A Postcard from Cley

Cley-next-the-Sea from the coastal path on the North Norfolk Coast

As I write this there’s a break in the weather and those huge skies which define the North Norfolk Coast are filled with scudding clouds against the brilliant blue above the important coastal village of Cley-next-the-Sea. My wife Teresa and I often come up to this beautiful part of the country.

From Saxon times Cley was an important port on the River Glaven, one of the busiest in England. Fish, spices, coal, barley and oats arrived and left our shores through Cley. Many of the houses in Cley are defined by their gently arched Flemish gables, a reminder of our trade with the Low Countries over the centuries.

As we arrived we were blessed with a beautiful sunset which framed the famous 18th century windmill, a favourite subject amongst artists.

St Margaret’s church dates predominately from the early 14th century, its grandeur speaks of the port’s trade and wealth.

From the 17th century land reclamation increasingly separated Cley from the sea, and although it is no longer next-the-sea it is surrounded by marshes which provide internationally important habitat for rare breeding and visiting birds. The Cley Marshes bird reserve has been in the care of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust which was founded in 1926. Amongst the resident breeding birds are bitterns, marsh harriers and spoonbills which are joined by winter visitors which include numerous wading birds and brent geese.

We love to go out to the shingle ridge where at this time of year it can be difficult to discern where the pale grey sea ends and the sky begins. The wind and rain coming in from the North Sea makes you feel really alive.

The 18th century Cley Windmill against the setting sun

Together with Teresa I’m adding new and precious memories to those of this place from my childhood and our children’s. I would often holiday with my grandparents on this bit of the coast. The adventure would begin with the journey from Sussex in our elderly pale blue Morris Travellers. The pilgrimage to Cley and Blakeney for family holidays has continued across the generations.

It’s fascinating how important place is to us as human creatures, it roots us in the procession of our lives and blesses us, as shared stories of joys and sorrows unite us.

In Sussex Steyning shares a similar story to Cley and was once an important port. The green opposite the town’s magnificent church is said to have been where the harbour was from Saxon times.

I love Sussex and the North Norfolk Coast. It remains to say – Wish you were here!

Icebergs and Oil Rigs

Cattle grazing on the coastal path between Blakeney and Cley, Norfolk

The north Norfolk coast has a special place in my heart. When I was a boy we would take a cottage with my Gran and Grandpa at Blakeney or Cley.
Dressed crab from Cromer was always a particular treat and picnics on the Sheringham line as the steam engine puffed along the coast to Holt with its lovely galleries and shops.

The shingle ridge at Cley was a favourite spot. My Grandpa would take my brother and I swimming there. He was of that particular generation where his face and hands were sun-kissed and brown but otherwise he was as white as porcelain standing there in his knitted trunks. “Come on boys” he would cry as my brother and I followed him into the freezing North Sea, “nothing between us and the North Pole except icebergs and oil rigs!” It really was that cold. I have said the same things to my girls many times swimming off the north Norfolk coast. It’s called wild swimming now but since childhood I’ve always enjoyed the excitement of swimming in the sea from April to October at Goring and elsewhere.

At Blakeney we would fish for baby crabs on the quayside. Delighted if we made a catch the crabs were always returned to the estuary and its fast flowing tide.
My wife, Teresa, and I were blessed to spend a long weekend at the wonderful Blakeney Arms Hotel late in the season last year. With its gathering English country house interiors and antique furniture the hotel provides a welcome retreat from the busyness of life. Wonderful food and the generous staff made for a special weekend.

The view from the Blakeney Arms Hotel, Norfolk

We arrived late in the evening and drank thermos tea on the quay as the sky darkened. When we awoke the following morning the rain had cleared. We drew our curtains and were greeted with a rich late autumn light illuminating the marshes and incoming tide. The sky always seems bigger on the north Norfolk coast and extends the horizon, a welcome experience in these times.
After breakfast we set out on the coastal path heading out to sea and then east towards Cley with its famous windmill and pottery. The path is raised above the marshes and to the side of us cattle grazed in a timeless scene reminiscent of a painting by Sir John Arnesby Brown RA.

News that we will probably all be holidaying in the UK and at home in Sussex this year is an exciting prospect.

Here in Sussex we are blessed with some of the most beautiful countryside and varied coastline in the country. Our museums, country houses, gardens, theatres and art galleries add to the cultural richness of our landscape and they will need our support.

Post lockdown I look forward to exploring our own county with you once again, celebrating the richness and beauty of Sussex, her history and her heritage.
Until then stay local and stay safe.

