Historic England has recently upgraded Northwold Manor from Grade 2 to Grade 2*. Norfolk resident Liz Betts, who lived there in her early childhood, visited in 2010. She told me how she and her siblings have since witnessed the house being rescued from the brink of ruin and meticulously restored.
In 2010 my younger brother Robert and his wife came to visit us. We were planning to visit some of the places we could remember from our childhood. We started in Northwold, between Thetford and Downham Market, where Robert had been born at the manor in 1954. Our family had moved there from Chiswick in 1952, when I was two, only to move out again three years later. Sadly our parents died in the 1960s, without ever explaining to us why they had moved from London to rural Norfolk.
Seeking out our much loved childhood home
I have few memories of living at the manor but I remember that my father kept mink in cages at the bottom of the garden. They were bred for the fur trade, mink being at the time one of the most popular and fashionable fur choices. I also remember the ducks and chickens we kept and the little cat I used to dress up and put in my dolls pram. Our older sister Jacqueline wasn’t with us that day in 2010, but she had often told us of her happy memories of living there, having egg hunts in the garden and going to Northwold Norman School.
It came as quite a shock in 2010 to find the manor almost derelict. It is directly opposite St Andrew’s Church, which was open, so we went in and received a warm welcome from the ladies who were arranging flowers for Easter Day. Amazingly, one of the more senior ladies remembered our family living at the Manor House and had fond memories of my mother, which I found very moving. She gave us directions to the overflow cemetery as we wanted to visit the grave of our brother Charles, who had died aged only three weeks. She also suggested we talk to a close neighbour, who knew quite a bit about the current owner.
When we met the neighbour, not only did he tell us of the wilful neglect of the property by its owner, but he also offered to let us “trespass” in the grounds of the house through an opening in the garden fence – an offer too good to refuse. The owner had several other properties in the UK but lived abroad and rarely visited Norfolk. The house was apparently used for storage. Neighbours feared that it would become so dilapidated that it would have to be demolished and the site redeveloped. Most of the villagers were up in arms and had formed a group trying to save the manor.
When we entered the garden (roughly 2/3 of an acre) it was like a wilderness, completely overgrown. There were old cars, caravans, sheds and scrap iron littering the gardens we had known in our childhood. There were so many trees, it was like a small wood. I have since learned that 26 mature trees had to be taken down: alder, acacia, ash and sycamore, which had seeded over 50 years and, left untouched, had grown to maturity.
Back from the brink
We later learned that after our family had moved to Necton in 1955, no one had occupied the manor for 60 years and it had progressively deteriorated. The fact that it had been Grade II Listed in 1951 gave it no protection.
In 2013 the condition of the house was so bad that King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Council compulsorily acquired it. The manor’s saviours came just in time. An architectural historian and his wife fell in love with the manor house and bought it in 2014, when it was “approaching terminal collapse”, with dry rot “absolutely everywhere”. The windows had been boarded up, cutting out natural light, and there was no working electricity. The roof was held up by 17 acrow props. The entire house and the two “cottage” ranges forming the eastern courtyard had been turned over to storing secondhand furniture and a miscellany of domestic chattels acquired by the previous owner at local auctions. They were solidly packed, not just from floor to ceiling in every room, but even in the cramped attic spaces. Many still bore the auction lot labels, which suggested that some of the items had been stored in 1978 and remained untouched thereafter. There were dead pigeons in the attics and a substantial amount of bird lime. Tiles were falling off the roof into the road.
Signs of hope
In August 2014, my brother proposed another visit to Northwold. My daughter and her husband came too. At the time, we knew about the compulsory purchase, but not about the subsequent sale. We were pleasantly surprised to see signs of building work when we approached the front of the house. There was a builder on the roof of the cottage and my son-in-law, himself a carpenter, asked who had bought the property. We explained our connection to the house. The carpenter said the new owners were on site and he would introduce us.
The owners had been tracing the history of the house and were interested to learn about the time we lived there. They had established that the owner prior to my father had inherited Northwold Manor in 1950 from her widowed aunt, but had never occupied it. Being very young at that time, my brother and I had few memories to pass on, so we put them in touch with our elder sister Jacqueline, who was able to give them valuable information and an insight into living in the house in the early 1950s, and could offer a collection of black and white photos from the time. After our family left in March 1955, it seems the house passed through the hands of a succession of property speculators and developers. The house had been purchased in 1963 by the family of the absentee owner, who lived most of the time in southern Africa, while retaining a house in London, and occasionally camping at the manor in the summer holidays.
Now Grade 2* listed
Since our first meeting nearly ten years ago, the present owners have generously invited all of us on several occasions to lunch to see the renovation: they were bringing the house back to life with meticulous attention to detail. In June this year the house and garden were almost finished. It was amazing to see what they had achieved.
This lovingly restored house, built between the 16th and 19th centuries, is now Grade 2* listed. It is described as an “exceptional example of a large, multiphased structure developed over five hundred years, providing examples of English architectural tradition covering half a millennium of history in a single site”. Its future is now secured for generations to come.