Lindsay Want goes on an wonderful adventure behind the closed doors of Wolterton Hall near Aylsham, to see one of Norfolk’s Palladian mansion masterpieces being loved back to life
New life for the stately Wolterton Hall
“Do go on up, everyone’s taking tea in the saloon.” The back-lit figure came closer, a beaming smile of welcome finally cutting through the unexpected downstairs darkness, as bright and keen as the shard of light dazzling from the distant window.
As arrivals go, it had been an interesting one – the sweeping parkland drive and mysterious church-tower ruin; the crunch to a halt by the vintage Rolls; the parading up and down and peering round the side of the austere and absolutely off-thescale stately pile, in search of a non-existent grand entrance. The way in to Wolterton Hall was elusive; the communal head-scratching prolific. Nothing for it then, but a daring push at an unassuming door ajar and a cheery, cautious call into the unknown. Ah, that sense of don’t-know-‘til-you-get-there
adventure! It’s what makes private historic house and garden encounters through the Invitation to View scheme, so irresistible.
Up in the saloon, by the massive stretches of Gobelins tapestries and white marble flourishes of Richard Fisher fireplaces, all is eye-catching opulence and light, great Georgian windows and vast vistas towards the lake.
It’s the stuff that great houses are made of, reminiscent of other Norfolk Palladian pads like Houghton and Holkham, but somehow there’s a real breath of fresh air here, even when the windows are firmly shut. With the last clinks of teacups, comes a quick potted history – a whizz through the Walpole family, guardians of Wolterton Park for 350 years; an introduction to original owner, the brother of Britain’s first Prime Minister and godfather to Lord Nelson – ambassador politician Horatio. There are tales too of the 1951 fire and subsequent new roof, the hall’s saving grace; of recent Walpole generations favouring nearby Tudor Dowager House, Mannington Hall, and the current Lord Walpole’s difficult decision to sell.
THE FATEFUL SARACEN’S HEAD
“Shortly before then, we had rented Villa Saraceno near Vicenza which was designed by Palladio,” says Peter Sheppard, a gently-spoken, be-spectacled host in a plush turquoise velvet jacket. “After that we dreamed of owning and restoring a Palladian house of great quality.” As eminent London designers, experienced in major restoration projects including Hales Hall and its monumental Tudor barn near Loddon, Peter and his partner, Keith Day, were passionate, practical and hardly fazed at the thought of taking on such a huge Grade I listed property.
‘Matt’s even trying to convince Keith that the Peach House would make the perfect gin bar’
“Things need to be sustainable, but Wolterton’s 500 acre estate is not enough to support a house of this size. As well as making this our home, ancillary buildings could be transformed into luxury holiday lets with exclusive access to the lake and parkland.”
When they discovered a Saracen’s head in the Walpole coat of arms, Vicenza dreams redoubled. Pricetags (rumoured £10m) and restoration costs (millions more) became resolvable. Their home at Wolterton Hall, England’s ‘Saraceno’, was surely just meant to be.
AN ACQUIRED TASTE
With the grand villa’s circuit of rooms and amazing stone cantilevered staircase reaching into a dome, Wolterton Hall has plenty to get your head around. Step out by the back balustrade – deeper than Buckingham Palace balcony – and there’s a clear view of the advantages of ‘piano nobile’ first floor living, followed by the admission that changing 19th century tastes stripped the north side of its external staircase and first floor entrance into the grand hall. But as mellow as the Hall’s local brickwork, Peter and Keith seem content to go pretty much with the historical flow of things – their move to ambassador Horatio’s house was handled with appropriate diplomacy, the sale including the acquisition of significant must–stay contents like carpets, tapestries, paintings and family pieces.
In the freshly designated Portrait Room, every Walpole under the Norfolk sun from ‘horrid’ Henry to one-armed Galfridus and 20 stone PM Sir Robert looks down upon the new kids on the block. Trump, one of the couple’s rescue pugs sniffing out the tour, stops to peer back with a raised doggy eyebrow. “It reminds me of the headmaster’s study in Harry Potter,“smiles Peter, ”And it’s a room we don’t need to use…”
ROOM FOR RESTORATION
Fortunately, with 42 bedrooms, reception rooms, attics, vaulted basements, not to mention
outbuildings, there are several of those at Wolterton. Plenty of space then, to store and restore.
But wander with the designers and faithful pug no.2, Coco, through studies and personal bedrooms, peering into bathrooms; up and down stairwells, through the impressive unfitted kitchen and fully–fitted library; down basement corridors or elegant upstairs ‘ambulades’, and everywhere is fascinatingly full of miscellaneous stuff. There are antique pieces, perfectly positioned or ‘in waiting’; eclectic piles of books; paintings patiently hanging in there to grace the wonder walls. How to take it all in? Join every tour and you’d still struggle.
Physically, the new owners must have struggled too, meticulously gathering together scattered belongings over many months. However the couple believe that they are here to stay. The great house will keep supplying great challenges – and gardens present unique restoration opportunities too.
“Peter and Keith wanted an 18th century view,” explains Head Gardener, Matt Gilbert. “Here, what you see is essentially what 18th century designers wanted you to look at. There are no pylons, turbines or telegraph poles and with the exception the terrace’s east–west ‘runway’ path and ha-ha, we have one of the most intact examples of the work of W.S. Gilpin.” Planning Wolterton landscapes in 1829, Gilpin created parterres to make views into a harmonious whole, introduced new curved drives, ‘real’ woodlands and an exotic arboretum. “Our 18th century walled garden is Norfolk’s largest too and thanks to research by Dr Elise Percifull, we can trace paths which made it an integral part of the ornamental landscape.”
Matt is as passionate about the projects as Peter and Keith. The long-derelict walled garden is beginning to come to life again. Swathes of rhododendrons have been cleared.
Soon an old orchard will be home to examples of all of Norfolk’s fruit trees. And Matt’s even trying to convince Keith that the Peach House would make the perfect gin bar.
Back in the saloon, tea turns to Champagne with talk of Norfolk turkeys spotted in East Hall’s 17th century Aubusson tapestry and potential roof-mounted solar systems to help out the mighty ship’s boiler seen in the basement. Time to reflect on the horror stories of polystyrene ceilings and needlecord carpet glued to flagstone floors, on the joyous discoveries behind Bloomsbury Group paintings and the beam from Nelson’s flagship.
And a toast perhaps? To two gentle men, still new-ish to Norfolk, with such inspiring pride in Wolterton’s Palladian place.
Peter and Keith in the Walpoles Portrait Room