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Talking Location With…. author Gavin Collinson: ALTHORP, Northamptonshire

15th July 2022

Gavin Collinson#TalkingLocationWith …. Gavin Collinson, author of An Accident in Paris

Looking for Diana – A trip to Althorp, Northamptonshire

I didn’t go to Northampton for a holiday. I don’t think anybody does. People from the town seem great, but it doesn’t exactly shriek ‘pick me, pick me!’ when you’re weighing up destinations for a weekend away.

No. People go to Northampton on business. Or to see old friends. I’m not sure why I went. To find the late Princess Diana, I suppose.

Not literally ‘find’, of course. That would be weird. But get to know her a little better. My book, An Accident in Paris, is a contemporary thriller about a private investigator who’s hired to find the truth about the crash that killed her, Dodi Fayed and Henri Paul in August 1997.

But the story also reflects how the ‘real’ Diana was often hidden behind headlines and media spin. So, visiting the area where she grew up felt the right thing to do. I’d see the landscape that formed the backdrop to her youth. Visit the church she attended as a teen. Stroll around the local village where Duch, as she was known to her friends, would have spent time.

Gavin Collinson

‘Althorp’ is the name of the estate where she was raised, from her early teens onwards, but it’s also the name of the area and the house itself. I checked into a hotel less than ten minutes away, on the outskirts of Northampton, and drove to Althorp as dusk set in. I’m not sure what I’d expected. Downton Abbey, I guess.

The estate turned out to be enormous and surrounded by a high wall, but the lie of the land means it’s easy to see over. Not that there’s much to see. The garden that insulates Althorp House is studiously dull. It’s mostly sparse, open ground. Go online and you’ll find pretty pockets of greenery hidden somewhere within the grounds, but from my various vantage points, the monotony was broken solely by a few bare trees. The house itself could be termed ‘grand’ insofar as it’s big and old, but aesthetically, at least, it’s largely devoid of charm.

The surrounding countryside is flat and barren. Maybe it was the gloom of early evening, but the entire locale felt forbidding. I bet she couldn’t wait to leave.

Gavin Collinson

I returned the following morning. In the broad daylight the estate and its environs were hardly more welcoming. I parked by the high wall and strolled into the local village, Great Brington. Now, this is more like it! It has a chocolate box quality. All pretty cottages with thatched rooves and a pub called the Althorp Coaching Inn, which I read somewhere was originally known as The Fox and Hounds before being rechristened following Diana’s death.

The village church, St Mary’s, dates back to the 1200s but doesn’t look a day over a thousand. It’s a beautiful building with a serene graveyard full of lopsided tombstones and wildflowers. The Spencers arrived in the area in the 1500s and throughout the centuries have been involved in the church’s renovations and additions, including the Spencer Chapel where 19 generations of the family rest in stone splendour. There’s a rumour Diana is buried here, and lies in the crypts that house her ancestors. Is it true? Who knows? But St. Mary’s and its grounds are a million times more picturesque than her former home.

Gavin Collinson

A few paces from the graveyard there’s a long, narrow stretch of grassy land, bordered by trees. At the head of it, a sign bearing the Althorp crest reads, ’Members of the public are welcome to walk along this avenue to and from St Mary’s Church… This is not a public right of way.’  In other words, you can use it, but it’s not yours. Which is fair enough. I headed back to my car.

She’s often called the ‘the People’s Princess’ which was initially intended to reflect the bond she formed with the public. In recent years I’ve heard the title used to distance her from privilege, inviting the notion that she was ‘one of us’. But the local church with its almost regal crypts that house her forebears, and small touches like the signage’s reminder of who owns what… well, they indicate otherwise. Moreover, looking across the estate makes a mockery of the idea. The high walls, empty acres and vast, low house that formed her childhood home do not speak of normality. The fact Diana was able to connect so easily and authentically with people from every walk of life bears testament to her extraordinary empathy and, I’d suggest, her genuine compassion for others.

In her later years, as she waved from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, or when she strode through the landmines of Angola or even sat in solitude, taking in the grandeur of the Taj Mahal, Althorp must have felt like a different world.

Or maybe not.

My abiding memories of the place are of its ring of high walls and desolation. Diana may have fled Althorp, but she never quite left either behind.

Gavin Collinson

An Accident in Paris by Gavin Collinson, published by Welbeck Publishing, is available from 7th July.

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