I left London on beautiful, baking hot Thursday morning. I was making my way to the coast – to Cley-next-the-Sea, where we’ve been asked to help on a fine small Georgian house in the village. Knowing, as I do, that I never get up to my old stomping ground of the North Norfolk Coast – it’s literally years and and years since I’ve last been – I have to admit I was full of anticipation. I was staying not too far away, with old friends, and as the miles sped by would it be too much to say that the years slipped away with them?
I guess when it’s about 20 years since you’ve lived somewhere – I guess it was 18 or 19 years ago now that I moved to Norfolk for my very first job – well – a trip to the old places does bring back not only happy memories but a sense of rejuvenation. It’s a strange factor of growing a bit older that although you don’t feel any older as such, you do begin to measure your experiences, your memories, in chunks of time: the five years spent in New York… or, can I really have been back in London ten years now? (Yes… I can… in October. oh wow. Goodie. I feel an excuse for a party coming on…). Well, it was a very very long time ago that I used to drift gently up to the coast in the old Morris Minor that was my company car (I am not joking) – in fact, to the very house I was staying tonight; where fixing up two little cottages was the very very first, tiny, project that I could really call my own in the office.
But first… to Houghton – where the extraordinary exhibition ‘Houghton Revisited’ has been assembled for once in our lifetimes… re-uniting Sir Robert Walpole’s remarkable picture collection – sold a couple of generations later to Catherine the Great – from the Hermitage and back to Houghton, and to the walls where it used to belong.
I’ve got to admit (may I admit?) that with the exception of a Van Dyck (of Inigo Jones), a Kneller (of Grinling Gibbons) and a Velazquez (Innocent X, who’s name could not be more wrong)… well, I’ve got to admit, the paintings as such didn’t thrill us.There was an elegant queenly art historian giving a tour of the exhibition to some-one-and-such-and-such; I am sure he was in the know, on the other side of the velvet rope, as it were. Fascinated, we couldn’t help overhearing the exquisite way in which he said absolutely nothing other than “EXquisite, oh yes that really is an EXquisite example of its type” and we would go and stare at the dull Madonna and Child in question, a minute later, thinking “hmm, I’d rather be looking at a Ben Nicholson” (okay, okay, unfair comparison). Well, you get the point. It’s not about the individual pictures. It’s about being in a room packed with dark expensive gloomy paintings in gilded frames that look F**KING incredible en masse. Especially against the dark olive green velvet walls of the newly-restored ‘Carlo Maratta Room’, which is my new non plus ultra of high aristo taste. I don’t think I’ve seen anything so beautiful in a long time as those velvet walls. Go, just because of them. Well, and everything else.
The real joy of Houghton is perhaps the park. You cannot make up such a park… it is perfect. Time for some photographs perhaps.
From the minute you pass the white lodges and the white gates (yes, white, but they work, perfectly) you know you are in a very remarkable place.
The brick lined interior of the stable block. Architect un-known but safe to assume William Kent (who worked on the interiors of the house, alongside Colen Campbell who designed the serene Palladian facade – softer, less severe, than so many other Palladian compositions).
The view across Bridgeman’s landscape is breathtaking. We will look back in a while.
A mighty avenue cuts across the countryside.
The stable and house.
A detail of Kent’s sublime Stone Hall (borrowed from Houghton’s website).
Looking back from the great avenue…
… at English Palladian perfection.
A softer version of English perfection – the view from the terrace, at supper that evening.
Seafood from the coast and yellow courgettes and broad beans, and Hugh’s home-made garlic mayonnaise in a Wedgwood dish. Too much. I couldn’t stop grinning.
Mirabel’s shell fireplace in the garden, made by the indomitable Mr George Carter (our very own Mr William Kent).
Serene Norfolk interiors.
The house we are working on (hidden under scaffold) is in a beautiful street in Cley. We spent a long and extremely productive day poring over every detail on Friday. Opposite, you will come to Picnic Fayre, which should you find yourself on the Coast, is about as brilliant a food shop as I’ve ever been in. (My local knowledge tells me the lovely owner is the daughter of Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s Cousin, who recently made a little bit of a stir by reminding the world that she wasn’t very excited by the Royal baby, and that ‘everyone has babies’. So there. I’m sort of inclined to agree… Bridie, I’m rather glad we didn’t rush out a royal baby plate after all).
Another perfect supper that night came from Picnic Fayre, and we ate risotto and drank far too much wine under the stars.
And I still couldn’t stop grinning. I felt like I was on holiday. Not least because my computer wasn’t on the internet and my phone had no signal and for 48 hours I had not a single email. I cannot tell you how much calmer this makes me. I read my book; finishing one, starting another. I had time to read again. Books. Not flipping email.
The joy didn’t stop there. On the Saturday, after revisiting the house in Cley for a second look at a few things, we (that is, the owner & I) jumped in our cars down to Glandford, just down the road, to the Shell Museum. Here is a taster. And the rest of that story will have to be Part II.
Because tonight, back in calm, quiet, restful London, it’s late, and dark. (Have you noticed how the evenings are drawing in again? Fairly soon, it will be dark again at 8, and then 7. Time is rolling on… nearly 2/3 of the year is passed. I am thinking of autumn. Time to order tulips now). And it’s time for me to go to bed, and read a bit more, and fall asleep. Pretty happy, as I’m guessing you can tell, and feeling just that little bit… softer, perhaps, at having reconnected with the 23-year-old Ben, that Ben who was strangely quite shy (maybe he still is, underneath the bravado?); who wasn’t quite comfortable in his skin, didn’t quite know what life was going to bring, but equally, who didn’t have too many worries, and felt like he had all the time in the world. If you happen to be a young guy, reading this… time to start dreaming, and thinking of what you’re going to be up to 20 years from now.