I’m hap­pi­est when I have afull house

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Living - Killers of the King by Charles Spencer (Blooms­bury, £20) is avail­able to or­der from Tele­graph Books at £18 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.tele­graph.co.uk In­ter­view by Olivia Parker

When I drive through the front gates at Althorp on a Fri­day evening I find the wor­ries of mod­ern life are mag­i­cally peeled away. The park is time­less and its clas­sic English­ness is a great green blan­ket of nat­u­ral beauty that I let en­velop me, just as it has the pre­vi­ous 17 gen­er­a­tions of my fam­ily who have called this cor­ner of Northamp­ton­shire home.

Week­ends at Althorp are the best be­cause they give me a chance to get on top of ev­ery­thing in my own time. I am al­ways dis­ci­plined – ab­surdly so, ac­cord­ing to my wife Karen [they mar­ried in 2011] – about deal­ing with the con­tents of my in­box or in­tray, so at least I’m never met by an un­man­age­able to-do list.

Peo­ple prob­a­bly imag­ine run­ning an es­tate as be­ing lit­tle more than a very un­de­mand­ing hobby. How­ever, the ones that have the best chance of re­main­ing in their cur­rent own­ers’ hands are those run with the same good man­age­ment and pro­fes­sion­al­ism that any en­ter­pris­ing per­son would recog­nise. My fa­ther was told that there were all sorts of things wrong with the house a long time ago, and he smiled and said, “I think I’ll leave that for Charles.” I’ve had to re-roof it and redo the en­tire out­side for the first time in 250 years as well as catch­ing up with the plumb­ing and se­cu­rity and heat­ing, so my time here has re­ally been one of tidy­ing up the fray­ing edges.

Althorp is a bizarre box of tricks and I still get sur­prised by it. A cou­ple of years ago I found in a drawer a hand­writ­ten re­ceipt from Reynolds for one of the paint­ings we have. He’d sold it to us for 100 guineas. And when I was writ­ing my most re­cent book, Killers of the King, I no­ticed a por­trait hang­ing in a row of other men in ar­mour that I’d never looked closely at be­fore. It turned out he was Lord Grey of Groby, one of the killers of Charles I and a cen­tral character in my book. I never even knew he was there, let alone that I was re­lated to him.

When I’m work­ing on a book I pre­fer to do it very early in the morn­ing, with­out dis­tur­bances. I love writ­ing at Althorp, punc­tu­at­ing the hours of se­ri­ous con­cen­tra­tion by walks in the park with Karen, our baby daugh­ter [Char­lotte, two] and our three dogs, a cocker, a springer and the oblig­a­tory Labrador, Otis.

I have high stan­dards and I want Althorp to be at the top of its game what­ever it is do­ing, even when en­ter­tain­ing. The house was con­ceived as a place of en­ter­tain­ment after all, as my ances­tor who built it in 1508 stip­u­lated in his will, and it’s an easy clause to re­spect and ob­serve. We are hap­pi­est when the house is filled with all our friends and chil­dren. I’ve got ev­ery­thing from a 23-year-old down to a two-year-old and my elder daugh­ters now all have boyfriends com­ing to stay as well, so ev­ery­one ar­rives on a Fri­day evening to ex­cite­ment in the air and a bouncy cas­tle in the state din­ing room.

My 10-year-old son Ned and eight-year-old daugh­ter Lara [from his sec­ond mar­riage] fre­quently bring their London friends to stay for the week­end too. The boys love go­ing out with Adey the head game­keeper, who has been a key part of the es­tate for over 20 years. Ned is a mighty fish­er­man, while the high point of Lara’s week­end is time spent spoil­ing the ponies. We have a great menagerie of pets at Althorp – ev­ery­thing from a pea­cock called Tim (Char­lotte named him) to ham­sters, pygmy goats, chick­ens, a duck and end­less dogs.

Satur­day evenings might be a tad more for­mal than the rest of the week­end but we’re mainly in­ter­ested in ev­ery­one be­ing re­laxed and happy rather than get­ting into a tan­gle over dress codes from a dif­fer­ent era. The food we serve cen­tres on the es­tate: vegetables from the gar­den, veni­son from the deer park, game birds from the shoot and lambs from the flock that’s been grazing here since the 15th cen­tury.

We have friends to stay from all over the world and it’s hard to for­get how very lucky we are to have Althorp when you wit­ness ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the place through for­eign eyes. A lot of my Bri­tish friends have been com­ing for a very long time. One of them has pointed out to me re­cently that when he plays cricket for me this year, it will be 42 years since he first did so. We play week­end cricket against a va­ri­ety of op­po­si­tion. A few of my friends used to play in­ter­na­tion­ally but they rein it in for the very mod­est level of tal­ent ev­i­dent in their cap­tain and the mere crick­et­ing mor­tals on the pitch.

The ground at Althorp has seen ev­ery­one from WG Grace to Im­ran Khan play on it, with the cedar of Le­banon at one end and an oak wood planted to cel­e­brate the de­feat of the Span­ish Ar­mada in the dis­tance. It’s a priv­i­lege to play in such a fine set­ting.

Of­ten on Sun­day nights we have just one or two friends stay­ing to avoid the rush hour on the M1. I used to get very low after host­ing a house full of peo­ple be­cause sud­denly the en­ergy is gone, and some­thing the size of Althorp can feel very cav­ernous. Now I don’t get that, partly be­cause Char­lotte is won­der­fully feisty and fun so there’s not too much si­lence when she’s around.

My fam­ily has al­ways been lucky enough to have other homes, just as we do to­day, and our axis now is London, Northamp­ton­shire and Cal­i­for­nia, the base for Karen’s char­ity, Child In­ter­na­tional. But head­ing back to other parts after a week­end at Althorp is al­ways a ter­ri­ble wrench. I love it when my di­ary dic­tates that I have to stay for meet­ings on a Mon­day.

Es­tate of mind: Charles Spencer and his wife Karen, in­set, en­joy spend­ing time with fam­ily at Althorp

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