Accolade for idyllic stately home

Country Life magazine has named Gunton Park near Cromer as England's finest restored country house landscape, in a Genius of the Place award.

Deer gently graze in the shadow of towering trees, beside a shimmering lake and the imposing pillars of a stately home. It is an idyllic scene that is a snapshot of chocolate box English countryside.

But 25 years ago this tranquil meadow, where sheep and geese wander among the plane trees, was busy working farmland, with tractors chugging around rows of sugar beet.

The transformation of the patchwork of fields into picturesque parkland has been a labour of love by local landowners keen to recreate the former Georgian splendour of the north Norfolk estate. And it has now won a prestigious national recognition.

Country Life magazine has named Gunton Park near Cromer as England's finest restored country house landscape, in a Genius of the Place award.

It rewards the “vision and tenacity” of Kit Martin and his neighbours who have turned a patchwork of fields into a 1,000-acre picture postcard parkland which is home to a deer herd, and haven for a host of other wildlife.

The story began when architect Mr Martin and his wife Sally bought the fire-ravaged Gunton Hall and about 40 acres of gardens in 1980 and set about restoring the house and surrounding buildings into 20 homes.

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“We soon realised the setting was as important as the house itself,” he said.

They joined forces with other residents of the estate - art dealer Ivor Braka, who moved into the tower, and Charles Harbord-Hamond, a relative of Lord Suffield who had the hall built in 1742 - when they moved in during the late 1980s with the same aim.

“Restoring the park seemed a huge task back then, but we have done it as a team,” said Mr Martin - saying a whole range of people had been involved, from local residents and craftsmen to James Ellis who established the herd of red and fallow deer which roam the area.

Defra stewardship scheme cash has helped them plant thousands of trees, dredge 16 acres of one-metre-deep silt from the big lake, as well as create new lakes and ponds, and put electricity cables underground.

“The original park was created through the work of three great Georgian landscapers - Repton, Bridgeman and Gilpin - but landscapes evolve and we have not tried to slavishly restore the estate to exactly how it was,” added Mr Martin.

“We have re-created it in the same style - with tree belts, grazed meadows and wildflowers - but also some new buildings,” he said.

They included a studio for artist Gerard Stamp who also lived on the estate.

Everyone involved with the project appreciated getting the accolade in recognition of their work, which “would go on forever,” he added.

They had done as much in the past 25 years as had been achieved in the first 100 years of the estate's creation between 1730 and 1830, said Mr Martin.

Restoration of the buildings had won awards in the past, as well as praise from the late Queen Mother during visits there, but this was the first major recognition for the countryside project.

The Country Life competition, sponsored by Savills, was designed to celebrate people striving to enhance a British landscape which was “the most beautiful in the world - and almost wholly man-made,” said editor Mark Hedges.

Gunton Park beat Rycote Park in Oxfordshire in the second place, with Oakland Park in County Donegal third.

The judges were looking for “imagination and harmony of setting and found it in Gunton Park,” he added.

Regional judge Lady Carlisle praised the vision and tenacity of Mr Martin, while Savills' head of residential sales Louis de Soissons said the ingenuity and determination of the project had “put something special back into a place everyone must have thought was a hopeless cause 25 years ago.”

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