As the winter months give way to the sunny days of summer, England’s green and pleasant lands have so much to offer. One in particular is Northamptonshire, a smudge of land in the East Midlands just an hour or so from London, with lush rolling landscape and more historic stately homes than any other region in England.
But it is also home to the tallest abseil tower, it’s where the garden gnome was born, where 50 F1 grand prix championships have been celebrated since 1950, and is the place where the swash buckling Errol Flyn started his career at the Northampton Royal theatre.
Althorp House – Princess Diana’s ancestral home
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s shocking death in a car crash in Paris. She was young, still in her thirties and at the height of her beauty.
She is buried on an island in the lake of her ancestral home, Althorp House estate, a home that has been in the family for 500 years (built in 1508 for the Spencers). Her brother Earl Spencer lives there with his wife and daughter. He throws open the doors of this 13,000 acre estate, for six weeks every year, and holds the annual literary festival too.
Everything about Althorp is a joy – even the approach. Driving through parkland during the lambing season was heart warming. Sheep straddled by their babies, watched on as we drove along the winding driveway. The Spencer family were originally sheep farmers who sold wool to London. Today their lands are rented to other farmers whose sheep we were now witnessing.
The entry leads into Wootton Hall, named after the famous painter of horses, John Wootton whose paintings hang here. It wasn’t hard to imagine Diana as a little girl tap dancing on the marble floor. She would practice here often in the very hall that centuries of monarchy had passed through.
There are 650 paintings mainly from the baroque 1600s, especially in the Gallery Hall. And though the paintings are of royal and regal ancestors, every now and again one stands out for its shock factor – such as Mitch Griffith’s Rehab and his Britannia where the models is Ray Winston’s daughter. Both paintings are from his Promised Land collection and I wondered if their bold statements on contemporary life perhaps give an insight into how the Earl views the world.
The most valuable painting is one by Sir Anthony Vandyck called War and Peace showing George Digby 2nd Earl of Bristol and William Russel 1st Duke of Burgunday. They say it is priceless.
There is only one of the Princess and it hangs alongside that of her brother. However, the stable block is dedicated to Diana with footage, memorabilia and even a page of her diary. Her condolences book is stored here too.
A tour of the house incorporates several rooms and even bedrooms. Diana’s favourite bedroom was the blue room.
If you visit now you will get to see an exhibition of photographs of this very photogenic princess. Fifteen iconic images were taken 20 years ago by Mario Testino. They were originally shot for Vanity Fair, then shown in in Kensington Palace in 2005 and form part of a permanent exhibition in Lima, Peru. The images will stay here until October 8.
Deene Park House – Mentioned in the Doomsday Book
This 16th century Georgian manor house near Corby has been the home of the Brudenell family since 1514 when Sir Robert Brudenell bought it from Westminster Abbey. Even so, the family had to pay £18 a year rent which they continued to pay until 1970 when they made a final payment of £200.
Deene Park House was mentioned in the Doomsday book and it was once the seat of the Earls of Cardigan, including the 7th Earl who led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. The actual horse (stuffed of course) is still on display. His wife the Countess of Cardigan let the house fall into disrepair. However when Edmund Brudenell inherited it took on the task of restoring the home. It took him three decades.
The present owners of this crenellated house, Robert Brudenell and his vivacious wife Charlotte live there with their son William. There’s a series of equestrian pictures by John Ferneley and over the fireplace there’s a painting of the 7th Earl leading the Charge of the Light Brigade.
The gardens have evolved over 30 years and comprising a lake, old trees, mixed borders of shrubs, flowers and roses and a parterre designed by David Hicks.
The Brudenells do love a good cup of tea and the garden topiary has been shaped into teapots. Amusingly a teapot also sits in pride of place atop the millennium obelisk. Bizarrely the house is the venue of the Elusive pop festival.
Tours include viewing at least nine rooms that are still used by the family as well as the gardens.
Holdenby House – King Charles I was imprisoned here
Originally this Elizabethan palace was built by Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton in 1583 amid 2,000 acres of rolling countryside and was the biggest stately home in England during the English Civil War.
When he died Holdenby House reverted to the crown. King James I used it primarily as a place for his son, Charles I, to play in. As fate would have it, he was held prisoner here during his reign, for 5 months. During incarceration he wrote a book – Eikon Basilike. It was published after he was executed in 1649 and the original is on display in the library, a room that survived from the original Elizabethan palace. It has essays of his belief in the divine right of kings and reflections of his reign. It was an instant best seller.
After the Civil War, the Palace was bought by Adam Baynes and was reduced to just a single wing – the Kitchen Wing of the old palace. What you see now is around 1/8th of its original size. Nevertheless, it still makes for a substantial tour.
In 1709 it was bought by the Duke of Marlborough and descended down the female line to the Lowther family – a family who since 940AD have produced more members of parliament than any other in England.
Currently James and Karen Lowther, (of Saatchi fame) live here. Rooms are filled with artworks and portraits including Wicked Jim Lowther the 1st Earl of Lonsdale. His portrait hangs in the Ballroom. Music lovers will be awed by the music room as James Lowther is a collector of antique musical instruments from around the world.
Some parts of the historic Elizabethan gardens have been replanted by Rosemary Verey using plants available in 1580 and has clipped yews and a sundail.
There’s a falconry centre where Bird of Prey Experiences are fun to watch. Birds include owls, eagles, merlins and vultures.
Coton Manor Garden – Flamingos and a carpet of bluebells
The pride of Coton Manor is its vast gardens. It’s ten colourful acres were laid out almost a century ago at the foot of a 17th century manor house. There are lakes, fountains, streams, shrubs, a wildflower meadow and so many roses.
The landscape includes a magical five acre bluebell meadow within a shady wood all of which are native to England. See them at their best in June and July. There are some surprises too. Turn a corner and you may see a pair of bright pink flamingos looking quite at home by a small lake.
After spending time enjoying nature’s artwork (curated by the current owners of course) take tea and cake or even lunch in their cafe. It’s is amazing how quickly time flies when surrounded by so much natural beauty.
Home of the Gnome – only at Lamport Hall
The story goes that Victorian Baronet, Sir Charles Isham created England’s first rockey in England in 1847 in Lamport Hall. Some 24 foot high, 90 foot long and 47 foot wide, it was built right up against the Hall so that Sir Charles could see it from his bedroom window. He populated it with with small figures from Nuremberg and so the garden gnome was born. Some say that after his death his daughters took air rifles used the gnomes as target practice. One survived and was discovered after WWII by Sir Gyles Isham. This original gnome can now be viewed in the Hall.
Silverstone – the ride of your life!
Although not exactly a stately visit, I didn’t want to leave Northamptonshire without visiting Silverstone home to Formula 1, and book a hot ride. Hot rides cost £55 and are an opportunity to be driven at breakneck speeds in an Aston Martin screeching around chicanes. Be warned a small camera films the whole thing and my driver Shaun didn’t mind how loud I screamed. There are other options including self drive from £99.