Suffolk’s historic houses: Earsham Hall near Bungay
PUBLISHED: 16:07 30 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:07 30 July 2019
Lindsay Want visits Earsham Hall near Bungay to hear its tales of school days, ghouls and royal visitors
Earsham Hall is one fine country seat - oak-framed in parts with a rich, brick-red veneer and beautifully upholstered in the soft-textured green and gold tapestry of the Waveney Valley.
There's evidence of several major refinements and restorations too of course, but that's not uncommon in such an antique piece and all just adds to the character.
It's only by adapting and changing with the times that they carry on being useful and survive - a fact that Earsham Hall's owners, the Derham family, know only too well.
You have to stand back, in front of Grade II* listed Earsham Hall to really get the measure of the place. It's odd and outstretched, with a rambling arrangement of façades.
There's a sweeping drive, wide lawns, a posse of peacocks, and towering Wellingtonia redwoods. But the actual footprint of the property is uncharacteristically huge. This is a place where the past seems to have proliferated rather than stop itself in its tracks and start anew.
Our guide, Annabel Stretton-Derham, explains that the original property was probably a hunting lodge, surrounded by deer park.
"What you can see are two of the three timber-framed, 15th century buildings, set at right angles to each other. They're in disguise, though, fronted with more modern brick when the fourth owner, and amateur architect, John Buxton, built the Queen Anne block as an extension here."
The original owners, the Throckmortons, were reputedly embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot. The third wing didn't go up in smoke, however, but was later replaced to impress a very important and, ironically, royal visitor. The 1707, three-floor Queen Anne 'extension' looks like a stately home in its own right.
"It's understandable that they wanted a light, healthy and safe environment for their kids," says Annabel, "but they didn't have the funds to demolish and start again. Asset rich, cash poor - it's the old story."
In the bright, white Georgian blue entrance hall, delicious nibbles are on tap, but the coffee pots are not playing ball. "They were all working fine earlier," declares the hostess. "Must be the ghosts." It seems they enjoy sharing a heavy footstep or two every now and then. Cleaners and workshop managers have inexplicably 'lost' tools, or discovered wardrobe doors and drawers open.
There have been dancing orbs in the office and unexplained faces at upstairs windows. The Chapel Blue Stairs see the creepiest creaky action apparently, but Annabel assures us that nothing is ever malevolent.
Like the stories of the hall and its servants in the early 20th century, the memories of the boys educated here when it was a boarding school in the '50s, '60s and '70s, she has sought out and collected people's Earsham experiences with real energy and passion.
Perhaps it's because her husband's family only bought the property in 1976, when it had already been empty and unloved for three years, that she wants to piece together a record of its past to be proud of.
It's clear to see why the Queen Anne block appealed to Annabel's Georgian-mad father-in-law, an antique dealer and architect who thought it a good idea at the time to buy the hall as a 'surprise' for his wife.
Rooms have retained their 1707 marble fireplaces and styling, older panelling in situ can be traced back to original rooms in the main house.
But it is the refinements and additions by the great Georgian architect, of Downing Street and Bank of England fame, Sir John Soane, which seal the deal here - the lantern roof created in 1784 as part of the new kitchens, the music room later reworked into the library and, above all, the ultra-fine entertainment space built in 1750 for the sole purpose of wining and dining HRH Duke of Cumberland, son of George II.
At that time, Earsham Hall's owner, William Windham Jr, was Comptroller of the Duke's royal household and wealthy enough to demolish one of original timber-framed buildings, replacing it with something more worthy of a royal visit.
Grand plans of later owners fortunately never quite came to fruition, like those of Jonny Meade, who wanted to flood the front park and float a big yacht on it.
In the delightfully cluttered library, two antique steamer chairs take pride of place away from the well-worn fire-side armchairs and studded leather sofas.
Next door, the yellow drawing room takes a more minimalist approach, but there's still room for a pair of tripod braziers from London Bridge, commissioned for Edward and Alexandra's royal wedding procession.
These days the hall has biomass heating and, ghostly draughts aside, the country seat's fabrics and furnishings make it truly warm and welcoming for those who choose it as a wedding venue.
"It has been a real labour of love and family affair. We have three generations of extended family calling the place home now and contributing to its future. It's still hard to believe that the house was empty when we bought it.
There were only a few school beds and, regardless of their fine styling, moulded ceilings or marble carvings, all the rooms had been in use by the school. The boys had dined in Soane's surroundings and the panelling in the old school staff room with the Delft-tiled fireplace was covered in thick purple gloss paint."
Of course, it didn't take ghosts to make mischief in those days and it's a miracle that the place survived.
Collected tales from old boys tell of blocking the school boiler to send smoke up through the floorboards, of lighter-fuel races and cigarettes quickly disposed of in any classic nook or cranny.
The slightly skewed balusters at the bottom of staircase in the Queen Anne extension probably have a story to share, and there's something strange about beautiful Aurora on the entrance hall's exquisite white marble fireplace.
Look deep into her eyes . . . ah yes, you can still just about see that they were once 'painted' in Biro-blue.
Photos: Simon Bucks