Princess Diana. What can I say, in light of the millions of words already written and the many more photos published? An icon of the 21st century, a champion of causes, a mother who adored her children, the most hunted woman of her time, a woman wronged, a woman taken before her time. An innocent. The mouse that roared. All these were apt, at one point or another. I’ll instead focus on my perceptions of her, and our visit to Althorp today.
If you were a young woman in the early 80s, as I was, you grew up with her. We watched the press chase her pre engagement, her eyes cast shyly down, we held our breath as she alit from that golden carriage in her wedding dress glory. We believed in the fairytale. We watched her present two beautiful boys to the world. We bought the fashion of the day, so much of which she influenced. We watched her dream crumble, understanding, perhaps for the first time, that fairytales might not come with a happy ending. We watched her struggle under the pressure to carve out a life of her own. We wept along with the rest of the world when she died. And we watched, heartbroken, when she was laid to rest, home once more. The image of William and Harry walking behind her coffin, behind that plaintive card that read simply “Mummy”, still bring tears to my eyes, even now.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who had a bigger influence on women across those two decades.
And so today a long held wish is fullfilled – we’re at Althorp, the Spencer ancestral home of some 500 years. Diana’s resting place.
I’m not sure what to expect. The picture painted by the media is now decades old – the accounts of Althorp were from a different time, surely before extensive restoration, before it was opened to the public. Childhood memories in a denied memoir.
It’s a grand estate, 3,000 acres of prime land. The house was built in the 1600s, the land held since the 1500s, on what was once grazing land for sheep. The original building was red brick, clad in later centuries by a white stone tile which has weathered unevenly over time. The design is oppulent with large windows taking in the view. Given the tax on glass at the time, windows of this size were unheard of.
Stepping inside is a wonderful surprise. I wasn’t expecting this. It’s oh so very grand.
A massive oak central staircase dominates, with over 600 paintings adorning the formal rooms. Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl, Diana and their father’s portraits hang at the top of the grand staircase. The walls are papered in velvet, deep jewel tones, edged with intricate detailed plaster cornices.
The restoration is flawless. In this 500 year old building, there’s not a crack, a patch of damp or indeed any sign of age. On the ground floor is an early rendering of open plan living, a long expanse of rooms – the ladies’ drawing room, a billiard room and the library, line up flawlessly.
In their time, the individual rooms could be shut off, but they present a very modern design as they stand, open, and further able to extend outwardly though french doors for external entertainment.
Elsewhere, we see the oak panelled portrait gallery, Kings of the time and their royal mistresses, the French favourite (who also turned out be spy) with the deepest decolletage. James I’s famously had 17 mistresses and consequently, many illegitimate children. The House of Spencer emanates from his bloodline, albeit “on the wrong side of the blanket”, as our guide informs us.
Entertainment was on a grand scale too, with not one, but two formal dining rooms, one of which seats 60.
The bedrooms are oppulently furnished and decorated with four poster beds, silk hangings and beautiful embroidery.
Bearing in mind this was “relaxed” living at the country house, there are nonetheless some very grand gilted pieces that made their way here from the Spencer’s London St James residence over time. Our guides tell us that the St James residence is where serious showcase entertaining was held – the mind boggles, as Althorp is pretty spectacular in its own right.
Our tour takes us past extensive china cabinets, and the first of what looks like a modern residence with current photos of the 9th Earl of Spencer and his family. It’s here we see a photo of Diana, a still from her Vogue shoot.
The grounds are simply presented, full of ancient trees, lots of massive Oaks and some pine. Plantings of box hedges, magnolia, hydrangea and lavender feature. There are bumbles aplenty, busy amongst the last of the summer flowers.
Set aside to the main residence are the sandstone stables, built in the 1700s. Today they house a cafe and a display of the Spencer family history, Diana’s funeral, her charity work, the the Diana Award and its recipients.
Like everything else it’s very well done with key points in the Spencer history detailed, including the wedding of Charles and Diana. It also houses the many books of condolences from around the world.
The Spencer tiara is showcased, as is my favourite picture from the wedding and the tiny flower girl’s dress worn by Clementine, Winston Churchill’s granddaughter.
There’s only one place left to visit, the lake and its oval island where Diana was laid to rest. It’s a peaceful spot, the lake a deep reflective green in the still of the day. The central island is a shroud of green.
The privacy that Diana so sought in life has at last been granted, in death. A memorial stands at the far end. It’s discreet and elegant, decorated with Diana’s profile in silhouette. At its centre stands a bench, a commemorative gift to the Earl from the staff of Althorp. There are flowers there still. There was a man in the queue for tickets, holding red roses – they lay here now.
Althorp has exceeded all expectations I held of it. The 9th Earl has done an extraordinary job in balancing what the public very possibly craved alongside the Spencer’s cultural heritage. There’s no doubt that Diana’s memory had been honoured without in anyway being exploited. It would have been so easy to give in to public pressure, to “Diana-fy” the gift shop, for example. I’m so glad it wasn’t. Instead, it’s a shining example of English restraint and good taste.
As usual, Chris has to drag me away. I would have happily spent all day here, just soaking it all in. On the way out we’re lucky to spot not one, but two herds of deer in the distance (there are three different types of deer on the estate). There’s time for a last look as we drive away.
Rain comes in the late afternoon. The heat has broken at last.