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Robert Walpole had Houghton Hall built in the early 18th century.

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Which it once was...

Robert Walpole, considered Britains first modern Prime Minister, had this stately Norfolk home built at the height of his powers in the 1720s. Constructed in then fashionable Palladian style, it speaks volumes about the wealth and status of the oligarchy which then ruled Britain. But the story of the Walpole family stretches back hundreds of years to before the Crusades. The parish is mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Book, and the Walpoles may have lived there then. Certainly the local church, St Martins, was begun in the 12th century. By that time a Walpole warrior had made his name on crusade alongside Richard the Lionheart, fighting at the siege of Acre in 1191. To mark the occasion the family incorporated a Saracens head into the coat of arms which can be seen all over the modern house.

Which did not exist then.

The first house owned by the Walpoles at Houghton probably went up in the 14th century. They hailed from villages west of Kings Lynn Walpole St Peter and Walpole Cross Keys, but were established as lords of Houghton manor, north-east of Lynn, by this time. The Walpoles were an important local family. By the 17th century they dominated political seats at Castle Rising and the more volatile borough of Lynn. The man who was to put Houghton and the Walpoles on the political map was born in 1676, one Colonel Robert Walpoles 17 children. The death of his father and brothers thrust the young man to prominence. He inherited a modest Restoration house and medium-sized estate but by the early years of the 18th century had become a major figure in national, as well as local, politics. By the early 1720s, using guile and ability, he had outmanoeuvred many enemies, solved the South Sea Bubble crisis, and was chief minister to the Hanoverian kings. Walpole maintained this position for 20 years, and needed a house that would impress friends and foes alike.

So Houghton Hall was born.

He wanted the best, so he hired the best. With no expense spared, Lynn architect Henry Bell was followed by Scots Colen Campbell and James Gibbs working on the exterior in 1722. William Kent designed the interior and walled garden. Inspired by the Italian Andrea Palladio (hence the term Palladian) the huge exterior spoke of restrained elegance; the interior of unabashed opulence. Kent bought the most exotic furniture money could buy, all the more to complement Sir Roberts growing picture collection. His rival, Thomas Ripley, supervised much of the work, which was complete by 1734. The house has a rectangular main block consisting of a basement at ground level, with a piano nobile (principal floor), bedroom floor and attics above. There are two lower flanking wings joined to the main block by colonnades. Flemish sculptor JM Rysbrack set the tone with a classical bust of Sir Robert as a toga-wearing Roman which greeted visitors at the east door and the magnificence went on with similar classical allusions through the whole building. The house was surrounded by six miles of parkland where more than 1,000 fallow deer roamed, while Kent made a five-acre walled garden with parterre. For two decades Houghton hosted the great and grand of Georgian England as the political powerbrokers of the day gathered there.

Very grand. Must have cost a bit.

That was the problem. Walpole fell from power in 1742, created Earl Orford as a sop to his vanity. He left 40,000 of debts to his son and grandson. George, the third earl, inherited Houghton aged just 21 on the early death of his father in 1751. Young George was a genuine eccentric, a keen sportsman and profligate rake notable even in an age of aristocratic excess. Abandoning politics, he concentrated on horses and greyhounds and by the late 1770s had doubled his grandfathers debts. Something had to give. In 1778 the Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, offered to buy the Houghton collection of paintings, including Rembrandts, Van Dykes and Poussins, for about 45,000. They duly headed for St Petersburg. George named a greyhound Tzarina to mark the occasion.

Not everyone was so happy.

His art-loving uncle Horace, the diarist and novelist, was outraged. George died childless, and Horace was his heir. He inherited in 1791, but was already in his seventies and lived just six more years. Himself childless, he nominated his relative by marriage George, first marquess Cholmondely, to succeed to the estate. Although he managed to save the estate and furniture, by now it was prohibitively expensive to run and was later offered to frequent visitor the Duke of Wellington in 1814. Presumably he looked at the accounts and small income, decided it was uneconomical and turned it down. Houghton gently decline, reviving in the 1860s after the Prince and Princess of Wales bought nearby Sandringham and made shooting parties very popular in the area.

And today?

Houghton has been preserved by the Cholmondelys. Second world war army veteran the sixth marquess built up an amazing collection of model soldiers. Housed in the museum by the original 1730s stables, it contains 20,000 gorgeously painted troops, with the centrepiece a detailed reproduction of the Battle of Waterloo. Current owner the seventh marquess has undertaken a major restoration of the fabric of the house and walled garden, in memory of his grandmother, and today Houghton is used for a number of local events.

What happened to the deer?

Theyre still there. The original fallow deer stud has proved resilient and fertile. Today 1,000 of these distinctive white deer roam the estate, prized for the purity of their bloodline.

Houghton Hall, just off the A148, is open to the public from April to September. Telephone 01485 528569.

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