County of squires and spires

There’s much more to Northamp­ton­shire– in­clud­ing the great houses of Althorp, Boughton and Eas­ton Ne­ston–than meets the eye of driv­ers on the M1, dis­cov­ers Ru­pert Uloth

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There’s more to Northamp­ton­shire than meets the eye of the M1 driver, dis­cov­ers Ru­pert Uloth

It’s so easy to miss Northamp­ton­shire, but what a pity that would be. It sounds as if it must be touch­ing cousins with Scot­land, but sits much fur­ther south, right in the mid­dle of Eng­land, an easy train ride from Lon­don Eus­ton. the M1 roars through, bi­sected by the rush­ing A14, mil­lions of driv­ers’ eyes ev­ery year fixed on the white lines. those who do stray off even just a few miles into its hin­ter­land must won­der how they’ve pre­vi­ously ig­nored this county’s won­ders and trea­sures.

Shaped like an ath­letic warthog jump­ing from a high wall, its rear trot­ters tucked un­der­neath, the county slews across at 45˚, head­ing in the di­rec­tion of far-off Corn­wall, pur­sued by the Wash. It kisses Lin­colnshire in the north (Eng­land’s short­est county boundary at 62ft) and is sur­rounded by seven other neigh­bours: Cam­bridgeshire, Bed­ford­shire, Buck­ing­hamshire, Ox­ford­shire, War­wick­shire, Le­ices­ter­shire and Rut­land.

Driv­ing across its ru­ral heart­land, I feel bound on a gen­tle boat cruise, be­ing raised and low­ered by a great green swell, the higher points re­veal­ing an­cient churches and mag­nif­i­cent coun­try houses (not for noth­ing is it known as the county of ‘spires and squires’). In the swoop­ing troughs, I fo­cus on the wide verges—a throw­back to when cat­tle and sheep passed along the drove roads—and the hedgerows punc­tu­ated by ma­ture, na­tive trees. this pas­toral idyll is more arable than grass­land now, but still en­hanced ev­ery few miles by vil­lages that look as if the cot­tages, some thatched, have been con­structed from blocks of flaky or­ange fudge.

there is an in­de­pen­dent and de­ter­mined spirit drenched into the lo­cal stone, Col­ly­we­ston-stone tiles and lime mor­tar. Only three great houses are owned by the Na­tional trust, yet there are more his­toric houses here than in any other county, owned by fam­i­lies and in­di­vid­u­als who are res­o­lute and in­no­va­tive cer­tainly, but not nec­es­sar­ily all an­cient.

Yes, the Spencers have been at Althorp for more than 500 years. the late Diana, Princess of Wales is buried there; for those old enough, who can for­get that aerial view of the jour­ney to her fi­nal rest­ing place? Her brother, the present and 9th Earl, is rightly proud of his her­itage. His knowl­edge and pas­sion were ob­vi­ous when he showed me some of his favourite things, such as the Bi­ble given to the Duke of Marl­bor­ough

by William III. It’s had ev­ery fam­ily mem­ber’s birth recorded in­side since the 1700s.

A suc­cess­ful au­thor in his own right and with an an­ces­tor, the 2nd Earl, who amassed one of Europe’s largest li­braries of first edi­tions, it’s ap­pro­pri­ate that Charles Spencer is host­ing his 14th an­nual book fes­ti­val there at the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber, bring­ing au­thors such as Clare Bald­ing, Ben Mac­in­tyre and Evan Davies.

The Bru­denells have been at Deene Park for more than half a mil­len­nium and per­haps no one in English his­tory en­cap­su­lates the sense of duty, der­ring-do and glam­orous fu­til­ity bet­ter than the 7th Earl of Cardi­gan, who led the 600 into the val­ley of death in the Charge of the Light Bri­gade at Bal­a­clava. ‘Theirs not to rea­son why, theirs but to do and die,’ as Ten­nyson had it.

Robert Bru­denell and his wife, Char­lotte, take very much the same at­ti­tude to­day, plung­ing into the task of main­tain­ing and restor­ing house, gar­dens and park with gusto, what­ever metaphor­i­cal can­non may be to the left and right of them. Built over six cen­turies, as­pects of this glo­ri­ous house I par­tic­u­larly like are the wel­com­ing court­yard, the im­pres­sive oak steps of the El­iz­a­bethan stair­case and the four can­non­balls from the Crimean War. I was also en­tranced by the present own­ers’ en­thu­si­asm and pride.

There are other, newer own­ers who are mak­ing their mark and re­flect­ing a sense of pur­pose that has gripped the shire. Leon Max, an an­glophile Rus­sian-amer­i­can fash­ion de­signer and re­tailer, has brought one of the best ex­am­ples of the English Baroque back to life. He only bought mag­nif­i­cent Eas­ton Ne­ston, near Towces­ter, 12 years ago, but the house has been re­stored with great sen­si­tiv­ity and panache. Mr Max has thrown him­self into the lo­cal com­mu­nity and has been justly awarded an hon­orary de­gree by Northamp­ton Univer­sity.

Apethorpe is an­other ex­tra­or­di­nary house about to be wo­ken from a great slum­ber. It has re­cently re­ceived the suf­fix ‘Palace’, a rare moniker for one that has been hid­den from the pub­lic eye. A favourite hunt­ing lodge of James I, it has lain unloved in re­cent decades and been owned var­i­ously by the Catholic Church, a foot­ball mag­nate and a Libyan busi­ness­man. Saved by English Her­itage, which com­pul­so­rily pur­chased it in 2004, it has now been bought by an­glophile French busi­ness­man Prof Baron von Pfet­ten, the only west­erner to hold a Chi­nese gov­ern­ment po­si­tion.

