- Credit: IAN BURT
Raynham Hall is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful houses in England, still lived in and loved by the family who built it and it is now being restored by some of the craftspeople closest to it, writes Rowan Mantell.
At the heart of a glorious mid Norfolk estate is a home as ravishing as it is magnificent.
There are lavish rooms, exquisite paintings and furniture, ornate extravagances of marble and gilt, a remarkable political and family history reaching back nine centuries - and a home inviting love as well as radiating splendour.
The Marquess and Marchioness Townshend moved in less than a year ago and are part-way through the process of consigning the “updates” of the 1950s and 1960s to the past and allowing the hall’s own history to shine through. Alongside large-scale work in formal rooms they have overseen the restoration of perhaps the most personal space in the 400-year-old house.
Now the master bedroom, known as the King’s Bedroom, is finished and before they close the door gently on the room where King Charles II stayed and where the current Marquess was born, and it becomes purely domestic and private, they decided to share some of its secrets.
It is here that a long succession of powerful, clever and successful Townshends have slept, including the second Viscount, known fondly as Turnip Townshend for his agricultural brilliance.
Lord and Lady Townshend have tried to combine the majesty of the room’s proportions and history with the comforts of the 21st century. One of their guiding principles has been to use craftsmen and women from close to the estate, wherever possible.
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Alison enlisted the help of Libby Denny, of Margaret Sheridan Interior Design, in Hingham, who had helped them with their previous home in the hamlet of Pattersley, near Fakenham.
Light floods in from the original large windows and with the 17th century shutters restored there is no need for curtains. The walls have been clad in damask, mimicking the tapestries which would once have hung here, and the 18th century mahogany four-poster has been restored and rehung with matching material.
When Alison first saw the room she was puzzled by its incongruous fireplace, fearing the original might have been sold – as many of the contents of the house were in 1904. Then she found the original, in black and white marble, in another room.
Alison has never been daunted by Raynham: “It’s lovely to live in. It’s got a very friendly atmosphere. I am absolutely not an expert, but I knew what colour each room was going to be. And I would wander around the house and see a piece of furniture which would say, ‘Can you move me, please’!”
Some of the refurbishment has been funded by judicial sales. A magnificent throne canopy, given to the second viscount by Queen Anne is now at Kensington Palace.
“We decided that we couldn’t afford to keep it properly in a climate-controlled, light-controlled environment,” says Alison. She discovered the Royal Palaces just happened to need a throne canopy.
The expert who came to collect it helped with details of the history and restoration – and even revealed that the attics where they discovered archives stretching back to the 12th century, were once a gallery for wet weather promenading.
“Everybody who comes here contributes something,” says Alison, whose previous jobs have included running a business making toy-bags for children, and working for a designer. Now looking after Raynham is a full-time occupation. She met Charles, who had a furniture-making business, at a Christmas sale in a country house. The couple married in 1990 and each have two children and share eight grandchildren. Charles inherited Raynham in 2010 and with the king’s bedroom complete, their task of keeping history and home in balance continues.
In one room decorators have uncovered layer upon layer of wallpaper, right down to scraps of pretty, but dangerous, paper impregnated with arsenic. In another are chairs, known as the Raynham Suite, thought to have been commissioned for the visit of Charles II.
Alison arranges classical music recitals in the ornate Marble Hall and groups can request tours of the house.