Norfolk, 2015: – A glimpse of stonework through trees. The outline of a tumbledown church tower over a brick and flint wall. The outline of a Georgian façade. And then a dilapidated gatehouse, with the gates themselves open and inviting.
I cycled on down the drive – only a basic wooden box encouraged visitors to contribute loose change when entering – until gradually the scene revealed itself. The house itself emerging, defiant, a physical embodiment of many a novelist’s imagination. Here was Wolterton, seat of the Walpoles, as it still was at the time. A house in a time warp, and experiencing the ravages of time.
The place was clearly abandoned. Paintwork on the tall sash windows was flaking, the stonework was worn and darkened, formal gardens overgrown and thick with weeds; the coach-house and barns were in a state of severe dilapidation, the remaining pantiles hung loose from their eaves.
It was a picture of grand decay. But, whilst the house was tired and creaking (it was last inhabited by the Walpoles in the 1980s) the landscape and 500-acre park remained intact. Oaks still dotted parkland to the north of the house, formal lawns still sloped away towards the 10-acre lake at the south, with sheep grazing contentedly in the fields beyond. Wolterton had been left to sleep, but beneath the moss and lichen added by old father time, its handsome features remained. All that was required was someone bold enough to blow off the layers of accumulated dust (and several million pounds to go with it).
Both came in the form of designers Peter Sheppard and Keith Day who bought Wolterton in April 2016, the first time the house had left the Walpole family since it was built in 1742 by Horatio Walpole, 1st Baron Walpole of Wolterton and younger brother of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
Wolterton lies in the north east of the Norfolk, between the Georgian market towns of Aylsham and Holt. This is a county thick with historic houses. Blickling Hall lies off Wolterton’s southern flank beyond the meandering river Bure, whilst a 20-minute drive will bring you to Felbrigg Hall; drive for 45 minutes and you could glimpse Holkham, Raynham, Houghton or Sandringham.
The other Walpole house (and seat of the present Lord Walpole), Mannington Hall – a moated 15th Century knapped flint manor house – is a mere 5 minutes away, tucked behind trees north of the idyllic village of Itteringham, home to the Walpole Arms. Wolterton, therefore, has competition. But competition seems to have bred excellence.
This excellence is seen to its full extent in the majestic south front. Here one’s first impression is of the immense sunset hue of the brickwork, in keeping with Norfolk vernacular, and now clearly repointed. One’s gaze rapidly moves to the pediment complete with family crest, crowning a perfectly symmetrical Palladian façade with two rows of elegant sash windows. The lower set run down to floor level, where they meet a Portland stone balustrade terrace spanning the length of the house, with a stone bannister peppered with urns. The terrace, which has twin staircases running off either end to a formal garden below, is supported by a 7-arched colonnade.
The result is a visually rich combination of grandness, beauty, pleasing Palladian completeness, topped off with rustic features. For this we must thank original designer Thomas Ripley and George Repton (son of landscape designer Humphrey Repton), who added the balustrade terrace and the east wing in 1828.
The north front mirrors the south front, minus the balustrade terrace. Here the east wing joins the main house almost flush, extending the profile on the first floor to some 11 bay windows, before the east wing juts northwards slightly, rises to three stories and is capped with a stone pediment.
The main entrance is on the north front. There were Palladian steps on this side, but these were demolished in the 19th century. The current owners plan to rebuild them one day. Heading inside, the house is furnished with the state rooms one would expect of a house built for the family of Britain’s first Prime Minister, all of which have been lovingly restored over the past few years. Once inside, a stone-vaulted entrance hall leads to the main staircase, which is lit naturally by a second-floor roof light. The library, kitchen (with recently installed Smallbone kitchen), picture room and further hall complete the ground floor layout.
The grand state rooms are on the first floor. There is the portrait room, housing the principal Walpole family portraits, and the Venetian room, after the huge venetian window which looks out over the Charles Bridgeman designed parkland. The dining room is hung with scarlet wool damask, a collection of royal portraits and contains a crystal chandelier, and a huge family portrait by Jacopo Amiconi featuring Horace Walpole, his wife, and 8 children. This portrait was so large it was originally cut into five pieces in order to fit in to the Walpole’s other residence at Mannington Hall, until it was returned to Wolterton and reassembled in the 1960s.
Also on the first floor are two state bedrooms, the state bedroom, complete with wet room, and the boudoir, a guest room for distinguished guests, which is hung with 17th century tapestries from Antwerp; the boudoir also has original uncovered panelling and medieval painted statues.
The first floor is completed by the saloon, furnished with 18th century tapestries from Brussels, Princess Mary’s Persian carpet, an Osler chandelier and 18th century gilt furniture, and a marble hall, with Derbyshire marble.
On the second floor are 11 bedrooms, all now with en-suite bathrooms, to cater for the up to 24 paying guests now able to rent the house. There are also two light wells on this floor, bringing in natural light, and keeping the electricity bills down.
The east wing is self-contained and can sleep a further 14 guests. The present owners are also restoring other estate houses and buildings, giving the whole place a new lease of life.
Though the faded grandeur of the Wolterton of 5 years ago may have had a certain rustic charm, a house of this nature and containing the treasures it does deserves the care and attention it has received, and its future certainly seems in safe hands.