Melford Hall is one of the NT’s late openers (1pm) so arriving early we took the opportunity to walk across Long Melford green to have a look at the very impressive Holy Trinity church. In hindsight, it would have been more interesting to have stopped off there after our visit as a number of the hall’s previous inhabitants are interred in the church and graveyard. Mind you, I wasn’t really au fait with who was who until I got home and read the guidebook and there was no way I was then going to drive an hour and a half back into the depths of Suffolk just to seek out some graves!
In fact, my one real grouch about Melford Hall was the lack of introductory or guided talks to put some context on the different families and influential owners over the centuries. The room guides were more than usually enthusiastic about imparting their knowledge (slightly too much so on occasion) and are maybe encouraged to be so in order to help visitors get a handle on the place. However, it was very difficult to make any kind of cohesive picture out of the jigsaw pieces of information passed on by different volunteers in different rooms.
As a result, I would strongly recommend that you get yourself a guidebook. Here, though, there are decisions to be made as two guidebooks are available at the moment. The first is a traditional guidebook with information on each room and a more detailed analysis of the house’s various owners at the back. I took this one with me around the house so I could read as I went along but I could just as easily have stuck to the laminated sheets available in each room as they give a fairly good summary of the most significant items to look at. The other guidebook was actually something of a revelation and made an extremely interesting and enjoyable read when I got home. Entitled ‘Fortune, Fate & Family’, this is said to be the first NT guidebook written by volunteers and it is presented in a very different way from the usual guides, unfolding Melford’s history as a story but still managing to include photos of important artefacts and paintings. I only wish I could have read it before I went into the house or that someone could have summarised it into an introductory talk.
So here’s my own (slightly long!) summary of some of the more interesting events and characters in Melford’s history. Initially an old abbots’ manor, it passed into the crown’s hands after the dissolution of the monasteries and was then given to lawyer and politician William Cordell. Cordell was the Speaker in Mary Tudor’s parliament and was interestingly the last Catholic to hold this position until Michael Martin in the current century. He was also a very wealthy individual and it is likely that the old abbots’ building was considerably altered during his tenure. Old plans suggest that there was once an east wing on the building to complete the square and on your way in you will be able to see bricked up doorways in the turrets that would now lead you perilously into fresh air.
Notably, Cordell entertained Queen Elizabeth I in 1578 during her royal progress to Norwich and a stained glass window on the Gallery commemorates this. (Note to self: I must get around to compiling a list of all the properties visited by royalty. Melford has two other royal visits after this in the 20th century so is perhaps the most regal of all my properties to date.)
Without the family tree in the guidebook, I challenge anyone to follow the Cordell family succession, which jumped around a lot to nephews, cousins and other branches of the family and led to Savages and Firebraces entering the equation through marriage. After William Cordell came his sister Jane and then her grandson Thomas Savage (whose wife incidentally had 19 children over 28 years, poor soul!) He also built the banqueting house that forms a pretty backdrop to the lawn and herbaceous borders.
The Civil War rears its ugly head at this point in the story and the Savages’ close connection to the court of Charles I became a curse. Thomas had died a few years before the war and his wife Elizabeth was already in debt, when in 1642 the house was plundered and defaced by rioters, leaving a repair bill that would make a grown man cry. This led to the end of the Savage years and Melford Hall was finally sold back to the Cordells in 1649, transferring across to another branch of the family.
Several Cordells later, it dropped back into female hands with Margaret Cordell who later married Sir Charles Firebrace. When he inherited, their son Sir Cordell Firebrace made big changes to the house including replacing the Tudor windows with Georgian ones and adding rococo-style reception rooms. Ironically, the Firebrace rooms were not actually braced against fire at all as they were in the part of the house most damaged by a serious blaze in 1942. I actually wish I could have jumped back in time to the years before the fire as the old Cordell Room pictured in black and white in the guidebook had some really lovely plasterwork on the walls and ceiling.
