“Wolterton is classical and austere, standing aloof across a wide park.” Writer Simon Jenkins visited the house in 2003 when it was empty. Its future now looks much brighter with new owners.
It was a significant moment in April 2016, when Peter Sheppard and Keith Day, from London, bought Wolterton Hall at Wickmere in Norfolk. The sale might not have attracted much publicity, but it ended a link with the famous Walpole family going back 295 years.
The Walpoles had abandoned Wolterton, moving to Mannington Hall. No one lived in the mansion, it was closed-up and shuttered. By the turn of this century it was being used as estate offices. “Vacuum cleaners, word processors, fax machines and inevitable modern alarm systems, rather than elegant furnishings of earlier periods, are nonetheless a real continuation of the changing life of this house,” said Lord Walpole at the time.¹
Its sale probably had something to do with the death of Robert Henry Montgomerie Walpole (born 1913), 9th Baron Walpole of Walpole, 7th Baron Walpole of Wolterton, who died in 1989. Taxes due on his death weren’t settled until 2014, his son, Robert Horatio Walpole, 10th Baron Walpole, choosing to remain at Mannington and putting Wolterton Hall on the market.
Wolterton Hall was built in 1721 by Horatio Walpole, 1st Baron Walpole, politician, diplomat and younger brother of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister. The architect was Thomas Ripley, Superintendent at Robert Walpole’s Houghton Hall, and believed to be his only surviving major work. Its construction wasn’t completed until 1742.
The house suffered in the nineteenth century when Horatio William Walpole (1813-1894), 4th Earl of Orford moved out, and might well have fallen victim to demolition had it not been for his son, Robert Horace Walpole (1854 – 1931) and his American wife, who returned and restored it in 1905.
Like many country houses, Wolterton Hall suffered at the hands of the military during World War Two, not helped by a devastating fire in December 1952.
The blaze had broken out on the top floor while Lord and Lady Walpole and small daughter, Phillida, were at lunch. It quickly spread to the roof and was still burning four hours later. “My Butler, Mr Crookshank, found parts of the top floor in flames. I think we have saved all of value, but the hall itself appears to be ruined,” said Lord Walpole, who had succeeded to the title in 1931 .
Sixteen appliances from eight fire brigades had fought the blaze which had been confined to the attic and second floor but hadn’t prevented parts of the roof falling in. There was also damage to the State Rooms below caused by water from the firemen’s hoses.²
The property was restored, but the Walpoles had long since relocated to Mannington Hall.
Events were held at the hall including concerts, antique and textile fairs, and outdoor events in the park. Wolterton also became a popular wedding venue but attempts to place it in the hands of museums, English Heritage and the National Trust proved unsuccessful.³
The purchase of Wolterton Hall by Sheppard Day in 2016 (with a speculated cost of £10 million) placed the house under experts with a property pedigree. The duo had previously restored Hales Hall in South Norfolk, as well as the Friary in Westminster and Fitzroy Square. One of their first tasks was to get four holiday lets up and running to help with the daily costs.
“The biggest challenge with refurbishing Wolterton is money, you end up putting a ‘0’ on the end of everything,” said Peter Day in 2019, as refurbishment continues. “The hard thing is trying to generate an income stream; this is necessary in order for buildings like this to survive.”⁴
The pair intend to live at Wolterton Hall themselves, but they have long-term plans to let the house as a whole or for special occasions. The wishes of the 10th Baron Walpole to open the estate to the public might now become a reality.
¹ Simon Jenkins ‘England’s Thousand Best Houses’ (2003).
² Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer (6 Dec 1952), Birmingham Daily Gazette (6 Dec 1952).
³ Eastern Daily Press (19 Apr 2016)
⁴ Eastern Daily Press (2 May 2019).