Country houses for sale

A ‘real gem’ of an Elizabethan hall where Virginia Woolf came to recuperate, and ended up writing a story

Blo Norton Hall is a delightful Norfolk home with great stories to tell. Penny Churchill takes a look.

Between the Fens, the vast Thetford Forest to the west and the Broads to the north, you will find south Norfolk’s Breckland district, the name of which means ‘abandoned field’. It is a sandy wilderness of heath and dry grassland set amid the rich farmlands of East Anglia, where, for centuries, the land was ploughed by itinerant farmers who moved on when its fertility dwindled. Now a precious habitat for some of Britain’s rarest flora and fauna, it was to this isolated area that the Modernist writer Virginia Stephen, later Virginia Woolf, came to find solitude and inspiration following a bout of the recurring mental illness that would plague her for the rest of her life.

In the summer of 1906, Virginia and her elder sister, Vanessa, rented Blo Norton Hall, a moated Elizabethan house near the Saxon village of Blo Norton on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, seven miles from the market town of Diss, 16 miles from Bury St Edmunds and 40 miles from Cambridge. A diary entry records her journey from Diss station, where ‘every mile seemed to draw a thicker curtain between you & the world. So that finally, when you are set down at the Hall, no sound whatever reaches your ear; the very light seems to filter through deep layers; & the air circulates slowly, as though it had but to make the circuit of the Hall, & its duties were complete’.

Blo Norton Hall and its magnificent gardens are at the heart of a 72-acre estate in Norfolk.

In a letter to her friend, Violet Dickinson, she describes the hall: ‘300 years old, striped with oak bars inside, old staircases, ancestral vats and portraits. There is a garden; and a moat… Nessa paints windmills in the afternoon, and I tramp the country for miles with a map, leap ditches, scale walls and desecrate churches, making out beautiful brilliant stories every step of the way.’

The hall and its environs were to serve as the setting for a short story, The Journey of Mistress Joan Martyn, in which the thinly disguised main character, Rosamund Merridew, is a historian researching England’s medieval system of land tenure.

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Now for sale through the Norwich office of Savills at a guide price of £2.6 million, Blo Norton Hall sits at the heart of a 72-acre estate on the edge of the village, where a network of small country lanes, bridleways and footpaths offers unlimited scope for walking, cycling and riding.

Bounded to the south by the River Little Ouse, the estate comprises a mix of meadows, farmland and wooded parkland along with a courtyard of period outbuildings with evident development potential.

According to its Historic England listing, the present house was built in the mid 16th century, enlarged in 1585 with the addition of the gabled south and east wings and partly rebuilt or altered in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries; the moated monastic site on which it stands dates from 1280.

Described by selling agent Ben Rivett as ‘a wonderfully atmospheric house — a real gem’, the hall and its two cottages (for sale by separate negotiation) have been the subject of a rolling programme of repair and improvement since 2009, which has included new plumbing and wiring, redecoration, a new drainage system and the replacement of defective areas of roof.

The heart of the house is the dining hall with its original 16th-century panelling, open fireplace and grand proportions. This leads through to the drawing room, again with panelling and fireplace, and a living room with access to the west-facing gardens.

A pleasant surprise is the large, light-filled, open-plan kitchen/dining area, a rarity among houses of this vintage. The hall boasts two staircases of note, the one in the west wing has particularly fine 17th-century, dog-leg oak stairs.

In all, Blo Norton Hall offers 7,900sq ft of living space on three floors, including an entrance hall, five reception rooms, the kitchen/breakfast room, boiler room and cellar on the ground floor.

There are also six first-floor bedrooms and bathrooms, plus a games room and three further bedrooms and bathrooms on the second floor.

Blo Norton Hall is for sale at £2.6m via Savills — see more details and pictures.


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