A Postcard from Holkham Hall in Norfolk

Holkham Hall’s magnificent Marble Hall
Holkham Hall’s magnificent Marble Hall

This week I am visiting another of England’s finest country houses, Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

Holkham is always compared with Houghton. This fine pair of Norfolk houses reflect the families who created them. Houghton projects Robert Walpole’s political stature and a London flamboyance. 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 and the influence of the Grand Tour. The two houses provide contrasting interpretations of Palladianism.

Thomas Coke spent six years 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.

Holkham sits confidently and at ease in its landscape. The central rectangle, with its beautifully proportioned portico and rustic ground floor, is flanked by two wings designed to provide separate accommodation for visitors and the family.

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 its deeply incised panels, distorted to accentuate its height to the eye.

In my view the English Country House is one of our nation’s greatest contributions to human civilization. Their assemblance of paintings and objects have a particular beauty born of the passions of their families and, importantly, English Country House taste is also comfortable.

The Long Library designed by William Kent
The Long Library designed by William Kent

The Long Library forms part of the Family Wing which was the first part of Holkham to be built. The wing was designed in detail and decorated in the 1730s by William Kent. Over the fireplace there is a superb 1st century Roman mosaic depicting a Lion, originally from Umbria.

Thomas Coke placed great importance on his books and manuscripts and used the Long Library as his main living room. The Coke family continue to use this room as their Sitting Room on a daily basis – it has the atmosphere of a very social and comfortable space. With William Kent’s gilded bookcases and ceiling as the backdrop the room is once again furnished with that medley of styles and periods brought together by successive generations of the family which typifies English Country House taste.

The art collection at Holkham is also superb. As you process through the Staterooms you are greeted by an array of paintings by Poussin, Claude, van Dyke, and Ruben’s exceptional ‘Return of the Holy Family’.

To find out more about this exemplary English Palladian house and its collections visit www.holkham.co.uk.

It is almost time to leave the North Norfolk coast with its enormous skies, beautiful villages and coast and return to our own stunning county of Sussex. So it just remains to say “Wish you were here!”

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

A Postcard from Houghton Hall in Norfolk

Houghton Hall in Norfolk, home to Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole
Houghton Hall in Norfolk, home to Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole

This week I am writing to you from one of England’s most important country houses.

The English Country House is one of our nation’s greatest contributions to human civilization. Their assemblance of paintings and objects have a particular beauty born of the passions of their families. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, the home of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745). The house captures the ambition of a man and a nation in the ascendancy.

Sir Robert Walpole was the most powerful statesman of his day. He was gifted with figures and an adept politician. Between 1722 and 1742 he was both First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer. A Whig politician, Walpole’s middle way attracted moderates from both the Whig and Tory camps. He strove for lower taxes, peace and growing exports.

His assured taste in art and architecture enabled him to build Houghton in just thirteen years and to form a remarkable collection of art and objects. It was conceived not only as a power house for political entertaining but also as a family home.

Walpole sought to bring Palladianism to the English countryside.

Palladianism is based on the designs of the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. Palladio was inspired by the buildings of ancient Rome. British designers drew on Palladio’s work to create a Classical British style. The most influential and earliest exponent was the English architect Inigo Jones who travelled throughout Italy between 1613 and 1614 with the ‘Collector’ Earl of Arundel annotating his copy of Palladio’s treatise.

Palladian exteriors, like at Houghton, were plain and based on strict rules of proportion. In contrast, the interiors were richly decorated. This style remained fashionable from around 1715 up until 1760.

The first design for Houghton was produced by the architect, James Gibb. The pure Palladian design was interrupted with the addition of the dramatic domes but the house is beautifully conceived. The interior designs, decoration and finishing 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 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
The Cabinet room at Houghton Hall

The Cabinet room was originally conceived to display fifty-one of his smaller paintings. After their sale the 3rd Earl introduced the fine blue-ground chinoiserie wallpaper we see today. The two English rococo wall mirrors and lacquer wall cabinets compliment this design. Here the classical gives way to decorative motifs drawn from nature and the influences of the Chinese reflecting the international qualities of our nation. The two classical green velvet chairs with their walnut and gilt-gesso 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 an evolving harmony. It is typical of English Country House taste.

Much of the furniture at Houghton is original to the house and its quality is testament to Sir Robert Walpole’s unerring eye and ambition.

To find out more about this jewel like house and its collections visit www.houghtonhall.com.

Houghton has always been compared with neighbouring Holkham Hall so I will be sending my next postcard from Norfolk to you from there. It remains to say “Wish you were here!”

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.