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Car booting stately style

PUBLISHED: 06:45 02 June 2014

Virgina and Charlie Temple-Richards at Sennowe Park near Guist, for the EDP Norfolk Magazine. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Virgina and Charlie Temple-Richards at Sennowe Park near Guist, for the EDP Norfolk Magazine. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© Archant Norfolk 2014

At Norfolk’s last Stately Car Boot Sale, Virginia Temple-Richards’ managed to dissuade husband, Charlie, from bringing a full-sized sleigh home to Sennowe Park, but her own haul included a white wicker Victorian doll’s pram, silk lampshades, antique porcelain, and tasselled tapestry cushions.

“I was very over excited by the whole thing!” she says.

This year Virginia and Charlie are hosting the prestigious event at Sennowe Park, in aid of the Norfolk Churches Trust. But she is determined her duties will not stop her browsing for more bargains.

Some of Norfolk’s poshest people are trawling through attics, searching for stock for this aristocrat amongst table-top sales, which is held just once every three or four years, in suitably lavish surroundings. Past venues include both Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall, and each of the 150 stallholders is specially invited. They will have looked out their wares from some of the largest, loveliest and most interesting homes in the county.

“The last one was at Houghton and there were some wonderful bargains to be had,” says Virginia. “There’s some tat too! It’s anything an interesting house might have tucked away in the attic. There certainly could be undiscovered masterpieces . . .” She says tables could be piled with anything from bolts of fabric to paintings, or stuffed birds to wooden stools.

Charlie and Virginia are both keen to support the work of the Norfolk Churches Trust and have held several other charity events on the estate, including the successful Dog Day for Help for Heroes. But they also share Sennowe with paying visitors to help fund the upkeep of their beautiful, but demanding, home. They have hosted film crews for tv dramas, fashion shoots for magazines, and weddings where the bridal party stay as house guests. Their Stately Home Stays are particularly popular with Americans.

Sennowe was completed in 1907, for the grandson of travel company founder Thomas Cook, but only ran at full, flamboyant, tilt, with around 60 staff, until the outbreak of the First World War.

Today there are just Virginia and Charlie, plus a daily cleaner and a gardener. And yet, when paying guests arrive they are attended by a butler and kitchen staff, luggage is whisked away by porters - and once valets even worked late into the night, cleaning shoes.

Although they cannot offer the Downton-eque v-shape of uniformed staff at Sennowe’s grand stone entrance, they hire in a butler who has worked at Sandringham, plus caterers.

“Everything else is us!” says Charlie. “When guests arrive we greet them and organise drinks. Then we wander out, run like stink to pick up their luggage and take it up to their rooms and race back down again - and saunter in, to check how everything is going!

“One evening we were just checking over the house before going to bed when we noticed that everyone had left a pair of shoes outside their bedroom doors. It dawned on us that they were expecting them to be cleaned. We were up into the early hours!”

Charlie is the fourth generation of the family to live on the estate he has known and loved all his life, but only discovered he would be inheriting the house just over 10 years ago when his uncle decided the hall needed children growing up in it.

The Temple-Richards children were 13, 11 and nine when they swapped their terraced house in London for the huge Norfolk mansion and estate.

“I was excited by the whole thing. It was a huge opportunity, and a challenge too,” says Charlie, who works in Norwich as a stockbroker.

Virginia has also fallen in love with the house – and it is an easy house to love. Designed by Norfolk architect George Skipper, the man behind masterpieces including Norwich’s Royal Arcade and the Norwich Union Marble Hall, it is ornate and full of dramatic flourishes, but light and welcoming too. There are spectacularly decorative ceilings and wood-panelling, huge stone fireplaces, and even its own marble hall – a vast marble-floored and fountained winter garden. Family legend has it that Charlie’s great grandfather commissioned his fabulous new home from the county’s most celebrated architect and promptly went off on a world tour. When he returned he was delighted with the mansion, but could not find the ballroom. The conservatory was hastily added.

“He built Sennowe with fun and parties in mind – although it was funded with the proceeds of the temperance movement!” says Charlie.

The first Thomas Cook was teetotal and invented the package tour, by accident, when he began organising trips to temperance rallies. His grandson used his inheritance to create Sennowe. The house is surrounded by terraced gardens and rolling parkland and photographs show the huge lake being dug by hand. Today the lakeside path is Charlie’s favourite spot.

“As a child we lived about a mile away and from the age of seven I spent every morning possible with the gamekeeper,” says Charlie. “Sennowe has been run as a bit of a private nature reserve and we have seen 190 different species of birds here. There are even little egrets nesting by the lake.”

Virginia used to work at Sotheby’s but now oversees the house – a job which ranges from hosting concerts in the grounds (next month up to 2,500 fans are expected to see Bad Manners headline the Symetry festival at Sennowe) to checking the attics for leaks (and treasures for a potential Stately Car Boot table.)

Alongside the hall is a soaring tower – from the top bells chime every quarter and much of Norfolk is visible, studded with our own inheritance of churches being supported by the Norfolk Churches Trust.

Norfolk has the greatest concentration of medieval churches in the world. The Norfolk Churches Trust helps protect the county’s many architecturally precious religious monuments. www.norfolkchurchestrust.org.uk

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