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An exceptional country estate in Norfolk

By Penny Churchill

An exceptional country estate in Norfolk

‘The most significant country-house sale to take place in Norfolk in twenty years’ is announced in this week’s Country Life

Today sees the launch in Country Life of the elegant, but little-known Burnham Westgate Hall with its 38 acres of gardens and parkland on the edge of the chic north Norfolk village of Burnham Market, at a guide price of ‘around £7 million' through Savills in Norwich (01603 229210).

For selling agent Louis de Soissons, who in 1991 sold the hall, listed Grade II*, to its present owners, Baroness Patricia Rawlings and the Hon Dr Paul Zuckerman, this is, ‘without question, the most significant country-house sale to take place in Norfolk for at least 20 years'. He adds that
‘for those aspiring to a smaller version of nearby Holkham Hall, this has to be it'.

The original Burnham West-gate Hall, then called Polstede Hall, was built in the 1750s by Holkham estate architect Matthew Brettingham for Pinckney Wilkinson, a rich merchant and MP for Old Sarum. In 1783, Wilkinson gave the house to his daughter, Anne, on her marriage to Thomas Pitt (later the 1st Lord Camelford), the nephew of William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, and first cousin of Pitt the Younger. During his Grand Tour of the late 1770s, Thomas, an enthusiastic amateur architect, had met and become friends with Sir John Soane, and, following his marriage, commissioned the Palladian architect to alter Burnham Westgate and add the stables and lodge.

Soane also rebuilt much of the hall, making it notably grander, with a split, cantilevered staircase and a first-floor piano nobile; it was later dubbed ‘Palazzo Pitti' by its delighted owner. On Pitt's death, the house passed to his daughter, Anne Grenville, and in 1808, she and her husband sold the house to Sir Mordaunt Martin, a keen agriculturist who, according to Francis White's History, Gazetteer and Directory of Norfolk (1854), was ‘the first to introduce mangel-wurzel and sainfoin into this county'.

 

Burnham Westgate Hall

 

He built a complex of farm buildings north of the walled kitchen gardens, and possibly the once-extensive farm buildings at the rear of the Hoste Arms, which may well have been the original farmhouse to Burnham Westgate. Sir Mordaunt died in 1815, leaving the hall-described by White as ‘a hand-some mansion, beautified with pleasure grounds and shrubberies, and situated near the church'-to his son Roger, who never married, and died there in 1854.

For the next 70 years or so, Burnham Westgate and its surrounding land were owned and farmed by local families until hard times hit in the 1920s, and most of the land was sold, leaving the hall, then owned by the Cook family, with just seven acres of gardens and grounds. In 1933, the widowed Lady Cook donated the hall to the Royal British Legion as a residential house where young ladies could be trained for domestic service.

After the Second World War, Burnham Westgate Hall was sold to Norfolk County Council as a home for the elderly, and the stables were converted to a laundry. Then, in 1990, the council decided that it could no longer afford to run the building as an old-people's home, and the house was put on the market. Having failed to secure the property in the first round of bidding, Baroness Rawlings and Dr Zuckerman finally bought it the following year.

As Baroness Rawlings explains: ‘Our challenge was to turn the hall back into a private home after it had been an institution for almost 60 years. The building was in a sad state, but was structurally sound and warm, although, tragically, the council had removed the 18th-century Italian wall-paintings and the chandelier from the saloon. I was an MEP at the time, so we spent mainly weekends and holidays opening up the enfilades and fireplaces, which had all been blocked off, and removing endless handrails-not to mention acres of linoleum and thousands and thousands of staples to reveal old oak and parquet floors.

‘The many outbuildings all needed attention, as did Soane's stables and lodge. The hall only had seven acres of land, but we managed to buy back the 28-acre park from the neighbouring farmer, and also the walled kitchen garden. The gardens have been my pride and joy. Sadly, the Goose Bec that flows through the park and gardens and on under the walls through Burnham Market tends to run irregularly, but when it does, it is beautiful'.

Happily, today's Burnham Westgate Hall is more Tottering-by-Gently than Colefax and Fowler, and its three storeys and 15,870sq ft of living space are crammed with a quirky, eclectic mix of period and contemporary furniture, books, prints, photographs and paintings, collected with wit and wisdom by its present owners, and mostly for sale by separate negotiation.

The ground floor houses most of the main reception rooms in a series of enfilades linking the sitting room, library, study, dining room and-unusually for a building of its time-the main kitchen, with Soane's grand saloon located on the floor above. There are six main bedrooms, seven bathrooms and two dressing rooms on the first floor, and seven more bedrooms and five bathrooms on the
second. The three-bedroom lodge provides further accommodation, and there is planning consent for a separate house in the old walled garden.

In Pitt's day, this part of Norfolk was a hive of political activity, and during their tenure, the present owners have filled the grand rooms at Burnham Westgate with luminaries from the world of politics, finance, science and the Arts, as well as the local gentry. The residents of cosmopolitan Chelsea-on-Sea, as Burnham Market is familiarly known, await developments with bated breath.

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