Friday, August 26, 2011

Fit for a Princess

The nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April wasn't the first Royal Wedding that had me glued to the TV for several hours.  I remember watching Lady Diana Spencer walk down the aisle with Prince Charles (and that enormous dress with the 25-foot train) from my grandparents' house in San Francisco back in the summer of 1981.  For an impressionable young girl, it seemed like a fairytale wedding to be marrying a prince, even if he was 13 years older and not particularly handsome.  Princess Diana had just turned 20 a few weeks earlier, and, had she survived, would have celebrated her 50th birthday (and, had her marriage survived, 30th wedding anniversary) this summer.  Instead, we will be marking the 14th anniversary of her untimely demise next week.

Thursday morning I met up with several other AWC members at the Euston train station, and we journeyed up to Northampton to visit the Althorp estate, Diana's family home.  The forecast predicted rain in London, but we went right through it on the train and emerged an hour later under sunny skies.
Northampton station
A short taxi ride from the station brought us to the gates of the 14,000-acre estate, where we paid a £15 admission fee to tour the grounds and house.  The estate is only open to the public in July and August -- presumably when the Spencer family is "summering" elsewhere.
Americans (and one South African) at Althorp
Although the 9th Earl Spencer (Diana's younger brother) and his family were not at home, there were plenty of sheep in residence.
From an architectural point of view, the house is quite grand, if a bit bland, but it is surrounded by lovely lawns and tidy flower beds.
Side view of house
Our first stop was the stable block, which now houses an exhibit about Diana, a cafe, restrooms, and a gift shop.  We were not allowed to take photos inside the exhibit, but you can see some on the official web site.  It started with some home movies of Diana as a little girl and mementos from her childhood, and continued with a collection of her jewellery and clothing, including her enormous, puffy-sleeved wedding gown.
Stable block
After we had made our way through the exhibit, we grabbed a quick lunch at the cafe, which we ate out on the terrace overlooking the grounds, and then walked over to tour the house.
Stable block gardens
We weren't allowed to take photos inside the house, either.  The interior was a bit more interesting than the exterior, with lovely wood paneling, crown molding, grand staircases, and the usual accouterments of a historic family estate.
Front entrance of house
It's a bit strange touring a house that is currently occupied, and there were a few reminders of that in some of the rooms.  The living room had a collection of board games and CDs, while the grand piano in the main hall was covered with framed family photos.  Bottles of sparkling water were set out on the nightstand in each of the bedrooms.We were able to see 19 rooms inside the house, including several bedrooms, living rooms, a library, formal dining rooms, a small chapel, and a portrait gallery.  Actually, nearly every room seemed like a portrait gallery -- many were hung with paintings of several generations of Spencer family ancestors, as well as formal portraits of Diana and her brother.  One could almost imagine them all coming to life and chatting with one another, Harry-Potter-style.

One of the rooms was filled with about two dozen portraits of cows.  And yes, I mean that literally.  Apparently, after the third Earl Spencer lost his wife in childbirth, he devoted the rest of his life to cattle breeding.  He had portraits painted of all his prize cattle. There were two paintings in the house that were quite different from the rest -- both by an artist named Mitch Griffiths.  One was called Rehab, and the other, Britannia.  If you click on the links, you'll see what I mean.  Both of them kind of slapped you in the face as you walked past.

After winding our way through the house, we strolled through the lovely grounds.
Diana is buried on this island in the middle of a small 'lake 'called the Round Oval.  It seems like a nice way to allow people to visit her grave site while still keeping it protected.
Diana's gravesite
At the far side of the Oval is a structure where people can leave flowers in Diana's memory.  We didn't think to bring any flowers, but several others clearly had. 
Diana memorial
We headed back towards the restrooms and gift shop on our way out, enjoying the broad expanses of lawn and landscaped gardens -- and the quiet!
Grounds, with cattle grazing in the distance
Colorful flower bed
Our taxi drivers had each given us a card with their number when they dropped us off, so we called and had them pick us up and take us back to the train station, where we caught a 3:50 train back to London.  It was a fun day trip and we really lucked out on the weather, since it's been an otherwise rainy week.  Now we can all imagine what it must have been like to grow up as the daughter of an Earl, and the bittersweet life of a princess under a microscope.

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