Heart of Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 08:57 17 September 2014 | UPDATED: 10:56 03 November 2014

Lord Townshend with his wife Alison at Raynham Hall. Picture: Ian Burt

Lord Townshend with his wife Alison at Raynham Hall. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2014

This historic house at the heart of Norfolk was once at the centre of national politics too. Rowan Mantell meets Charles Townshend as he moves back into the home where he was born.

Launch of the Royal British Legion national military memorabilia auction, at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bill SmithLaunch of the Royal British Legion national military memorabilia auction, at Raynham Hall in Norfolk. Photo: Bill Smith

Caring for Raynham Hall is what Charles Townshend, the eighth Marquess Townshend, says he was born to do. And he does care, very deeply, for the stunning mansion, which was built by his family almost 400 years ago. Townshends have lived on this land, at the heart of Norfolk, for at least 900 years.

The present Lord Townshend was born in one of the grand bedrooms here, and as a tiny child he rode his bike through the suites of beautiful rooms, trundling by portraits of generations of illustrious ancestors, alongside wood-panelled walls glinting with gold leaf, past flamboyant marble fireplaces, and beneath extravagant plasterwork ceilings.

Today, Charles Townshend, a decidedly youthful-looking 69, bounds around this glorious treasury of art, architecture and history, his enthusiasm and knowledge displayed in every gesture and anecdote, although he had not spent a single night here from when he left school at 17 to this summer.

He inherited on the death of his father in 2011, but repairs and renovations are only now making the 17th Century hall into a home for Charles and his wife, Alison, Lady Townshend.

Some of the first work was to check for asbestos in the attics. Here, 67 trunks were discovered, crammed with papers and parchments which are part of an astonishing family archive dating back to the 12th century. Charles, who admits to failing O-Level history, is now enthralled by the past. He knows not just the names and dates of those ancestors on the walls, but their characters and accomplishments too. And some of the accomplishments were very great indeed.

Raynham Hall sits at the centre of Norfolk, close to the source of the River Wensum. In the 18th Century its owners were at the centre of national and international politics too, events ranging from a revolution in world agriculture to American independence (a former Lord Townsend imposed the tea tax which sparked the Boston Tea Party.)

Charles leads tours of his home, by invitation. It is not open to the public but people can apply to visit. They come from all over the world – academics, historians, art experts, distant relatives who can trace their family tree back to the ancient moated manor where Townshends were already thriving 900 years ago. Classical concerts are held in the imposing Marble Hall which, like much of the interior of Raynham, is the work of designer William Kent, who went on to devise even grander schemes for Norfolk’s Houghton and Holkham halls.

But is it is not only Townshends who believe Raynham to be one of the most beautiful houses in Britain. “I’m happy for the hall to be a venue for worthwhile events but it’s not a money machine,” says Charles. “It’s still the private family home of the people who built it.”

Charles’ bedroom will be the room that King Charles II slept in when he visited and it was a Townshend from Raynham Hall who travelled to Holland to bring the king back to his kingdom at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. His son was perhaps the most famous Townshend of them all, rising to the top of the political world, becoming an ambassador and then secretary of state. His protégé (and neighbour and brother-in-law) was Robert Walpole.

“They were known as The Firm of Townshend and Walpole,” says his namesake, today’s Lord Charles Townshend. “Townshend was in charge of foreign policy and Walpole was in charge of everything at home. That was fine, until it became Walpole and Townshend. Townshend got very annoyed with Walpole and said, ‘You think you are the prime minister!’ That was the first use of the term. It was actually a derogatory term to start with.”

While Walpole, now celebrated as Britain’s first prime minister, went on accruing the vast wealth which went into the creation of Houghton Hall, Townshend returned to Raynham and focused on farming. Here he devised the system of crop rotation which revolutionised food production around the world. It earned him the nickname Turnip Townshend and helped make some acres of Norfolk farmland an astonishing 200 times more profitable. “It’s still the basis of farming around the world,” says Charles. “I think he was also a lovely man, a very special person.”

Charles, who studied farming after leaving Eton, says his favourite place in the whole, exquisitely beautiful, house is the library which is lined with books read and used by Charles “Turnip” Townshend 300 years ago.

Today’s Charles Townshend admires the way Turnip Townshend ran the estate, setting up profit-sharing agreements with his tenant farmers. The very last Raynham tenant farmer was Anglia Television’s Dick Joice. “He was my best friend and mentor,” says Charles. “When I was 10 he gave me an old Morris Eight he’d found covered in nettles and taught me how to mend and drive it!”

At 17 Charles drove to India and then sailed for Australia, where he worked in restaurants and sold cars. He returned to Norfolk for his 21st birthday, worked briefly as a stockbroker, which he hated, then exported livestock and eventually set up a furniture-making business. Tragedy struck in 1985 when his wife Hermione, mother of their two children, was killed in a car crash.

It was not until he inherited Raynham and began working full-time on the estate that he believed he was fulfilling his own purpose. “It’s what I’m here for. I’m doing now what I have always wanted to be doing. It’s very exciting and I love every detail of it because it’s so personal.”

And the succession is assured for generations to come, with his son’s first son born earlier this year.

As he takes up residence at Raynham, Charles is passionate about everything from the flamboyant décor and fragile 17th Century furniture, to that unparalleled family archive. He is even protective of the hall’s ghost who featured in a famous photograph from the 1930s. “She has been here a lot longer than we have,” he says, amusement in his bright blue eyes. “Everything is still here, and taken care of.”

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