Grand re­designs:

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

EDP Norfolk - - Inside - WORDS: Lind­say Want PHO­TOS: Lind­say Want / Chris Hor­wood N

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.

LEARN­ING CURVES

“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.

DE­LI­CIOUS DIS­COV­ER­IES

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

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