Opening the doors on a beautiful Norfolk country house

Raynham Hall: Historic house - and family home.

Raynham Hall: Historic house - and family home. - Credit: Archant

A new book opens the doors on one of Norfolk's most beautiful houses - and celebrates a transatlantic fascination with our heritage. Trevor Heaton reports.

The State Dining Glory in all its glory.

The State Dining Glory in all its glory. - Credit: Archant

In a county with more than its fair share of beautiful houses, Raynham Hall is right up there with the most exquisite.

Its elegant late-Jacobean lines and perfect symmetry (and its gentle hilltop location) make it as pleasing on the eye today as when it was built a shade under 400 years ago.

Most people get only a glimpse of it travelling north on the A1065 Swaffham-Fakenham road (walkers exploring the Raynhams are rather luckier) and until recently that was as close a view as you could have.

Happily, that has been changing in recent years as Charles, the 8th Marquess Townshend, and his wife Alison have been striving to welcome visitors through a series of classical music recitals and Open Days.

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Now we can enjoy a new insight into this marvellous house in a sumptuous new book, Raynham Hall: An English Country House Revealed, written by American author Michael Ridgdill.

Mr Ridgdill, who lives in Palm Beach, Florida, and whose maternal grandmother was a Townshend, is also founder of the group American Friends of British Art.

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Lady Townshend talked to this group about Raynham last year in Palm Beach and the group contributed to restoration of portraits of the future Charles II and his siblings.

The book, which features principal photography by Julius Beltrame, looks at the story of the house from its construction which began in 1622 through its remodelling in the following century by William Kent right up to the present day, where the present Lord and Lady Townshend are carrying out a painstaking and sensitive restoration of the house, estate, and its 800-year-old archives.

The book also focuses on some of the most magnificent features of the house, including the State Dining Room, The Music Room, the Red Saloon, the Library, Marble Hall and the Stone and Oak Staircases.

There is also a chance to see the celebrated 1936 Country Life photograph of the Oak Staircase with its mysterious image apparently showing the Brown Lady of Raynham - the most famous 'ghost photograph'

ever taken.

In the ancient and eventful story of the Townshends - dating back to the 12th century at Raynham and taking it such colourful characters as 'Turnip' Townshend, plus a controversial Chancellor of the Exchequer and other holders of high office - it is difficult to realise the impact that Raynham Hall must have had when it was completed. It was right at the cutting-edge of architecture, a full 90 years ahead of its time and as startling when built as The Forum or the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts have been in the Norwich cityscape in our day.

Over the four centuries since then, it has survived the slings and arrows of fortune, including being requisitioned during the Second World War - often the death knell for other stately homes - and the sale of some land and treasures to keep the estate going, including almost 200 masterpieces in 1904.

Today, Raynham Hall is a magnificent legacy of a famous family, a living, breathing home enjoying new life in the 21st century. Its story and its glories are fully reflected in the new book.

Lord Townshend said: 'We are delighted that a book has now been published about Raynham which reflects its fascinating 400-year history, stunning architecture and home for the family which built it, and still lives in it today.

'We hope it will whet the appetites of British and American visitors who can now come here to enjoy one of Norfolk's finest and friendliest stately homes.'

And Mr Ridgdill added: 'Raynham Hall was completely transformed by the nationally-renowned architect and designer William Kent but this fascinating stately home has been kept private for so many years.

'At a time when Lord and Lady Townshend are breathing new life into the house and opening it up to visitors, this book focuses on the story of the house and the Townshend family who have lived there for 400 years.'

The book also reflects the abiding fascination in the United States for our heritage. As the author says: 'Raynham Hall represents our special relationship with the UK and our interest in the history and our ancestors whether its the Queen's Jubilee, The Crown series or Downton Abbey - it is all part of Americans' Anglophilia.'

And it is hard to disagree with the verdict of gentleman-architect Sir Roger Pratt, a contemporary of its builder Sir Roger Townshend. He wrote in 1637: 'There was something in it divine in the symmetry of proportions of length, height and breadth... which was harmonious to the rational soul.'

And you know what? There still is.

Raynham Hall: An English Country House Revealed, by Michael Ridgdill, with principal photography by Julius Beltrame and a foreword by John Julius Norwich, will be published by ACC Art Books at the end of this month, priced £30, and can be ordered on-line or through bookshops.

Raynham Hall will be holding Open Days on April 4, June 20 and September 5, with an exclusive tour through this magnificent house plus insights into the Townshends' role in the social and political history of England. Tickets £30. Its Marble Hall will also host another series of Raynham Recitals under the direction of Michael Chance. April 28 (7pm): Monteverdi's short opera Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda; June 16 (6.30pm): internationally-renowned harpsichord player Mahan Esfahani performs The Goldberg Variations; June 17 (afternoon): Les Laurentines perform Les Trois Lecons des Tenebres by Couperin. Tickets from £30,

concs £18.

Bookings for all hall events via or on 01328 862133.

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