Look inside Holkham Hall’s Triumphal Arch
PUBLISHED: 11:49 14 April 2020
Tony Hall takes a look around the extraordinary Triumphal Arch at Holkham Hall
I have always been attracted to quirky buildings, especially where their original purposes were not residential. Following on from last month’s story of a school in the middle of nowhere, another building that has fascinated me for years, one which I would put top of my list of seven wonders of Norfolk, is the Triumphal Arch at Holkham.
So I was delighted to visit and meet Johanna Tennant, the designer of the arch’s latest incarnation and to talk to Lady Leicester. The arch is in a very rural position, completed in 1760 by builder Matthew Brettingham to a design attributed to William Kent, who also designed the hall. Surrounded by countryside it is surprisingly some distance from Holkham Hall. Why?
“When the hall was built,” explains Lady Leicester. “Status was somewhat determined by the length of one’s drive.
“The arch was built to extend the South Drive, as entering under it as they must have done in their carriages, meant an even longer drive and by the time guests arrived at the hall, they would have been properly overawed, if not travel-weary.”
The reason the arch in the 21st century is off the beaten track is explained by archivist Christine Hiskey. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries carriages regularly rumbled through it. Before the road from Fakenham to Wells was improved by a turnpike trust in the 19th. century and long before the railway gave importance to the North entrance to Holkham, the principal route from London was by-passing Fakenham, to Sculthorpe Mill and Waterden Bottom, across Creake Common, hence the location of the arch.
Interestingly, even before the foundations of the Hall were dug in 1734, Thomas Coke had built the obelisk on the highest point of the projected park, which was still fields, as a symbol of his intentions. Soon after he constructed The Avenue, leading south, cutting through cultivated fields, making a striking impact as it was designed to line up with the centre point of a hall that had barely been started. The arch was sited a mile and a half further south.
During the 19th and 20th centuries the arch was inhabited by farm labourers and shepherds. James Jordan, shepherd, with his wife and three children lived in one half and Henry Frost, labourer, lived in the other side with his wife. During the 1970s architect Nicholas Hill gained permission to rent it. After much restoration work he used it for a weekend retreat, before the Holkham Estate converted it as a romantic hideaway for lettings.
Three years ago, to encourage the wedding business at Holkham, further improvements were made by Lady Leicester and project manager Johanna Tennant. “I had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve,” says Lady Leicester.
“I spent a lot of time with Johanna looking at various ways in which we could create a more romantic feel to the magnificent top floor.
“The biggest issue was getting furnishing up a narrow, stone staircase, which is limiting to say the least.
“It was very challenging. The starting point was to source a new four poster bed that we could get up. It was specially made. Then we had to find a way to dress it with drapes to make it the focal point.
“Now as you lie in bed the views from the north window are spectacular, looking all the way along the South Avenue to the obelisk and the hall. On a clear day you can see as far as the monument close to the north wall of the park.”
The layout now offers a spacious kitchen and dining area on the ground floor, with country views. Off a lobby is a bathroom with a shower.
Two-thirds of the way up the stairs is another cloakroom, then at the top is the star of this property; a spacious room spanning the entire arch.
To one end of this open plan room is the bathroom area, complete with free-standing roll top bath; in the middle the sumptuous king-size bed, then to the far end the living area with a sofa and coffee table in front of a working fireplace. The views from all windows are fabulous.
I ask Lady Leicester what she particularly likes about this famous arch. “It’s quirkiness and charm”, she replies. “I do actually use it myself, when available, as a bit of a bolt hole. It offers peace and quiet when life is very busy at the hall.
“It is an enormous privilege to live in Holkham Hall, a property full of history, but it is also a huge responsibility... and a challenge at times to find privacy, peace and quiet, especially during the summer months. At the arch I can just get away, chill out, maybe invite some girlfriends for a picnic lunch, or sometimes on my own I do my yoga here.”
You may also want to watch:
“At the hall,” adds Lady Leicester, “my favourite room is my hat studio, high up in one of Holkham tower rooms. That is also a place away from everything, but with a unique birds eye view of the courtyard and cafe/shop.
“It gives me a feel for what’s going on, and how busy we are with visitors. Needless to say, at the arch my favourite is the bedroom suite.
“It has a unique shape with views I love, plus a proper bath.”
When time permits, I ask, what is a favourite day out in the county?
“Out on our crab boat,” concludes Lady Leicester, “with various kids and dogs, four of each, leaving from Overy Staithe. Many years ago we got engaged at East Hills, Overy Staithe. It has remained a firm favourite for walks, possibly followed by a visit to The Arts Café at Glandford.
“One very memorable magic moment I must tell you about; our first swim in the hall fountain. It was empty for years because we had small children.
“Before filling it up again, we had to under take massive repairs and restructuring. When we first jumped in, five dogs and four children, my husband and I, it was magical.”
The Triumphal Arch is available for holiday lettings; contact SALT, Wells next the Sea, saltnorfolk.co.uk 01328 887600 or for a first night following a wedding package at Holkham contact holkham.co.uk
Triumphal Arch at Holkham Hall
Owners: Lord and Lady Leicester – Holkham Estate.
Property: The Triumphal Arch.
Built: Completed in 1760.
Favourite room: At the arch my favourite is the bedroom suite. It has a unique shape with views I love, plus a proper bath.
Favourite item: My calligraphy pen.
Favourite interiors shop: My sister Totty is an interior designer and has done lots of work for me at Holkham in our private wing, where we can have some fun with colour and not be so traditional. She has an amazing and original eye for design.
Favourite other shop: Just down the road from the hall; Bringing the Outside In.
Favourite day out: Out on our crab boat with various kids and dogs (four of each) from Overy Staithe.
Favourite walk: East hills, Burnham Overy Staithe (where we got engaged many years ago!)
Favourite pub/cafe: Arts Café, Glandford.
Most magical moment in the county: Our first swim in the hall fountain. It was empty for years because we had small children. Before filling it up again, we had to under take massive repairs and restructuring. When we first jumped in, five dogs and four children, my husband and I, it was magical.