Northamptonshire is well endowed with stately homes and gardens that are included in the Historic Houses free-to-visit category. We managed to visit two of them, Althorp Estate and Holdenby House, on an overcast, drizzly Sunday in July.
This was towards the end of the pandemic lockdown, so prior booking was required at both properties and only the gardens were open at Holdenby, not the house.
However limitations on numbers at both sites meant that we could wander around relatively freely, without the over-crowding that often occurs at weekends.
Combining the two visits proved to make good sense. Althorp provided an interesting House to view and parkland to walk around whereas Holdenby had impressive gardens.
The car park is ten minute walk away from the House, along an avenue of trees planted by Earl Spencer in memory of his sister, Princess Diana. There is some disabled parking nearer to the house.
The first buildings you reach are the Stables, which in many ways are more interesting in appearance than the House itself. The Stables contain a café/restaurant, gift shop and a couple of exhibitions, one of which features the life of Princess Diana.
The House has some fine state rooms, although only a few were open to public access when we visited. We found the Oak Bedroom, the Queen Mary Bedroom, the King William Bedroom and the Marlborough Room particularly impressive.
There are many striking paintings to view along the way, including some by the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, as well as attractive pieces of porcelain and furniture.
We can’t show you any photographs of inside the house as all photography was forbidden.
After touring the house, we walked up to the Oval Lake with the island where Princess Diana is buried and where there is a small temple commemorating her life.
There are some flower borders around the House and Stables and a Walled Garden, but that was closed to visitors.
As members of Historic Houses, we had free entry (see below), but otherwise paying the £22 entry fee would seem to us to be rather expensive.
Holdenby House, just 5 miles away from Althorp, dates back to 1583. Built in the Renaissance style of architecture it was designed to impress Elizabeth I.
It was once the largest house in England and even now, reduced to an eighth of its maximum size, it is still an imposing building and provides a fine backdrop to the gardens. We look forward to visiting the house itself in the future when pandemic restrictions are relaxed.
There was a one way system through the gardens, from the Kitchen Garden, through the Elizabethan Garden, which was planted in 1980 using only plants that were available in 1583, to the fragrant Tous Tous Border.
The route through the gardens then passes beside a border of herbaceous plants and shrubs that is known as the King Charles Walk. Following his defeat in the Civil War in 1647, Charles I was imprisoned at Holdenby House, but in a comfortable manner with free access to the gardens.
The 14th Century All Saints Church is a short walk down from the gardens passing the Elizabethan Fish Pond along the way. Returning to the gardens via the Croquet Lawn leads to the beautifully manicured Pond Garden and to the viewpoint where Charles I was arrested and taken away for execution.
The garden exit passes by the Silver Border, with plants with silver foliage or white flowers, and through the Icarus Falconry Centre. This contains a wide range of fierce-looking birds including hawks, owls and vultures in addition to falcons.
Although our visit was rather rushed as the gardens had a closing time of 4 pm, we saw enough to persuade us to return in the future and explore in a more leisurely way and maybe take in a falconry display.
Entry to the Althorp house and grounds is £22 for adults, £18 for seniors and £12 for children. Entry to Holdenby gardens is £8.50 for adults, £7.50 for seniors and £4.50 for children.
However if you take up annual membership with Historic Houses, you will get free entry to both, plus free entry to 300 other heritage sites. Enter our unique code STEW05 at ‘Add discount code’ and new members will receive a £5 discount. This also applies if you wish to give annual membership as a gift.
We have reviewed several other properties under Historic Houses and see also: Historic Houses versus National Trust – Which to join?
Additional Photographs of Althorp and Holdenby
POSTED 25th AUGUST 2021 by STEVE HANSON. The photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.