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