The National Trust is a big supporter of walking so well-marked trails are part and parcel of many properties and during this challenge I have felt that I have sometimes missed out on these either through time pressures or the lack of a willing walking partner. This time though, I arrived at Blickling with someone who I knew was a good walking companion and who had also thought to bring their walking boots along for the ride. As a result, we decided to start our visit in the park and go to have a look at the mausoleum, which houses the remains of the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire (owner of Blickling from 1756 to 1793) and his two wives. In the end, we actually combined two of Blickling’s recommended trails as we missed out the last section of the Mausoleum Walk and tagged on about two-thirds of the Lake Walk for an estimated total of about 5km.
Although the leaves on the trees are yet to turn completely, it is still a good time of year for a walk and my companion collected a few sweet chestnuts and acorns on the route. However, she wasn’t quite so thrilled about being hit on the head by a falling sweet chestnut seed pod and we nearly missed the mausoleum completely while I was busy inspecting her head for bleeding puncture wounds! Fortunately, though, we did eventually spot the giant and very obvious pyramid to our left. Modelled on a Roman pyramidal tomb, it is certainly a fairly bizarre structure to find nestled amid the trees in the Norfolk countryside.
By this point in our walk, we were yet to even catch a glimpse of Blickling Hall and were starting to wonder if it actually existed, but finally as we came to the shores of the lake, we spotted it in the distance. There are lovely views of the house as you follow the lakeside path but you do have to walk a lot further before you can get at it as a ha-ha prevents visitors from entering the formal gardens from that side. There were a few grumbles as two tired walkers had to circumnavigate three sides of the gardens before reaching the stable block and main drive. But we did get a look at the backs of the Temple and Orangery on the way.
After a brief break for lunch, it was time to head inside and find out more about Blickling and its occupants. I did a little preliminary research by reading the timeline in the guidebook and the contrast to my previous visit struck me immediately: I had gone from Coughton Court where Throckmorton children seemed to appear with alarming regularity to Blickling Hall where there were often no traditional heirs and the house passed from father to daughter or uncle to nephew on several occasions.
One thing I did know about Blickling before I arrived was its connection to the Boleyn family and the belief that Anne Boleyn was probably born there. However, this was before the current house was built so the real story of Blickling begins in 1619 when Sir Henry Hobart (1st Baronet) bought the estate and started building. The construction took quite some time and poor Sir Henry died before it was completed. The property was passed down the Hobart line, which included another colourful Henry – the 4th Baronet – who was killed fighting a duel. This Sir Henry was also an important figure in the court of King Charles II and I noticed on one of the information sheets in the house that Charles had visited in 1671 so that’s one for my list of regal visits. Interestingly, in the 11th century, King Harold had a manor house on this site but I can’t really count him as a visitor to the existing property, unless he appears in phantom form of course. There are actually many ghost stories attached to Blickling, but most are related to poor old headless Anne Boleyn and not the more ancient king with an arrow in his eye.
Moving on from the quarrelsome 4th Baronet, we come to his son, Sir John, who inherited at the age of five and later upped the family’s titled status to earldom when he became the 1st Earl of Buckinghamshire. It was this John Hobart who also inherited the large library of books that is now housed in the Long Gallery and is one of the Trust’s most important collections. His unhappily married sister Henrietta is another interesting personage in the story as she was the long-time mistress of King George II and her portrait can be seen in one of the drawing rooms.
The 2nd Earl (whose mausoleum we had visited earlier) was responsible for the more ‘modern’ state rooms in the house, including the striking Peter the Great Room just off the Long Gallery. After serving as ambassador at Catherine the Great’s court in St Petersburg for some time, John received a huge tapestry of Peter as a leaving gift from Catherine and not having the right space for it at Blickling he simply built one. Sir John’s commission as ambassador came from George II so it’s possible that Aunt Henrietta’s pillow talk may have included some familial recommendations.
The transition from the Long Gallery to the Peter the Great Room is a clear demonstration of the variety on offer at Blickling. The two rooms could not be more different and come from completely separate eras so moving from one to the other definitely feels like walking through time.
Jumping through the 19th Century – during which time the property came into the hands of the Marquesses of Lothian (via an uncle to nephew shift) – we come to the man who gave the Blickling Estate to the nation. Much of the information currently presented in the house is focused on its life under the ownership of Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess. Although he didn’t spend a huge amount of time at Blickling, he did use it to entertain many social and political greats, including the likes of Prime Minister Nehru of India, the British PM Stanley Baldwin, Queen Mary and Lord and Lady Astor. Lord Lothian is described in the guidebook as ‘one of the most influential British politicians you’ve never heard of’ and after learning more about him at Blickling I can only agree. First of all, while ambassador in Washington, he was instrumental in encouraging America’s support of our war efforts during WWII as well as laying the groundwork for the USA’s eventual entry into the fight. He also helped the National Trust to start up the Country Houses Scheme that allowed the transfer of mansion houses to the Trust in lieu of death duties before leading the way by example through his bequest of Blickling.
Once I had finished in the house, I only had time for a very quick walk around the formal gardens, including the parterre and double borders – certainly not at their best in October but still with a surprising amount of colour on display. With time running out, I then had to choose between the RAF Oulton exhibition in the restaurant wing (which commemorates the 1939-1949 period when the RAF requisitioned the property) and the secondhand bookshop. I say I had to choose but it wasn’t really a choice as I can never pass up the chance of looking in a bookshop – I find it almost physically impossible to walk past the door!
When I walked through this door though, I noticed the map on the wall directing the shopper to the different sections and realised I had seriously underestimated the time needed to do justice to this particular shop. It was described as ‘large’ in the NT handbook but this is a definite understatement: ‘enormous’, ‘titanic’ or even perhaps ‘gargantuan’ would be a better description. In the limited time available though I still scooped up three books so perhaps it was a good thing I didn’t have more time – the bank balance is grateful!
Highlights: Long Gallery, Peter the Great Room, Mausoleum
Refreshments: Smoked cheese, ham and tomato panini
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Belinda’ by Maria Edgeworth; ‘Rogue Herries’ by Hugh Walpole; ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters, all from the simply enormous secondhand bookshop
Companion(s): The Silver Girls