Hand­some hall

The mag­nif­i­cent Rayn­ham Hall opens its doors to the pub­lic this year to al­low a rare look in­side. DO­MINIC CAS­TLE had a pre­view

EDP Norfolk - - Inside -

Pre­view of Rayn­ham Hall’s pub­lic open days

STEP­PING ACROSS the thresh­old of Rayn­ham Hall, I ex­pe­ri­ence an in­vol­un­tary ‘wow’ mo­ment. Most large houses have im­pres­sive en­trances, but this is off the scale – it’s like step­ping in­side a fab­u­lous, in­verted wed­ding cake.

On the af­ter­noon of my visit the late win­ter sun splashes the build­ing with light and the white walls of the Mar­ble Hall, with their beau­ti­ful stone and plas­ter­work, gleam. A long din­ing table, glit­ter­ing with sil­ver and crys­tal, awaits the for­tu­nate din­ers due to take sup­per in the hall in the even­ing.

De­spite the room’s great size and the che­quered mar­ble floor­ing, the acous­tics of the room are re­mark­able; it is reg­u­larly used for recitals where up to 140 mu­sic lovers en­joy del­i­cate in­stru­ments like Rayn­ham’s beau­ti­ful Dragon harp­si­chord. For such a mag­nif­i­cent room it is sur­pris­ingly in­ti­mate.

Rayn­ham is one of a di­min­ish­ing band of great houses still in­hab­ited by the orig­i­nal fam­ily. The Town­shends have oc­cu­pied the hall for 400 years and my guide for the visit is Lady Ali­son Town­shend, pas­sion­ate about her home and pos­sessed of an en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of its his­tory.

As we walk through the Wil­liam Kent de­signed rooms she re­gales me with sto­ries of the men and women who gaze down from their por­traits, the builders, ad­ven­tur­ers, scoundrels, lovers and lead­ers. De­spite sell­ing a tranche of paint­ings in the early years of last cen­tury, Rayn­ham is still home to a huge col­lec­tion of art, much of it on an im­pres­sive scale.

As we en­ter the stun­ning Belis­ar­ius Room I ask if she ever tires of all this mag­nif­i­cence. “Oh no, never. There is al­ways some­thing new to see or dis­cover.” To prove a point Lady Town­shend shows me a large oval panel rest­ing against a fire­place. It had been a dusty, grey thing of no ap­par­ent mo­ment, but when she rubbed away some of the grime, she re­vealed some­thing sur­pris­ing.

Un­der­neath was a paint­ing, not per­haps the finest work in the house, but an­other piece of the jig­saw. She cleaned the whole panel and un­cov­ered a land­scape that clearly had been of some sig­nif­i­cance. “It was a very pleas­ant sur­prise,” she added.

The dis­cov­er­ies are not con­fined to the in­doors ei­ther; work­ing in the new gar­den area Lady Town­shend re­cently found the orig­i­nal brick­work from the first in­car­na­tion of the build­ing, which was part-built be­fore be­ing aban­doned when the lo­ca­tion of the house was moved a few yards.

We move on through the hall, into the King’s Bed­room, where Charles II stayed, and through the rooms that the Town­shends live in. Does she mind the pub­lic com­ing into her home?

“Oh no, not at all. I think ev­ery­one who comes into the place loves it, and we’re happy to share that. We like to show it to peo­ple and they love to see it,” she says.

We de­scend the stairs where the ghost of the Brown Lady is sup­posed to ap­pear; there’s noth­ing to re­port here, not even a chill. In fact the whole am­bi­ence of this fine house is sur­pris­ingly warm, an im­pos­ing build­ing that is not in the least in­tim­i­dat­ing. I’m sure those who take the op­por­tu­nity to visit it on the open days this year will be fas­ci­nated.

Top: Lady Town­shend at Rayn­ham Hall with two Royal por­traits dat­ing back to 1646 of (left) Princess El­iz­a­beth and Princess Hen­ri­etta Above: The paint­ing un­cov­ered by Lady Town­shend

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