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Wolterton Hall is a masterclass in how to restore grand country houses

The interiors and grounds of Wolterton Hall, a stunning 1741 Palladian mansion in the English countryside, have been painstakingly restored to their original beauty

Wolterton Hall is one of the four great Whig power houses of Norfolk. Built in 1741 by Horatio Walpole, the 40,000-square-foot mansion sits majestically within a 500-acre park, complete with eight acres of walled gardens and a 10-acre lake.

Peter Sheppard and his partner Keith Day bought Wolterton Park in 2016 and set about restoring the hall and the six other estate houses to their former glory. “It was somewhat ridiculous to buy what in reality is a palace,” says Sheppard, “but we thought it would be a great project.”

Though there had been a roof fire in the early 1950s, the roof had already been repaired and the rest of the house was relatively undamaged. “All the architraves, shutters and locks were intact, including the carved walnut doors given by Queen Caroline. This meant rewiring and putting in bathrooms was quite easy,” says Sheppard.

It was somewhat ridiculous to buy what in reality is a palace, but we thought it would be a great project.

Peter Sheppard, co-owner, Wolterton Park

“However, the big difference between a stately home and a large country house is the state rooms, created for maximum spectacle and to receive archdukes and kings – and we have eight of them, 20 feet high, connected by a great noble staircase. You can’t furnish a stately home with domestic-sized furniture – everything has to be huge – chandeliers twice the size and 10 times the cost, vast tapestries and carpets, William Kent-type console tables and marble heads of emperors. 

“You also use a lot more gold. Horace, Horatio’s nephew who lived at Strawberry Hill, bemoaned the fact that his uncle didn’t spend enough on gold leaf compared to Houghton or Holkham. So, we starting buying gilded lamps and things that would look vulgar in an ordinary home but work beautifully at Wolterton. We bought two daybeds from Powderham Castle designed by James Wyatt and regilded them and placed them in the Venetian room with its yellow silk walls.” Sheppard and Day continue to keep a beady eye on auctions, buying as much as they can with a Walpole connection – right down to an original ambassadorial mustard-pot, which once belonged to Horatio.

The sumptuous, richly furnished state rooms are connected by austere corridors. “Wolterton is Palladian, with a lot of symmetry and classical detail, and we were inspired by San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice,” says Sheppard. So, staircases and hallways are painted in plain stone, allowing only the main rooms to have colour, carpets or pictures.

Rich colour and period decor in an East Wing drawing room at Wolterton Hall in effect Magazine
Rich colour and period decor in an East Wing drawing room

Originally, portraits hung on the staircase but now, 35 paintings are in one first-floor room: “It’s like the headmaster’s study in Harry Potter, with everyone in the pictures talking to each other,” says Sheppard. What used to be Lady Walpole’s office (which had “horrible” blue, grey and pink vinyl wallpaper) is now Sheppard’s, and has a collection of Bloomsbury pictures. 

While the state rooms have been restored in traditional palatial style, the bedrooms are an eclectic mix. The top floor was already laid out with 11 bedrooms with dressing rooms, which were sensitively converted into ensuite bathrooms without doing anything drastic. “It’s important to have really good bathrooms,” says Sheppard, “and we smile when we see aristos nosing around with envy.” 

Every bathroom has a power shower without any cubicles or glass screens, and many have cast-iron baths with underfloor heating. “We also have a very posh state loo off the marble hall,” says Sheppard. “It’s made from the scagliola Sienna yellow Tuscan columns we designed for our drawing room in our Robert Adams house on Fitzroy Square.”

You can’t furnish a stately home with domestic-sized furniture – everything has to be huge

Peter Sheppard

When it came to decorating the bedrooms, Sheppard and Day turned to Watts 1874. of Westminster, which has been specialising in textiles, wallpapers and tapestries since 1874. “Day has a dark green panelled bedroom but mine has aquamarine Chinoiserie wallpaper with birds and flowers, and it’s like waking up in a garden,” enthuses Sheppard. “It feels totally hand-painted – you can’t see the repeats.”

With every bedroom different, the original earl’s bedroom is the only one decorated in Mid-century Modern style (and it was chosen as Boris Johnson’s Downing Street bedroom in Michael Winterbottom’s TV drama This England with Kenneth Branagh).

The kitchen proved a little more of a headache. Originally, it had been in the East Wing, which is now let out, so Sheppard and Day decided to move it to a corner by the back door with windows on three sides.

“A fitted kitchen can present a big issue with a Grade I-listed building,’ says Sheppard, “so we designed individual units with a big sink and two huge dressers, keeping to Palladian principles. We didn’t want an Aga as it says ‘rustic country house’ so instead, there’s a great Regency marble fireplace, more fitting to the palace that this house really is.”

Now, their beautiful Smallbone kitchen is the winner of Country Life’s Kitchen of the Year Award – but that’s just one award they’ve won. Just seven years after purchasing Wolterton, Sheppard and Day have won numerous awards, including Sotheby’s Restoration of the Year award, Historic Houses’ Restoration award and Georgian Group’s Conservation of a Country House award. Few people have the means to tackle a vast, important historic house with such flair, but Sheppard and Day’s scrupulous attention to detail has more than paid off. Wolterton Park now stands as a majestic monument, not just to its proud history but to the care and respect its owners have shown for the house’s heritage. More than that, Wolterton is a magnificent reflection of the talent, design skills and sheer tenacity of its owners, who deserve every single award.

Read more: Interiors | Antiques | Vintage | Design | Country Houses | Restoration | UK