This post is for those of us who love learning more about the country estates of England. Today we are going to discuss Althorp, the country estate of the Spencer Family (as in Lady Diana Spencer). The origins of the name Althorp aren’t definitely known, but it’s worth noting that the name is traditionally pronounced ‘Althrop’ even though the spelling is ‘Althorp.’ The estate encompasses 14,000 acres and is located across parts of Northamptonshire, Norfolk, and Warwickshire. That is huge! To put things in perspective, Monaco is just 485 acres (3.5% of the size of the Althorp estate).
This aerial shot gives a great view of the grounds surrounding the main house:
So let’s start at the beginning. Althorp was originally a village and the remnants of that village can be seen today in the form of earthworks in certain parts of the estate. Althorp Village is mentioned in the Domesday Book which was completed in 1086 so there is certainly a lot of history on these grounds.
At some point, the village disappeared and Althorp House was built in 1508 by a family by the name of Catesby. The house and lands were purchased from them by Sir John Spencer in 1522 with the fortune he had made rearing sheep. His uncle, also named John Spencer, had been a tenant on the Althorp grounds. Originally a brick building, it was redone in the 1700s to resemble the house as it is today.
In 1975, Diana’s father inherited the title of Earl Spencer and Diana went from being the ‘Honourable Diana Spencer’ to the elevated ‘Lady Diana Spencer.’ The family moved from Park House on the Sandringham Estate to Althorp (click here for our post on Park House). When she spoke to Andrew Morton for Diana Her True Story, Diana recalled, “When I was 13 we moved to Althorp in Northampton and that was a terrible wrench, leaving Norfolk, because that’s where everybody who I’d grown up with lived. We had to move because grandfather died and life took a very big turn.”
Diana lived at Althorp while not at boarding school and it was here that Diana first properly met Charles when he came to visit Althorp with her sister Sarah. Diana remembered, “I remember him coming to Althorp to stay, my husband, and the first impact was ‘God, what a sad man.’ He came with his labrador…I made a lot of noise and he liked that and he came up to me after dinner and we had a big dance and he said, “Will you show me the gallery?” and I was just about to show him the gallery and my sister Sarah comes up and tells me to push off and I said, “At least, let me tell you where the switches are to the gallery because you won’t know where they are” and I disappeared. And he was charm itself and when I stood next to him the next day, a 16-year old, for someone like that to show you any attention – I was just sort of amazed.”
The interior of the house is generally considered its strongest asset as the Spencer family has assembled an impressive collection of portrait art including several pieces painted by the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck. The estate stable block has been converted into an exhibition devoted to the memory of Diana, Princess of Wales and provides an attractive sandstone setting that effectively offsets the imposing facade of the house.
I was able to visit the estate back in 2003 and really enjoyed the Diana exhibit; it is done very respectfully and includes footage of Diana and her siblings as children taken by their father. As you probably know, after her funeral Diana was interred on a small island in the middle of a lake near the estate. The island is closed to the public, but you can walk in the grounds surrounding the house and get quite close to the lake if you wish.
In September 2009, Lord Spencer started a major restoration project repairing the roof, stonework and the mathematical tiles which clad the building. To learn more, check out Althorp’s official website by clicking here.
Have any of you been to Althorp for a visit? We’d love to hear!