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High Points from a Low Country Strathclyde Group’s Study Tour to Norfolk, 6 to 9 May 2011


ery flat, Norfolk, according to Noel Coward, and it certainly is, particularly the part between Peterborough and

Kings Lynn. There are huge prairie-like fields, sinister tidal rivers and drainage ditches. Away from the main roads is any number

of magnificent country houses and wonderful medieval churches, most of which figure in England’s ‘Thousand Best Houses’, and ‘Thousand Best Churches’ (Simon Jenkins). At the churches we were greeted by knowledgeable members of the congregations or clergy, and offered tea, coffee and biscuits. The great houses, as you might expect, were more grandly presented, but with equally welcome refreshments – usually situated in the stables. Whilst the inner man was being well fed, the eyes were feasting on simple and rich fare. St Peter and St Paul in Salle has been

described as the finest church in Norfolk. Completed in 1440, it is an exceptionally complete Perpendicular church, which stands all alone and is dominated by its tall tower and richly decorated battlements. From there, we travelled to Blickling Hall, one of the major Jacobean houses in England, in scale and otherwise. The house was built, or rather rebuilt, between 1618 and 1629, by Sir Henry Hobart, Lord Chief Justice. The designer was Robert Lyminge, who had designed Hatfield House some twelve years before. In glorious weather, we completed our first

day with a visit to Sandringham House. As Country Life noted in 2008, ‘It is both ordinary and highly unusual . . .(with) much of the charm and special interest deriving from the combination of a quintessential English country estate with its special royal status and ownership’. For the authors of this article, at least, one of the most surprising discoveries was the lightness and delicacy of the interiors, recalling the interiors of late 19th century and Edwardian Mayfair. The Drawing Room is a tour de force of fashionable late Victorian decoration, with white stucco ornaments, convincing French boiserie, large wall mirrors, pretty painted ceiling panels and overdoors. Sandringham Church, although an early

foundation, was much improved in the 19th century. There were prominent security provisions in place, perhaps prompted by the massive silver altarpiece and pulpit. Like proper tourists, we checked out where the Queen sat in the church, and heard that she preferred services from the prayer book and the King James version of the Bible. The church of St Wendreda in March, of the 14th, 16th and 19th centuries, has a splendid

Sandringham House © David Bisset

double hammer beam roof, memorably decorated with a cloud of carved angels. Still with this heavenly host in our minds, we travelled on to the distinctly more worldly splendour of Oxburgh Hall, a moated and crenellated house built in the 15th century. Entry is through the tremendous brick gatehouse, rising to a height of seven storeys, in which Sir Edmund Bedingfeld entertained Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1487. Peckover House in Wisbech was a pleasing

contrast: built shortly before 1727 for a successful Quaker banking family (they were by all accounts very nice bankers!), the house is five bays wide and three-storey, of yellow brick with redbrick dressings. The house is surrounded by a beautiful and large garden - two acres, a remarkable size for a town garden. To any castle enthusiast, Castle Rising,

12th century, was a particular treat. The principal surviving part is the keep, which rears up on mighty earthworks, covering an area of twelve acres. We completed our second day at Walpole St Peter, mid-14th to mid-15th century, an unusually large church of its kind, being 161 feet in length. There could not have been more of a

contrast between our next two churches: the 10th century Little Snoring church – simple and relatively unadorned – and the heavily ornamented shrine at Little Walsingham (1930s). We also learned that Little Snoring is bigger than Great Snoring, and Little Walsingham is bigger than Great Walsingham. The things we learn on these study tours...

The official tour finished with the

architectural fireworks of two great houses, Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall. At the 18th century Holkham Hall, a fascinating exhibition titled, ‘Wives and Daughters’ told the – often rumbustious – stories of the ladies of the Hall, with displays of their wedding and evening dresses. With 60 members of staff in the Hall itself in the middle of the 19th century, the ladies would have had plenty of time to titivate and dress up. Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, is likely to have designed the Hall, in the Palladian style, and the interior of the central block is more consistently palatial than that of almost any other house in England. Houghton Hall, also 18th century, was

developed from an original house on the site inherited by Sir Robert Walpole, and he commissioned William Kent to design much of the interiors. The grand entrance into the Stone Hall brings the visitor into a 40 by 40 feet cube – a space meant to intimidate and impress. Of gentler aspect, the gardens are spacious and beautiful. The Water Flame feature entranced all who found it - not all did! A postscript to the tour was the chance to

see Peterborough Cathedral which, whilst not in Norfolk, is a must to visit. Original burial place of Mary, Queen of Scots, the great Norman building is an oasis of calm and great beauty. The Group’s thanks go to David and Jean

Bisset and to Paul O’Hare, who organised, researched and guided our tour. Norfolk: very flat. Very uplifting.


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