It was Love at First Sight
Having driven along narrow country lanes through the glorious deepest darkest North Norfolk countryside we finally came across a tall estate brick wall with an old brick and flint tower at one end which once formed the entrance to a Manor House on the edge of the small village of Bessingham. We were both expecting to find maybe some old foundations and remnants of walls, but instead we stood looking at, to our amazement, an imposing Victorian Gem that was still standing with its huge dutch gables, very tall chimneys and ornate detailed red brickwork, almost romantic in design.
However, what looked like a once wonderful house, had been neglected for years and left to rot with partial collapse of some parts of the roof, some even missing altogether. There were broken and rotten windows, missing doors and heavily stained brickwork caused by the lack of guttering. The house was partially taken over by creepers, with large trees and a sea of very tall nettles and long grass surrounding it. On entering, the house had a very eerie feel, a mixture of slow and continual rot and decay with everything cold and damp, that of a time capsule of history slowing melting away.
Nature was slowly taking the house over with ferns and other undergrowth happily growing inside. There was thick mildew on walls, rotten flooring and ceilings and in parts, these were missing altogether. Indeed, in some rooms it was possible to look up through three stories and out through holes in the roof to the sky above. There were some personal possessions, letters and pictures and even a Victorian reed organ and the odd piece of furniture. One staircase had rotted away completely and all that remained was of a pile of very wet and rotten timber. The main staircase consisted of simply the first three treads and some oak hand rail, but nothing else. It was impossible to get to the first floor, but there were very few floors left to stand on if it were! There was an incredibly rusty coal fired Aga and other rusty Victorian ranges which looked as though they would collapse into a pile of rust and dust if moved.
Nobody seemed to think it was viable to save the house due to the state it was in. Even the agent thought it would be cheaper to demolish it and build a new house instead of restoring it. Although the house was indeed in an incredibly poor state, the main brick structure of the building was in remarkably good condition, including the brick barrel vaulted cellars which supported two thirds of the building. The walls were plum, very thick and well built. Only the porch and one internal wall had suffered subsidence.
We finally embarked on a total restoration in March 2013 living and working on the site full time with a great team of men. It took around 20 months to get to the stage where the ground and first floor were finished and furnished bar the wash house and attic (servants’) bedrooms.
About 90% of the internal timber in the house either was no longer there or it needed replacing. Whatever we could replicate, we did. All the windows, doors, architraving, skirtings, dado rails and the staircase were all custom made to match the existing where possible. Plaster cornicing fitting to what would have been there originally was also installed. We re-used as many original materials a possible such as slate shelving and flooring including Norfolk pamments and York stone flags which were re-laid exactly in the same order as they came up.
Although the roof needed re-covering most of the timbers of the structure were serviceable and only about 15% needed replacing on the main house. A totally new roof was needed to the wash house.
There used to be a very large Victorian conservatory/orangery, which fell down long before we bought the house due to a tree growing through the iron and glass structure leading to its total collapse. We have however kept the footprint for a future copy to be built in its place.
Rather than overtly modernising the interior, which is so often done, we wanted to restore the house in keeping with its original Victorian use, for example by keeping the feel of the servants’ end of the house different to that of the family’s formal part of the house and make the house timeless once more. Sadly, due to various thieves and ‘trophy’ hunters entering the property and taking anything which could be removed including fireplaces, light fittings, door furniture etc, we didn’t have many clues left to how the rooms once were. However I hope you agree that we’ve managed to capture some of the Victorian ambiance.
The house won The Graham Allen award from North Norfolk District Council for Conservation and Design in 2014 of which we are immensely proud! We are experienced in providing self-catering accommodation in North Norfolk so we are excited that this amazing house, which was designed to impress and entertain, will come alive once more!