Postcard from Norfolk

Holkham Hall’s magnificent Marble Hall

This week I am in Norfolk visiting two of England’s finest country houses, Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall. The two houses provide contrasting interpretations of Palladianism and reflect the families who created them.

Palladianism is based on the designs of the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio who was inspired by the buildings of ancient Rome. It was popular in England between 1715 and 1760.

Houghton Hall in Norfolk, was the home of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, (1676-1745). The house captures the ambition of a man and a nation in the ascendancy.

The first design for Houghton was produced by the architect, James Gibb in a pure Palladian design based on strict rules of proportion. The lavish interior and furnishings of the principle floor was originally undertaken by William Kent in about 1725.

Ambition outstripped wealth and Sir Robert Walpole’s debts led to much of his remarkable collection of art being sold by his family in 1779 to Catherine the Great of Russia. Walpole’s collection is one of the major building blocks of today’s Hermitage Collection.

The Cabinet room at Houghton Hall.

Fifty-one of the smaller paintings were displayed in the Cabinet Room until they were sold. Today the room’s fine blue-ground chinoiserie wallpaper is complimented by the two English rococo wall mirrors and lacquer wall cabinets. The two classical green velvet chairs with their walnut and parcel-gilt show-frames are earlier from the time of William Kent. This medley of styles and periods brought together by successive generations of the family works with a layered, eclectic harmony typical of English Country House taste.

Holkham, though in some ways grander, is also more comfortable and at ease with itself reflecting the Coke family’s important place in rural Norfolk.

Thomas Coke (1697-1759) was profoundly influenced by the six years he spent on the Grand Tour. He returned home in 1718 with a collection of antiquities having formed a strong friendship with the architect William Kent and Lord Burlington. Thomas Coke would design his home at Holkham with the advice of William Kent and his assistant Matthew Brettingham.

At Holkham the visitor is greeted by the magnificent Marble Hall, the two levels united by a sweeping staircase. It is based upon a design by Antonio Palladio for a Temple of Justice. The flanking Ionic columns carved in brown and white grained Derbyshire alabaster rise to meet an elaborate frieze and the extraordinary ceiling with deeply incised panels, distorted to accentuate its height to the eye.

It is almost time to leave the North Norfolk coast and it remains to say “Wish you were here!”

John Hitchens’ Art at Weald & Downland Museum

John Hitchens, Three Burnt Fields and Limed Land

As I drive towards the Weald & Downland Museum the road along the ridge of the South Downs through the Goodwood estate affords an aerial view of the Sussex landscape reminiscent of one of John Hitchen’s landscapes. His latest exhibition Wood, Sand and Stone is currently on show in the museum’s 17th century Longport Gallery.

This is the first exhibition by Sussex artist, John Hitchens, to explore his paintings based solely on natural materials and their interactions between space, form and nature. It includes visually stunning 360 degree landscapes Painted Wooden Uprights painted in an earthy palette.

It further presents a selection of new paintings on stones, and earlier works using layers of locally sourced sand. All these works use the natural materials available to the artist around his Sussex home.

The natural materials of the intimate 17th century oak framed Longport Gallery work in concert with the natural materials out of which the works on display are born. Many of these three dimensional paintings combine the abstract with the naturalistic. There is something of the ancient in their expression of the Sussex landscape and they are curated in an imaginative way, displayed in old museum cabinets like a series of revered archaeological finds.

John Hitchens, Painted Wooden Uprights at the Weald & Downland Museum

John Hitchens’ paintings are concerned with the patterns and rhythms of the landscape.

Aerial photography over the South Downs and a love of maps with their contours have provided inspiration for his increasingly abstract landscapes over the last twenty years. Take Three Burnt Fields and Limed Land painted in 2003. Its forms are reduced to a series of lines, dots, circles and patterns which provide motifs for the shapes created by ploughing and harvesting. Stubble was the origin of the dots and the black areas in the compositions recall burnt stubble, a sight no longer part of our landscape. Many of the works are textural, the earth hues painted on a base of sieved sawdust bound together with PVA. As you stop and stare subtle details reveal themselves. They reflect our human relationship with the land and our influence on the landscape.

The forms relate to one another in the method of their execution, bringing together the artists’ close observation of the natural world, collected objects, and an appreciation of traditional materials and craftsmanship.

John Hitchens is one of our nation’s leading landscape artists. Don’t miss Wood, Sand and Stone at the wonderful Weald & Downland Museum. To find out more visit

Bringing the Outside In at Parham

Designer Elin Steele with theatrical artists Aleks Carlyon and Lizzie Calvert

It is always a joy to return to Parham with its beautiful house and gardens.

When I was last here there was great excitement about a series of murals being painted in what was called the “old cow byre” in old Parham plans. This is now a lovely space for visitors to sit in and enjoy tea and cake. The design of these new murals draws inspiration from the famous theatrical set and costume designer Oliver Messel’s ceiling in the Long Gallery, commissioned by the Pearsons in the 1960s. The pre- and post-war years witnessed a renaissance in mural and wall painting, and the Long Gallery ceiling is an eloquent example of the genre.

