It’s been a long drive home from North Yorkshire today, but (after a welcome cup of tea!) I have unpacked the laptop so I can finish off the week’s blogging while it is all fresh in the mind. Nunnington Hall was the second visit yesterday and is only around 9 miles from Rievaulx Terrace so the two properties are a good combination, not least because they are so very different from each other.
There has been a major residence at Nunnington since 1249 but the current house is based largely on a Tudor property built in the mid-1500s and then updated considerably in the late-1600s by Ranald and then Richard Graham. Further changes were made over the years and then the Hall was neglected for a while, serving only as a sporting lodge while in the ownership of the Rutson family in the mid-1800s. It was the most recent owners – Margaret (née Rutson) and Ronald Fife – who turned Nunnington into a comfortable family home in the 1920s, while also employing the Arts & Crafts architect Walter Brierley to return many parts of the property to their 17th century appearance. So, it is their story that is told in the rooms today. The house was left to the Trust in 1952 but Margaret’s daughter and her family continued to live in the house until 1978 when they moved down the road into the village.
While several families made their mark on Nunnington over the years, it is interesting that these same people also made their mark in the wider world and there are a few colourful stories attached to the Hall. In Tudor times, the house was owned by the parents of the future queen, Catherine Parr. It is thought to be her brother William who built the first rendering of the existing hall but it was forfeited to the Crown when he became embroiled in the plot to bring Lady Jane Grey to the throne. Moving on to 1644, during the Civil War, the then owner Thomas Norcliffe gave the property up as a billet for Parliamentary troops, so this was perhaps unsurprisingly a destructive period for the house. The Graham family came along next and were about as lucky as William Parr when it came to choosing sides in regal feuding. They were staunch Jacobites so Richard Graham, who became 1st Viscount Preston due to his support of James II, later found himself in hot water when he conspired against William and Mary to restore the Stuarts to the crown, spending a couple of spells in the Tower of London. Both William Parr and Richard Graham escaped their various schemes with their heads still on their shoulders though, so perhaps they were lucky after all!
A walk around Nunnington includes features that reflect back to several of the former owners. While the Fife family furnishings and photos are prevalent, the significant tapestries on show were thought to have been acquired by Richard, Lord Preston, while he was ambassador at the Court of Versailles, and are important examples made in Brussels in the 17th century. There is currently a major conservation project underway to clean and repair the tapestries, which is set to cost tens of thousands of pounds over several years. We spoke at some length to one of the volunteers who told us what the process involved, including a trip to Belgium, the only place where there are frames large enough to support the tapestries during steam cleaning. Meanwhile, there is also clear – if unsavoury – evidence of Nunnington’s sporting past within the house: although it was the Rutsons who used the house specifically as a sporting lodge, Ronald Fife clearly continued the practice and the walls of the Stone Hall, through which you enter the house, are decorated with the results of his various hunting kills… or as the volunteer told us: ‘Colonel Fife was responsible for this carnage’!
While the personal stories always fascinate me (and did so again in this case), I didn’t find Nunnington all that appealing as a house as it felt a bit plain and dark (although the darkness was exacerbated by the typical light management measures needed to protect the textiles… grumble, grumble!). Having said that, there were a couple of bright and airy surprises along the way, including Mrs Fife’s Bedroom, while the Oak Hall and Great Staircase were both fairly dramatic and imposing.
Moving outside the house, the garden is not vast but still offers a tranquil walk or a casual game of croquet. The orchards on both sides of the main lawn were in full blossom for my visit so that was beautiful, but I was a week or two early for the iris garden. There is also a terrace of herbaceous borders and a rose garden, while visitors can also sit alongside the river in the quiet tea garden, at least it would have been quiet but for the squawking crows overhead… I found that a cream tea helped to overcome that annoyance! And speaking of squawking, the garden is also home to several peacocks, which always add a touch of class to any garden.
Nunnington was only the second of the week’s properties to have a second-hand bookshop but it was another excellent one that required some serious browsing. Saving the best for last though, the highlight of the entire visit for me was the Carlisle Collection of miniature rooms in the attic exhibition space. Gifted to the Trust by Mrs Carlisle in 1970, and housed at Nunnington since 1981, the rooms are made to a scale of around one-eighth of actual size and pay amazing attention to detail. There are rooms that might be found in a stately home, e.g. a music room, a picture gallery, a Palladian hall, etc., but also more unusual workshops and even an antique shop. For me, these were well worth the visit by themselves and I have returned home with an urge to start crafting… mind you, it seems that much of the Carlisle furniture was created by trained furniture craftsmen who had to make their own tools to handle the size requirements. So, it could be that mini furniture-making is a tad beyond my skillset.
Highlights: The Carlisle Collection of miniatures; tapestry conservation insights
Refreshments: Spinach, cheese and sweet potato flan with new potatoes, salad and coleslaw; bubbly elderflower; cream tea (we tried both the waitress-service tearoom in the house for lunch and then the tea garden for an outside experience in the afternoon)
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood from the second-hand bookshop