I’m happiest when I have afull house
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