The joyous new murals at Parham have been designed by the young set and costume designer, Elin Steele. James Barnard, who together with his family calls Parham home, was introduced to Elin through his work as a trustee of the Linbury Trust, the grant-making foundation started by Lord and Lady (John and Anya) Sainsbury. In 2019 Elin won the prestigious Linbury Prize, the only nationwide prize for stage design in the UK, created by Lady Sainsbury (herself a former ballerina) in 1987. Sir Nicholas Hytner (former Director of the National Theatre) said that the prize “has become indispensable to the British theatre and is invariably a source of undiluted optimism about the future of stage design”.

Elin works predominately in theatre and ballet, producing the designs and then collaborating with a team in the theatre to deliver them.

At Parham, Elin worked closely over many weeks with her friends, scenic artists Aleks Carlyon and Lizzie Calvert. The design was arrived at after much consultation on themes and details with the Barnards, then marked up and painstakingly painted freehand by Aleks and Lizzie, employing a mixed-method including watercolour overlaid with pencil and gouache.

The design in the room gives you the impression that you are sitting an orangery, as though the outside has been brought in. It’s engaging and fun, drawing inspiration from the Garden and the colours of Parham’s remarkable collection of textiles and needlework.

Parham’s celebrated Blue Border

Outside in the Walled Garden, I visit the newly re-planted Blue Border with its Salvias, Nicotiana, Eryngium, Nepeta and Selinum playing in the breeze, their palette echoed in the summer sky with its flashes of blue and scudding clouds.

Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning, Parham never fails to captivate and delight anew. For more information go to

Finest Roman Mosaics at Bignor

The Bignor Roman Villa is, for me, one of the most special places in all of England. The remains of this important Villa nestle in the beautiful Bignor valley in view of the Sussex Downs. Bignor Villa would have been a short distance from the important Stane Street which linked London with Chichester in the first century AD.

The remarkable Roman mosaic floors can still be seen and are open to the public. They are amongst the finest in the country.

The Villa was discovered on the morning of Thursday 18th July 1811 when George Tupper hit what appeared to be a large stone whilst ploughing in Bury Field near the village of Bignor at the foot of the Sussex Downs. He cleared a small area and found the tessellated face of a young man. Further excavation revealed a scene depicting Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek) in the guise of an eagle abducting the shepherd boy, Ganymede.

The excavations were supervised and recorded by the antiquarian Samuel Lysons.

This remarkable find was reburied until the June of 1812 and guarded by one of Tupper’s sons. The thatched cover buildings were designed to protect the mosaics and are a distinctive feature at Bignor. Built in 1812 they are amongst the earliest examples of their type in the British Isles. Arguably the most important discovery of 1812 was the Venus mask. This beautifully conceived female head is surrounded by a nimbus in a circle flanked by what are thought to be peacocks, or long-tailed pheasants and leaf sprays.

Venus is popularly known as the Roman goddess of love. However, she is also associated with spring, gardens and fertility. These qualities made her popular with farmers, horticulturalists and landowners throughout the Roman Empire. It seems appropriate that Venus should feature so prominently at Bignor in this timeless rural setting.

The extensive hypocaust underfloor heating system in the Venus Room is partly visible today and illustrates how this room would have been warm and comfortable in the winter months.

Away from the main complex the depiction of Medusa in the Bath House delights too.

When you arrive you cannot fail to be captured by the picturesque setting and share in the sense of excitement which George Tupper must have felt on the day he discovered the Villa’s remarkable mosaic floors for the first time.

Bignor Roman Villa is open every day throughout August. There is lots for families to do including the Bignor Sunflower Maze! To find out more and plan your visit go to

Beauty and Innovation at the Sussex Prairie Garden

Along the path that leads you into the Sussex Prairie Garden you pass some happy pigs under the canopy of oaks and as you break into bright daylight your senses are immediately captured by the scale, colour, light, texture and movement expressed in the planting and design. It is really beautiful!

In the first border I come to swathes of raspberry pink and white Echinacea play against the Helenium’s flash of orange and red. Beyond, the Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ grasses, with their gossamer like flower plumes, have matured into a warm golden colour which contrasts with the strong vertical of the white Sanguisorba canadensis.

I catch up with the garden’s owners and creators, Pauline and Paul McBride, on the farm terrace amongst the nursery plants for sale outside their splendid tearooms. The terrace overlooks the gardens.

I explain that their garden feeds my heart. Pauline is delighted and says “It is a beautiful thing – people are moved by it.”

I am always fascinated by the way that the garden invites you into itself and the synergy of the planting. Wherever you are your eye is met by stunningly conceived views with layered perspective. Pauline recalls “It’s to do with the big spiral design. We drew up huge plans for the garden – each designed in minute detail – we had to think how it would work together, the structure, plants and use of grasses. The garden enfolds you, allows you to be close to the bees and insects, brush against the plants, engage with them, touch them and experience the fragrance and a freedom as the garden takes on a life of its own and becomes something extraordinary.”

Preparations are underway for the annual Indian Summer Bazaar. Marquees are being filled abundantly with exotic clothes in cottons and vintage sari silk, semi-precious designer jewellery, scarves, home furnishings and gifts – all ethically traded from India and for sale. This bazaar is at the heart of a month long festival supported by food and talks. It runs from Friday 4th August until Saturday 2nd September.

It is the vision and gentle patronage of Pauline and Paul McBride, as well as their desire to share their garden which has seeded such beauty in in this place.

Gardens are places of blessing, invitation, hospitality and encounter, and none more so than the Sussex Prairie Gardens, Morlands Farm, Wheatsheaf Road, Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9AT. To find out more, check opening times and to plan your visit go to