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This article is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

A Visit to Old Hall Jane Stevenson
South Burlingham isn’t far from Norwich but it’s in deep country. Getting there involves navigating smaller and smaller roads into a maze of hedges and big trees, with an occasional stone-built church, the odd overdressed former farmhouse, and once in a while, a working farm. The little Elizabethan house stands back from the road, red brick under a thatched roof, made distinctive by a dramatic three-storey porch adorned with frisky merpersons, and the twin Tudor chimneypots which rise on either side of its pediment like ears. On the other side of a blue-painted farm gate, there is a formal garden with box knots, yew cones and mown grass on either side of a central path. Mature trees nod over the hedge on the left, implying less formal planting behind.

The Old Hall isn’t an easy place to bring into focus, because generally, one is so pleased to have got there, sometimes due to the successful achievement of a feat of navigation (unless one has been retrieved by Margaret from somewhere in Norwich), but mostly, because impressions crowd on top of one another and in any case, the main principal memory is always of the conversation, which begins almost at once, and continues more or less without cease during waking hours until the moment of departure. Arabesques of well-formed sentences, in which books, people, recondite facts, objects, and memories flow; one leading to another in intricate and ramifying chains of association. Nothing so vulgar as table talk, subtler and more gnarly, the result of long reflection, striking sparks off whatever it is the visitor brings to the table.

On arrival, one enters a narrow hall made narrower by a big chest and chairs littered with miscellanea; there is a momentary view of dark corridor and steep stairs and walls crowded with pictures, but off to the left is the kitchen. Peter might be found sitting in a chair by the Aga, but the chances are that when he heard the wheels of a car crunching on the gravel, he hauled himself to his feet and shuffled out for a courteous greeting, at which point, the visit gets properly under way. The kitchen is a big, square, room, containing among other things, the aforementioned Aga, lodged in a Tudor fireplace, a long table, two dressers, cupboards tucked into odd corners, and a long Indian wooden bench by the low window, decorated with naïve floral motifs in red on white, and littered with books and papers. Every one of these items is painted, often in several colours, in fact, barely an inch of bare wood is to be seen (the table is covered with an Indian printed cloth). This is the antithesis of minimalist, and the room could only be in England. Upstairs, in more private parts of the house, there are surviving Elizabethan wall paintings with vivid colour and exuberant patterns; these have been used as a cue to the decorative treatment. Beyond the flat colour, there are decorative paintings by Margaret on window embrasures and other surfaces, patterns of flowers and leaves for the most part, and paintings by Mark Hearld are a strong presence. He is also responsible for many of the textiles, prints and paintings of English animals and birds which crop up through the house.

Though Peter’s dislike of the Bloomsbury set is hardly news to anyone who has read his catalogues with attention, the Old Hall shares an aesthetic with Charleston; that of multiple small diapered patterns, bold colour, handmade things, and clutter, which runs from the Arts and Crafts movement through the Omega Workshop to Laura Ashley and Emma Bridgewater. In the kitchen of the Old Hall, the colours of walls and furniture are deep and strong, reddish-pink, turquoise, blue, ochre; colours which would be at home in Charleston (though in the Old Hall, the tones tend to be purer). There is pattern everywhere, all the walls are subtly different shades of the basic turquoise and pink, and almost nothing is white, except a large and handsome black and white cockerel, which Mark Hearld painted on the door of one of the cupboards. At most times of the year, there are likely to be brightly coloured flowers on the table, in a vase chosen for colour-contrast; for magenta and shocking pink dahlias, a jug the colour of heather honey; for daffodils, perhaps one glazed in a strong green, or turquoise. All of this detail has to be absorbed in snatches, since it is a background to welcome, solicitous enquiries as to travel, health, and current work in progress, strong tea, and ambient cats. For many years, the principal cat was the large and ceremonious Goodman, named for the secretarial cat in the Uncle books. Goodman, alas, is no more, and the current ruler of the house is Burlingham Bertie the Bengal, who looks like a small snow leopard, but is domestic in his habits. He and Peter dispute the chair by the Aga, comfortably.

Food is an important part of the visit. Margaret is not a cook who refers anxiously to recipes. But the style, or flavour, of her cooking is discernibly that of Jane Grigson, or at least, that of her era. Like other aspects of the house’s overall style, the food is very English; not in any evident way influenced by the novelties proffered by the Sunday papers’ food sections, but attentive to what is local and fresh. Quite a lot of it comes out of the garden. Her treatment of these ingredients often indicates an awareness of the history of English food, as redacted by writers of the fifties and earlier, such as Grigson, Elizabeth David, and Dorothy Hartley. Jam and marmalade are made in season; quinces are grown, and made into quince jelly. Dinner is always an occasion (as is breakfast); an occasion for meeting and talking. Attention is paid, both to the food itself, which is always worth attending to, and to the other people round the table, in a way which was once entirely taken for granted, but is increasingly eroded by the culture of the mobile phone, and less common than it once was.

