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Jill Worrall: Meet the Spencer family

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Althorp. Photo / Jill Worrall
Althorp. Photo / Jill Worrall

The Spencer Family have lived in the same house for 500 years; I've been living in mine for 15, yet they don't seem to have accumulated nearly so much clutter.

Well, that's if you don't count their Van Dykes, Rubens and Gainsborough paintings, four- poster beds "as slept in by royalty" and several thousand books. I also suspect that, out of public view, there must be the same kinds of cupboards as I have where everything falls out when you open the doors.

The Spencers of Althorp, Northampton began building their house in 1508 and an unbroken line of Spencer earls and their families have lived there ever since. The most famous member of the family is unquestionably Diana, Princess of Wales, although she did not move to Althorp with her siblings and divorced father until she was a teenager.

Althorp's family history and its immensely valuable art collection should always have ensured it was one of England's most popular stately homes to visit, but there's no doubt that the link with Diana has, since her death in 1997, raised its public profile considerably.

Diana's body was interred on a small island in The Round Oval (as the lake in the gardens is known). That was followed by a rash of snide comments in the media that the present earl, Charles Spencer, Diana's brother, was profiting financially from her fame and death.

He denies any such thing of course and as the Spencer family fortune is estimate to be worth about 100 million pounds a few years ago it does rather suggest they are not struggling to pay the supermarket bill. However, household repairs don't come cheap - a roof replacement project recently was estimated to cost £10 million. Earl Spencer also has a rather large family to support - two ex-wives, a new wife with a baby born just a few months ago and six other children.

And when he did have a bit of a clean out a few years ago, auctioning everything from 19th century carriages, First World War dress uniforms, riding boots to copper jelly moulds, an impressive sum of £21 million was raised. Now that was some garage sale.

Althorp is just a few kilometres outside Northampton and it's a remarkably fast transformation from Midlands industrial townscape to the estate of rolling pasture and woodlands. There are 14,000 acres in all, including some in the neighbouring county of Warwickshire and to the east in Norfolk.

The first significant building visitors come across after the walk along the driveway from one of several gates is the stables. They are in fact a much more attractive building from the exterior than Althorp house itself. Built in the 1730s in Italian Tuscan style using local honey coloured ironstone, they once could stable up to 100 horses and 40 grooms.

Today they have been converted into an exhibition commemorating the life of Diana. Pride of place among the displays is a wedding dress, the Spencer tiara that she wore on the day she married Prince Charles and two of the bridesmaids' dresses.

There is a wealth of memorabilia from her childhood too, including photographs and even home movies taken by her father, Edward, the eighth earl. Some of her most iconic dresses are exhibited too, including less glamourous clothes such as an outfit captured innumerable times in photographs during one of her visits to Africa.

The exterior of the house itself was originally red brick but one of the early Spencers, the Second Earl of Sunderland, decided that brick did not sufficiently do justice to his status. He commissioned architect to the nobility Henry Holland to help. Holland opted to reclad Althorp in white "mathematical" tiles. It was not his finest hour.

Althorp is definitely an example of resisting the temptation to judge a book by its cover. The interiors more than make up for the decidedly institutional exterior. But if you visit, make sure you have plenty of time - each room on the tour (and I lost count of how many there were) is not only packed with treasures from paintings to furniture but the architecture itself deserves attention.

And then there's the royal visitations and family dramas that have played out in some of the rooms. There's the black and white tiled Wootton Hall where Diana used to tap dance for hours; the ante room where a relative of one of the Spencer wives died of small pox; a number of beautiful four-posters where royalty has reposed over the centuries - the bed used by King William of Orange in 1695 (on that occasion the canopy was covered with ostrich feathers) and the elegant bed in which Queen Mary slept in 1913.

Most romantic of all is the Oak Bedroom to where in 1755 John, who would later become the First Earl Spencer, spirited his fiancee Georgiana to be married in secret by his tutor (who conveniently was also a priest).

The115-ft long Picture Gallery is a who's who of earls, countesses, duchesses. The family has close ties with the Marlboroughs and Churchills among others. Most famously at one end is hung Van Dyck's enormous painting known as "War and Peace". The two men depicted, were brothers-in-law but fought on opposing sides during the 17th century English Civil War.

It's rather a daunting room. I preferred the more homely atmosphere of the library which today is used as a family sitting room. There are 10,000 books kept here, an impressive collection, but this only a quarter of what the Second Earl amassed. He had 40,000 books including rare editions of Shakespeare. The bulk of the collection was sold of in 1892.

I enjoyed too, the juxtaposition between the grandeur of the Marlborough Room, with its 20- foot long state dining table with the Sunderland room next door. Almost every painting in the latter was of the Third Earl Spencer's prize cattle. Apparently after the earl's wife died in 1818 he consoled himself by developing a passion for stock breeding. Captured at their bucolic best were Orontes, Ranunculus and other cattle beast of prodigious size.

It was now time to visit the lake, the Round Oval, the part of the garden dedicated to Diana. There's a small island in the lake on which she is buried which is not accessible to the public. A monument nestled in the trees close to the water's edge is all that can be seen

But on the lakeshore is a summerhouse that has been remodeled as a Diana memorial with a silhouette in black marble and two inscriptions, one a quote from Diana and one from her brother, the conclusion of his eulogy in Westminster Abbey. There were several bouquets of fresh flowers lying on the ground in front of the memorial.

The summer house itself has an intriguing back story. It stood originally in the garden of Admiralty House in London and was bought by the Firth Earl Spencer for £3. Maybe it was an example of the usefulness of having friends in very high places.

- nzherald.co.nz

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