With El­iz­a­bethan, Ja­cobean and Clas­si­cal el­e­ments built around three court­yards, it has sur­vived the whims of fash­ion over the cen­turies, but, with no plumb­ing or elec­tric­ity, will re­quire de­ter­mi­na­tion and pa­tience to bring it back to life.

A keen hunts­man, Baron Pfet­ten keeps a pack of hounds at his château in Bur­gundy and he’s de­ter­mined to make Apethorpe a fam­ily home (also open to the pub­lic for 50 days of the year). It’s awe-in­spir­ing to wan­der round the 80,000sq ft or so of empty rooms and gal­leries. His Ital­ian wife, Na­dia, showed me where they in­tend to cre­ate an in­ter­na­tional hunt­ing mu­seum, which seems a wholly ap­pro­pri­ate plan: the re­lief above the fire­place in the King’s Bed­cham­ber shows hounds with a stag at bay in a river.

James I would be pleased that hunt­ing is still an in­te­gral part of county life. Cottes­brooke Hall houses ar­guably the finest col­lec­tion of sport­ing art in Europe, in­clud­ing paint­ings by Mun­nings and Stubbs. It was the place that I joined the Pytch­ley for its last meet be­fore the hunt­ing ban came into place. The dou­ble line of sup­port­ers mounted and on foot formed an emo­tional guard of honour for the then re­tir­ing hunts­man, Peter Jones. He would not have guessed that well-known packs, such as the Grafton, Oak­ley, Fitzwilliam and Bices­ter with Whad­don Chase, would still be flour­ish­ing 12 years later. Maid­well Hall prep school still hosts a meet.

An­other school, Oun­dle, cen­tred on its charm­ing mar­ket town, would de­light its founder, William Lax­ton, with its pre-em­i­nence as a seat of learn­ing more than 450 years later. It now has a fe­male head and its new Scitec cen­tre ri­vals the very best for 21stcen­tury ed­u­ca­tion, although, when I vis­ited, a com­pe­ti­tion to build the largest cat­a­pult proved that me­dieval in­cli­na­tions have not en­tirely dis­ap­peared.

As well as other be­guil­ing, small-scale mar­ket towns such as Towces­ter and Brack­ley to please the ca­sual tourist, more gritty conur­ba­tions, such as Ket­ter­ing and Daven­try, are pick­ing them­selves up. Corby, once an in­dus­trial steel town that was heav­ily pop­u­lated by work­ers from Glas­gow in the 1930s, suf­fered ter­ri­bly when the work ran out. You can still hear the Scot­tish ac­cents, but now it’s en­joy­ing a boom and near full em­ploy­ment with small-scale busi­nesses.

The county cap­i­tal Northamp­ton is also ris­ing to the oc­ca­sion and, soon, the univer­sity will be re­turn­ing to the cen­tre of town. The Royal & Dern­gate is an in­spired ar­chi­tec­tural fu­sion that brings to­gether the tra­di­tional town the­atre with a flex­i­ble con­cert space. ‘I love the way au­di­ences for a clas­si­cal con­cert and a Jimmy Carr show “col­lide” un­der one roof,’ ex­plains chief ex­ec­u­tive

Martin Suther­land as we tour the place where Er­rol Flynn learnt his craft.

Ac­tor Tim Pig­ott-smith sadly died sud­denly in the spring on the way to re­hearsals for a planned run of Death of a Sales­man, but a full pro­gramme in­cludes Ed­ward Fox as Bet­je­man (COUN­TRY LIFE, July 5, 2017) and

The Tiger Who Came to Tea. The Royal Phil­har­monic (be­low) has one of its re­gional res­i­den­cies in the town.

There will be a new leather­craft cen­tre soon, the leather mu­seum is be­ing ren­o­vated and the county coun­cil is re­lo­cat­ing its en­tire staff to a new cen­tral build­ing.

Out in the sticks, there is charm ev­ery­where you look. The sow and piglets in the east win­dow of St Leonard’s church in Glapthorne hark back to a time when it was known as Pig Vil­lage and ev­ery house­hold pos­sessed a snuf­fling porcine. The small but per­fectly formed church at Plump­ton is owned and run as a sa­cred build­ing by a group of lo­cal en­thu­si­asts. The blue plaque at Ket­ter­ing Sta­tion in­forms you that H. E. Bates en­joyed a ro­mance in the first-class lounge there.

In­deed, lit­er­a­ture is well rep­re­sented in the county. Poet John Clare spent much of his life in a men­tal in­sti­tu­tion in Northamp­ton and his laments for the changes in ru­ral life must have been in­spired by his time in the county. The Sitwell fam­ily at We­ston Hall are more re­cent, but one de­scen­dant, Masterchef critic and food writer William Sitwell, is keep­ing the shrine to Edith and Sacheverell (‘Sachie’ lived there un­til his death in 1988) alive by run­ning sup­per clubs and open­ing the 17th­cen­tury house up to guests. He showed me the sofa given by Noël Cow­ard as an apol­ogy to Edith and the win­dow at which Sachie sat to write, as well as the rooms where he en­ter­tained Ce­cil Beaton, Eve­lyn Waugh and Patrick Leigh Fer­mor.

Any­one driv­ing through Northamp­ton­shire on the M1 in the com­ing months may see a new ad­di­tion to the col­lec­tion of great houses, this time made of straw bales. It will be yet an­other sur­prise from this county of sur­prises and a re­minder that there’s much more to it than a mo­tor­way.

The poet John Clare and the church of St Mary the Vir­gin, Whis­ton

The Pytch­ley meet out­side Althorp House. The es­tate is home to the 9th Earl Spencer and the rest­ing place of Diana, Princess of Wales

As well as be­ing the home of the Bri­tish Grand Prix at Sil­ver­stone, 80% of the world’s For­mula 1 cars are built in the county

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