up and walk through the house at your own pace. I found this more enjoyable than being herded around the rooms with a party of Japanese and Americans tourists doing England.
If you don't fancy looking around the house, Althorp also hosts other events throughout the year, including a literary festival (started by the Earl's middle wife), and various musical events.
However, if the thought of learning more about Princess Diana leaves you cold, or if you find the current Earl Spencer vaguely irritating, then no. It would be easy to say that he is exploiting his sister's name but I came away thinking Althorp has struck a very good balance between the old, more standard fare of a stately home, with the modern Diana exhibition. Those that only wish to visit because of it being Diana's family home can buy the cheaper garden tickets, and aren't forced to look around a house they don't really want to.
That said, the price differential is so little, it seems wiser to buy tickets for both parts of the house as well, especially if you have travelled any real distance to get here. It really is a delightful building both inside and out.
There are staff in each room (are they called room attendants?), who were all very responsive. If they get bored with people asking the same questions every day, they didn't show it.
Was it worth it? Yes, and a good and happily uneventful drive home was the cherry on the top.
~ Prices ~
We paid £28 to get in, £15 for me as an adult and £13 for my mother as a senior citizen. I haven't included all the other prices as there are so many. Althorp's website includes a complete list, including the concessions.
~ Where it is ~
Telephone: 01604 770107
Fax: 01403 891 305
You can book tickets by telephone, online or by writing to:
Ticket Sales, The Stables, Althorp, Northampton, NN7 4HQ
They are open from 11:00am to 5:00pm, with last entry at 4:00pm from 1st July - 30th August every year.
Once we got off the M1 at junction 16, the brown tourist signs were easy to follow.
Summary: Go while it's still open
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