Blickling Estate celebrates Christmas with a journey through 400 years of history
PUBLISHED: 14:42 26 November 2019 | UPDATED: 14:42 26 November 2019
It's a cold November morning and the first hints of Christmas are starting to appear at Blickling Estate.
Local company Viking Lighting has already strung lights along the iconic tree-lined drive, the yew hedge - one of last year's most Instagrammable sights - is already sparkling, and now the team are at work in the Parterre gardens, transforming the outdoor space into a spectacle of pretty festive cheer.
And there's plenty to see inside, too. A tree bursting with green foliage and dried oranges teeters as it's moved along a corridor in the hall, fabric fabergé eggs are stacked in a side room and garlands, mostly made of silk, are being prepared ready for the big reveal next weekend.
"Blickling and Christmas: it's what this house is made for," says house manager Jan Brookes, who, after six months, is finally seeing her festive vision come to fruition.
Jan and her team have been thinking about the upcoming festivities since May, if not before, figuring out how they could transform this already impressive hall into a living, breathing theatre; it's all to capture the spirit of a quintessential Norfolk Christmas.
From November 30-December 20, up to 30,000 people are expected to visit the estate, and for many, the visit will be part of their own festive traditions. It is a big responsibility; this year Jan and her team are putting on what is arguably their most ambitious Christmas yet, taking their visitors on a journey through 400 years of history.
"It all starts in the Jacobean era, with Sir Henry Hobart and Dorothy Bell coming to their new home," says Jan, standing in the entrance hall. "The Jacobean period was all about food, feasting, a love of community and a love for the King - you celebrated, yes, but you knew your place."
From here, visitors will be thrust into the 18th and 19th centuries, where one of the highlights will be the Russian-themed dining room bedecked in opulent whites, blues and golds and a hand-crafted winter palace in the centre of the table.
"I want this room to really knock your socks off," says Jan. "One of our volunteers made the winter palace - everyone in the property team gives their skills to Christmas. Sometimes it's overwhelming to see the creativity, the energy and the passion of our volunteers - all for free - to put this on. It's very collaborative."
Volunteers have spent months designing and making the props and furnishings to be displayed throughout the house, all of which will be carefully inventoried and stored after the event. But it's not just about what is on show that's important - it's also about what might be hidden.
Many of the furniture pieces in the National Trust's vast collection, which visitors can see in the hall, year-round, cannot be safely moved or stored, so Jan relies on careful planning and a bit of smoke and mirrors. "Preparing the house for Christmas is all an illusion," she says, listing the different smells that will be used to further the experience, "but how far can that illusion go?"
While the team are keen to offer a unique and immersive experience, detail and accuracy are still crucial to tell the story of the hall's rich history. "We're so blessed with our team of volunteers," she says, describing the large clocks which will be at the threshold to every room, alerting visitors to each time period. "We also have a sewing team who, along with making lots of props, will be covering the furniture that wouldn't be there in that time."
Upstairs, visitors will experience the glitz and glamour of the 1920s as they enter the south drawing room. "There will be music, lit bottles, Nancy Astor by the window - it's all about gaiety and frivolity in there," says Jan, before guiding me to The Long Gallery, the final stop on this whistle-stop tour.
The room will transport visitors back to the 1940s, with a runway extending the length of the room to mark the return of local crews from RAF Oulton. It will commemorate the transition of the estate from private ownership to the care of the National Trust after the death of Philip Kerr, its last private owner.
"It's a journey," explains Jan. "The visitor is on a journey with us, through the house and through time. We want to make it subtle yet have an impact." Jan hopes that impact will also be felt by regular visitors, too, with little, sometimes surprising, touches to add something for those who know the property well.
Outside, in the modern day, the gardens will provide the perfect backdrop for an enchanting winter stroll. Temple Walk will sparkle as the fountain and acorns are lit up on the Parterre, and the west garden will be surrounded by firefly lights.
There will also be the opportunity to indulge in some festive fare, with mulled wine, mince pies, hot chocolates and gingerbread available from 3-7pm throughout the gardens, and light bites and hot meals in The Stables from 11am-7pm.
Home for Christmas will be on at Blickling Estate from 30 November-20 December. Timed ticket entry to the house is available from 11.30-1.45pm on a first come, first served basis, and tickets for after 2pm can be booked online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blickling-estate. Final entry to the house is at 5.45pm, and to the gardens at 6.15pm. For more information, including prices, please visit the website.