Weird Norfolk: A hidden door that led to a princess’s bedchamber and trapdoors that reveal secrets
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019
A new behind-the-scenes tour at Holkham Hall allows visitors to discover how life was lived upstairs and downstairs in the servants' areas, attics and the cellars at Holkham Hall. Today, Weird Norfolk follows the tour guide up the winding staircase to the highest tower rooms and attics.
There is treasure to be found at every corner in the magical attics at Holkham Hall - piles of brass lamps, ornate mirrors, statues, corridors lined with antique books, porcelain, swathes of silk, satin and linen, furniture: memories that stretch from every family that has ever made this Georgian masterpiece their home.
New behind-the-scenes tours have opened up areas of Holkham that are generally closed to the public – accompanied by an expert guide, small groups will be taken above and below the stately rooms of Holkham to see how servants were able to flit between the grand state rooms and bedrooms without being seen.
Visitors can see where 16-year-old Princess Victoria's Ladies in Waiting slept when the woman who would one day be Queen visited Holkham and how they could quickly access her room to attend to her every whim and can also see what lies behind the stunning ceiling of the famous Marble Hall.
Climbing up 70 steps, our guide – Holkham's resident historian and librarian Dr Mac Graham - explains how vaults in the ceiling all around the symmetrical hall are large enough to have accommodated a whole other floor at Holkham but that the only place this area is used is above the state bedrooms where waiting staff would sleep.
The corridor, the only one of its kind in the Hall, is next to a door hidden in plain sight next to the room where Princess Victoria stayed, linking the waiting staff's quarters to her Royal Highness and bringing downstairs to upstairs in one, graceful move.
'If you were visiting with an entourage, you would want them close by,' explained Mac, 'and they would be able to get to you in seconds and seemingly from nowhere.
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We see rooms filled with brass beds covered in plump eiderdown quilts, essentially dormitories, where visitors still stay and where the Coke family's children have held sleepovers, away from the main body of the hall. Up another flight of stairs, we enter the vast space which is Holkham's attic.
Corridors stretch into the distance, off them a series of cupboards and roof spaces, doors that open on to balconies, walls piled high with furniture, paintings and items from the hall that have found a new home at the very highest point of Holkham.
'When the hall got very busy, servants would sleep up here,' Mac tells us, 'we know that in particular when the big agricultural shows were on around 1818, there were about 50 or 60 people staying here with their servants so everyone had to sleep wherever they found room.'
Holkham Hall was built in the mid-18th century by Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester, who died before it was finished, leaving the finishing and furnishing of the house to his widow, Lady Margaret Tufton. After her husband's death, she spent a great deal of time in her library in the attic space.
The bookcases groan with an unrivalled manuscript collection which includes one of the greatest private collections of incunabula (early printed books) in the country, books that date from 1450, a staggering 10,500 tomes belong to the Hall, in various libraries. From this room, where Lady Margaret spent so much time, is quite the most breathtaking view over Holkham's fountain which depicts a Greek legend where Perseus rescued Andromeda from being sacrificed to a monster to appease Poseidon, the Sea God.
As we wander along the passageways, Mac alerts us to what lies beneath our feet: trapdoors.
There are trapdoors that lead to drainage channels – Holkham has no visible drainpipes, they are hidden from view – and to other areas of the stately building, including that above the Marble Hall which rises to a height of 50ft and is mainly made of pink Staffordshire alabaster, rather than marble.
Behind the immaculate, cool stone façade of the hall, a different story is told: wooden beams help support the slabs that were brought in by ship to Wells-next-the-sea – like a swan on the water, below the surface is in contrast to the beauty that is first seen, and through the trapdoor and with the help of an artfully-placed mirror, we can see where the plasterwork has oozed through the alabaster slabs.
Wherever you look in the attic, there is a treasure trove to discover: a wheeled wicker chair, regimental drums, brass bedsteads, rocking chairs, prints, crystal bottles, discarded toys, plaster busts, dinner services, tapestries, fire screens, furniture which is older than Holkham Hall itself, objects waiting to be restored and given new life.
'You could easily get lost up here,' Mac tells us, 'it took me years to know my way around and I still discover something new every time I come up here. You can't help but think about the Hall's staff scuttling along the labyrinth of corridors, up and down the spiral stairs, gliding in and out of rooms without being seen or heard.
'If only these walls could talk…'
After walking round the heavens of Holkham, we descend down a spiral staircase and find ourselves in front of a bank of bells which would once have been checked by the servants and then, just seconds later, we are back in glorious opulence of the hall, next door to – yet a million miles away from – the hidden passages and servants's stairs.
The Hidden Passages and Servants' Stairs Behind the Scenes Tours of Holkham Hall runs on Wednesdays until October 30 at 11am until 12.30pm and 1.30pm to 3pm, tickets cost £25, £12.50 for children (recommended age 10 years and over). Parking is included in the ticket price. For more details, visit www.holkham.co.uk.
* Next week: Weird Norfolk joins the Taking the Plunge – Cellar Tours of Holkham Hall
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