Though much of any visit will happen in the kitchen, the formality and ceremony of a proper visit causes the company to remove after dinner. We go down the narrow corridor to the Red Room, which is the same size as the kitchen but at the far end of the house, and like the kitchen, has a vast Elizabethan fireplace. In the Red Room, it is open, and has a basket grate to burn logs. The pert Elizabethan merman and mermaid on the porch have evidently encouraged the acquisition of a variety of Far Eastern mermaids, who are hung from the ceiling, and cast handsome and exotic shadows. At right angles to the great fireplace, there are two enormous sofas, facing one another on either side of a narrow table. This is another room with a bookcase of treasures, which certainly includes a variety of large-format illustrated books, including Kathleen Hales’ Orlando the Marmalade Cat series, in the original lithographed editions, which find their home here. I’m not sure I have ever seen this room in daylight; lit by lamps, it has a cavernous quality, with half-seen furniture looming bulkily from the shadows.

The house retains an archaic plan, which makes it a place of narrow corridors and strangely related rooms; the room at the centre of the ground floor (‘Margaret’s Room’) is only entered from the Red Room at the end, presumably carved out of an original Great Hall which occupied two-thirds of the house’s footprint. Similarly, on the floor above, there are two small rooms which can only be entered via the master bedroom. The disposition of space does not conform to modern notions of privacy. However, the first-floor room which the guest is most likely to enter, the study, is self-contained, and is over the kitchen. Visits to Peter’s study tend to happen in the morning. A lovely square room, it is lined to the ceiling with bookcases, the interiors painted a dark pinkish maroon, the shelf edges slaty blue. Most of the furniture is Regency, Japanned black and gold. On the shelves, nineteenth-century calf bindings coexist amiably with the less-uniform products of twentieth-century private presses. Though most of the shelves are crammed with books, some hold favoured treasures. One such is a nineteenth-century tableau in a box, mostly put together from fragments of fluorspar and other decorative minerals, which features a temple frontage and a small doll, and is known to the household as ‘Little Bo-Peep in the Vaults of Death’. This assemblage can be related to a strand in English aesthetic life which goes back as far as the 1920s; an admiration for inadvertent surreality in popular culture. As Barbara Jones observed (in The Unsophisticated Arts), ‘Popular arts have certain constant characteristics. They are complex, unsubtle, often impermanent, they lean to disquiet, the baroque, and sometimes terror.’

The three special ceramics in the next bay along are also in continuum with English aesthetics: two of them are the early nineteenth-century Sunderland pink lustre jugs prized by many twentieth-century aesthetes, and the third is a Persian vase featuring a poetical gentleman playing a long-necked instrument like a sitar. Sunderland ware was embraced by 1920s aesthetes as part of what they enjoyed about Victoriana; the transfers on Sunderland ware are in a continuum with the ‘penny plain, twopence coloured’ theatre prints which inspired Sacheverell Sitwell and Lord Berners’ ballet, The Triumph of Neptune (1926). The Persian vase is a more unusual item for an English room; but its boldness and fluent, asymmetric, decoration is perfectly in keeping.

Visits often involve an excursion in the afternoon, possibly including a pub lunch. Norfolk is extraordinarily rich in medieval churches, so the destination tends to be a church crawl; armed with Pevsner or the Shell Guide, the party sets out in search of angel roofs, interesting wall paintings, or curious monuments. All my Old Hall memories are entwined with these church interiors, frequently fascinating, but inevitably cold and grey, forming the strongest contrast with the colour and warmth of the kitchen to which we return.

Additionally, no proper visit would be complete without a tour of the garden, which is enormous, and beautiful. The first impression on coming into Old Hall is of Elizabethan grass and box, but there is a discreet little entry to the garden behind the hedge on the left, which is mostly practical, and consequently organised as a series of narrow beds, with grass walks between. The dahlias, zinnias, roses, and so forth are mostly for cutting, and there are various edibles sharing the beds with the flowers. Though this area of the garden is not a display area, it has considerable charm. There is a sense of essential tidiness; annuals such as marigolds put themselves where they will, but rampant weeds are under control. After the cutting garden, coming round the corner of the house to the principal the garden is a succession of surprises. Its hugeness is only gradually revealed. Near the house, there is a series of compartments, outdoor rooms in the manner made famous by Hidcote Manor, which are seriously gardened with carefully chosen shrubs and roses, and beyond that, there is grass and mature trees. This area is adorned with a variety of architectural salvage and structures which have accumulated over time, including a beautiful lead cupola resting in the grass, a shepherd’s hut which has been there since long before they became fashionable, and a very fine, sturdy and well-thought-through tree house, which one can sit in or even sleep in, which was built for the entertainment of the young, though I think it sometimes comes in useful for Margaret’s theatrical productions, which have long been a feature of Old Hall life, when a regiment of actors and helpers has to be accommodated by hook or by crook for a week or more.

In many ways, Old Hall is a late bloom of the English devotion to the detailed understanding and appreciation of an old house which starts, perhaps, with the Nicolsons’ work on Sissinghurst, and encompasses notable projects such as Lucy Boston’s rescue of Hemingford Grey. What the latter has in common with the Old Hall is both a triumph of empathy over limited financial resources, and the quality of dialogue. Through a process of hauling a building back from near dereliction, there has always been an educated, fastidious ear cocked towards what the mute stones were trying to say.

This article is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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