‘Hidden’ gem brought back to full glory
PUBLISHED: 15:59 05 June 2014 | UPDATED: 16:24 05 June 2014
Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2013
Although it sits in one of Norwich’s public parks, many passers-by barely notice historic Earlham Hall, half-hidden by trees. For three years it has been shrouded in sheeting and scaffolding too, but now a remarkable restoration is complete writes ROWAN MANTELL.
Step inside Earlham Hall from the gardens and you are entering a country mansion. Surrounded by parkland it has the hushed, polished feel of a stately home or country house hotel. But from October it will once again be alive with hundreds of students, flowing from classrooms to common rooms and the lecture hall to admin offices.
It is the oldest part of the University of East Anglia, and home to its law school. But centuries before it was a university department in a municipal park, its elegant arched elevations and tall star-topped chimneys, were a lavish family home for the landed gentry.
The huge oaked-panelled, ornately-ceilinged great hall was at the historic heart of the house and it is beside its sturdy southern door that, three years ago, the wall began bowing and cracking and an immediate emergency evacuation was ordered.
That could have been the end of Earlham Hall, home to generations of the remarkable Gurney family, but this summer the law department is moving back into the three floors and almost innumerable corridors, staircases and rooms, after more than £8m-worth of restoration.
The 18th century books are back in the library. Undergraduate and graduate students each have their own large and ornate common rooms, which were once alive with the rustle of rich fabrics, rattle of fine china and chatter of Norfolk high society. On the top floor, bedrooms and dressing rooms, nurseries and storerooms, are filling up with the desks, filing cabinets and bookshelves of academic offices.
Three years after it looked as if the history of this hall, half-hidden among the trees of a Norwich public park, could be over, the beautiful listed building has been revitalised.
As the structural failings were investigated and remedied architects R H Partnership and contractor Kier Construction – Eastern were able to reveal and restore many of the former glories of the hall. Historic doors and windows were repaired, fabulous fireplaces, panelling and plasterwork were uncovered. As boarding was removed from hearths elaborate concoctions of marble and tile, plaster and iron were revealed and restored and once-more became the stunning centre-pieces of rooms.
Karen Morley is faculty manager for the school of law and has known Earlham Hall all her life. Her grandfather was a farm labourer on the estate and she played in the grounds as a child.
“We used to dare each other to peer into the windows of the hall and tell each other ghost stories!” she said.
Today it is her workplace, but she never lost her awareness of the romance of the historic hall, and is delighted by the transformation.
“The students said never in their wildest dreams had they thought it would be so beautiful,” she said.
Karen’s favourite place is known as the 11-sided room. High on the second floor it is carved out between projecting chimney breasts and attics, cupboards and corridors.
Her office is in the old scullery. Nearby are what was the butler’s room and the housekeeper’s room, and on the corridor leading to what is now the staff room, with a Jacobean tiled floor preserved below it, are floor-to-ceiling wooden cupboards which would have been crammed with linen and crockery for the busy household.
Upstairs lecturers sit at computer screens in the room where members of one of England’s richest families once slept.
The very oldest parts of the house date back to around 1580 and present hall took shape around 1642 when the old hall was widened and wings of rooms were added to each side. In 1730 lavish panelling and plasterwork was installed, although much of this was removed just over a century later when the house was “puritanised” by its Quaker tenants.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries Earlham Hall was home to the prominent Norwich Quaker and banking family, the Gurneys.
Their silk dresses, fur coats and feathered hats would once have hung in the dressing rooms which now house photocopiers and filing cabinets.
In what is now the undergraduate student common room Elizabeth Fry’s older sister, Catherine, once sat by the window and rested in her old age. Elizabeth was brought up by this sister after the death of their mother and Catherine’s gentle ghost is said to haunt the room.
“I have always been fine here, but some people are totally spooked. We had builders who wouldn’t come back,” said Karen.
There are other ghost stories, and during the restoration a “witchcraft brick” was found high in the main southern facade of the hall, with a pentacle and the number 666 scratched into it. It could have been to ward off evil – or even suggest witchcraft was once practised here.
The oldest part of the house is the wood-panelled great hall, with massive doors to the north and south and huge marble fireplaces at either end. Its stately staircase ascends past an elaborate plasterwork ceiling and the hall is flanked by wings of drawing rooms, dining rooms, bedrooms and even a vast billiard room, now subdivided.
“We have got the dining room, the study, the library, the billiard room. It’s just like a Cluedo board!” said Karen. Claudina Richards is a senior lecturer in law and said: “If you stand on some floorboards, a door will open or shut. It’s not just an office or workplace, it’s a 17th-century home.
Avenues would once have would once have swept off across the parkland from the north and south doorways and can still be traced through the grounds of the UEA and Earlham Park. Pretty walled gardens, once belonging to the hall, are still part of Earlham Park, one of Norwich’s public parks. Some of the trees in the parkland are said to be more than 800 years old.
As the students move back into the hall young people are once again picnicking on the lawns in front of the venerable hall and striding through its corridors.
“It’s great to be back. There’s such a sense of community here. I wish I could stay on a bit longer!” said David Wilson, a third year student and head of the UEA Law Society.
Today the official entrance to the department is through the original tradesmen’s access, with the reception area created from a courtyard and the old kitchens. It leads to a huge iron-studded door with a knocker once used to summon servants.
Along another back corridor are the stairs to the old apple loft and a passageway to the out-house with its mighty wooden horse-pulled pump, which was used to bring water to the house until 1901.
Opposite are stables and coach-houses and now that the restoration of the Hall is complete the Law School has turned its attention to these outbuildings, launching a £1.5m appeal to set up a Law Clinic where the public will be able to come for free legal advice, and a mock court-room for students to train.
Karen is eager to share the history of this hall and hopes a nearby barn might one day become an information point, telling passers-by more about the lovely building glimpsed on walks through Earlham Park. As well as being home to generations of the Gurney banking family it has been a museum, library, nursing home, maternity hospital and school before becoming, in 1963, the first building of the new UEA.
Today it is home to the university’s 700 law students, and teaching, research and administration staff. The parkland all around is open to the public daily and the hall will be open too, and its spectacular restoration revealed, during the Heritage Open Days weekend this September.