In 1786, the Cordell-Savage-Firebrace years were finally over and the house was sold to Sir Harry Parker. The Parker family had a strong naval history and although none of the naval heroes – including Sir Harry’s father and brother – ever lived at Melford, their legacy is everywhere. Harry’s father, Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker captured the Santissima Trinidad Spanish galleon in 1762, securing for himself a large part of the cargo, which was worth millions (in today’s money). Many of the spoils are on display at Melford, including a (frankly hideous) ivory carving of the Christ child, a (very attractive) ebony and ivory box from India and a variety of Chinese porcelain, including my favourite items in the house, a pair of white and orange Chinese vases that grace the main stairs.
Meanwhile, Harry’s brother Admiral Sir Hyde Parker fought in the American War of Independence and a series of naval paintings commemorating this are on display in the library. He was also in command of the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801 with Nelson as his second-in-command and documents and pictures related to this can also be seen at Melford Hall.
The second Parker to own the house – Harry’s son William – employed architect Thomas Hopper to update the house, creating the neo-classical hall and library. The library was a highlight for me with its scagliola columns, neat lines of books, matching chaise longues, curved door that closes to fit seamlessly into the bookcases and smaller octagonal reading room at the end. Hopper also installed heating in the downstairs rooms making Melford one of the earliest country houses to have central heating (of sorts!). He then returned in 1840 when Sir William’s brother Sir Hyde Parker employed him to add a grand saloon on the north wing (later destroyed in the fire). An interesting little nugget about this particular Hyde Parker was that he travelled extensively and is said to have pioneered fly fishing in Norway (or Sweden, depending on which guidebook you believe!)
Another couple of generations on, the house came to the Reverend Sir William Hyde Parker whose wife Ethel Leech was a cousin of Beatrix Potter, which is a fitting link to my recent visits in the Lake District. Beatrix visited Melford regularly and her bedroom has been recreated for visitors to look at, complete with the quaint little turret room where she would keep her menagerie of pets who accompanied her on her travels. Having seen some of the original Beatrix Potter paintings in Hawkshead, Cumbria, I found more examples on the corridor walls at Melford. In addition, there are some lovely Potter place settings on the table in the Dining Room, with original paintings and cute little comments.
Not for the first time, I have thought about maybe putting together a flow chart of all the diverse connections between Trust properties, but I think it might become too complicated to follow! After all, in yet another link, the Hyde Parkers also lived at Hill Top in Cumbria for a year during WWII when the army commandeered Melford.
It was actually a group of army officers that was to blame for the devastating fire at Melford in 1942, which left the north wing gutted and the west wing roofless. The Hyde Parkers would probably have said that it would never have happened if the navy had been in residence instead but we’ll never know!
The incumbent Hyde Parkers during the war were the reverend’s son William and his Danish wife Ulla (who was from Copenhagen so I’m not sure how the conversation about old Admiral Hyde Parker and his bombardment would have gone… awkward!) Ulla Hyde Parker certainly left her mark on the house after the fire, with the current Dining Room, for example, featuring a very Scandinavian feel, with pale polished stone floors and glass tops on the white-painted side tables that were gilt before they were damaged in the fire. Don’t worry, though, it’s not an Ikea dining room! It still has the feel of a stately home, it’s simply brighter and airier than we might be used to in our historic houses.
Financially crippled by death duties, it was Ulla Hyde Parker who first opened the house to visitors in 1953 and it was later given to the National Trust by her son, Richard, in 1960. Richard and his wife Jean still live in the south wing to this day, taking the Parker residency into its third century.
Just a couple more things to mention: firstly, make sure you have a look at the Catwyk on the Rhine (1662) painting in the dining room (my favourite in the house). It is a wintry scene of a church and villagers skating on the frozen river and as an avid follower of a local ice hockey team, I was delighted to see that one of the villagers has what looks like a hockey stick in his hands. Although organised ice hockey wasn’t invented until the 19th century in Canada, it’s great to see that the Europeans were giving it a go long before this.
And finally, if you visit this summer, don’t try to find the iris and agapanthus extravaganza that the introductory leaflet promises. We managed to pin their location down to the bed alongside the moat… which is currently completely empty!
Highlights: Library, Chinese vases
Refreshments: Tea and Bakewell tart (a small, pleasant tearoom but a fairly long walk with your cake if you want to sit outside or in the overflow Park Room)
Purchase(s): Two guidebooks
NT Connections: Through Beatrix Potter, Melford is connected to Wray Castle, Hill Top and the Beatrix Potter Gallery