Saved by the Bell
Who needs the walls to speak when there are learned historians in spades. It’s like The Interregnum happened yesterday. King’s Lynn is a microcosm of academia. Such rigour. Barley twist columns (inspired by Solomon’s Temple) supporting a most generous half moon pediment form an enigmatic doorcase on Queen Street. Instead of opening into a panelled hall, the doors lead into a porch, open on one side to a walled garden, home to two black cats. Apparently this is a common arrangement in historic Lynn. It means the windows and doors of the house beyond can be left freely ajar on a sunny day.
Clifton House, named after a previous owner who sadly sold some of its architectural features, is now the home of Dr Simon Thurley and Dr Anna Keay. It’s hard to believe that when they bought the house 13 years ago “it had no electricity and part of it was an archaeological dig”. The building had a rocky time during the 20th century. Lady Fermoy, Princess Diana’s maternal grandmother, campaigned with King’s Lynn Preservation Trust to stop Clifton House being demolished for a car park in 1962. The Trust along with English Heritage was determined that it should be returned to a single family house. Almost 800 years after its commencement, the house is finally in two pairs of safe hands. Simon is former Chief Executive of English Heritage; Anna is Director of The Landmark Trust. Both have published books on history and architecture.
“Wine was a very important part of Lynn’s economy,” he records. “Lynn traded with France, Madeira, Spain and the Canary Islands. Queen Street used to be called ‘Winegate’. The introduction of trains wiped out the local economy. The ground was cut from beneath its feet. As a result nothing really happens in the house architecturally after 1850.”
The entrance arrangement is the first of many surprises. An early Georgian façade cloaks a medieval merchant’s house. A five storey tower with mullioned windows is an unexpected feature in a corner of the walled garden. “It’s relatively recent, 1570,” smiles Simon. Flues in the four corners of the tower with alternating fireplace positions on each floor make the top room especially snug. Interior surprises of the main house include vast vaults from the 1220s (the earliest brick building in Norfolk) and 1260s tiles under the kitchen floorboards.
“Clifton House is arguably one of the most complete medieval houses anywhere,” Simon continues. “It’s a complex: the adjacent counting house, yard and warehouses would all have been part of this house.” Following mid 16th century alterations of the medieval house, from 1690 to 1700 a “big remodelling” occurred. Then owner, wine merchant and MP Samuel Taylor, turned to the distinguished local architect Henry Bell. The façade owes much to this period. “Bell was mad keen on big pediments.” The architect inserted a sweeping staircase leading to the piano nobile: the landing doorcases all have most generous pediments.
Halfway up the staircase is the dining room with panelling mostly pre dating Henry Bell. But it does have a highly unusual late 17th century decorative niche hidden behind sliding sash panels. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it!” he beams. Two panels are counterweighted by lead weights. The original paint scheme of sunrays bursting out of a gold shell against a pea green background has been reinstated. “This room is always five degrees cooler than outside! But with a massive fire lit and the curtains pulled, it’s great for entertaining.”
Simon and Anna are currently restoring the upstairs drawing room. An old photograph shows it once resembled a “1950s Indian restaurant”. Removal of the unforgettable forget-me-not blue flock wallpaper has revealed long forgotten stone coloured panelling. “What we are doing is completely recessive. It has a shattered appearance which we quite like!”
Like the unpeeling of an onion, the gradual restoration of the house continues to reveal itself. Really, it’s a conversation about conservation.