The sun was shining and we’d heard the snowdrops were a marvel to see, so we gathered our wellies, wet weather gear and changes of clothing (it is March after all) and headed west to visit Oxburgh Hall.
A fortified Manor House with 15th Century Gatehouse, Oxburgh stands in 70 acres of beautiful gardens and woodland.
Owned today by the National Trust (though the Bedingfield family, descendents of Sir Edmund Bedingfield who built the Hall in 1482, still live there), Oxburgh Hall is in incredible shape for such an old lady. Especially when you consider that her origins are strongly Catholic, which was not always something to be heavily publicised (hence the Priests Hole – more about that later).
Only this year the National Trust have completed a project to restore the water levels which keep it standing.
The mansion is surrounded by its original moat, which provides protection for the foundations. During 2013 staff noticed that the water levels in the moat were dropping at noticeable levels as the River Gadder, which feeds the moat, has lost water due to leaks in its man-made engineering structures in My Lady’s Wood, which have assisted managing the water levels in the past.
The work involved repairs to the Gadder’s brick weir and sluice, the removal of 1000 cubic metres of silt from the river bed, and has taken nearly three months. It has also enabled the National Trust to partly restore My Lady’s Wood to more like its original 19th Century design – including opening further breathtaking views of the Hall. The improvements have also provided a water-way for otter to visit Oxburgh, as well as a backdrop for stunning displays of snowdrops.
As you arrive, you’re instantly wowed by the Hall and it’s moat, before which is the Parterre (a formal garden constructed from symmetrical beds). Described in the pamphlet as a ‘Summer showcase’, the Parterre is pretty even in early March.
We were distracted momentarily by an excellent looking climbing tree (denoted by a ‘No. 1’ sign, referring to the National Trusts’s ’50 Things To Do Before You’re 11 3/4’, the first of which is to climb a tree) and then headed over the bridge to the Hall.
Allowed to stroll freely through the Hall (save for a few roped-off areas), it is amazing how close you’re allowed to get to so many historical artifacts. This National Trust are a brave bunch!
In every room is a Guide who can help answer any questions and there are clear signs of what can be touched, what is far too fragile to touch and where you might like to sit (as opposed to ‘Please do not sit here’). History here has been made enjoyable and accessible, with the National Trust presumably assuming that their visitors are largely responsible enough to control their children and themselves. It creates a nice sense of freedom and trust, and serves to bond you more with the surroundings.
The rooms inside the Hall are fabulous – mostly large and elaborately decorated with fittings from a variety of ages. Larger-than-life paintings or tapestries adorn most walls and rooms such as the Dining Room have been staged to show what life was like once upon a time.
I say that most of the rooms are large… there are a couple of nooks that are worth a peek.
The most obvious is the Priests Hide. This very well hidden secret chamber existed to shelter the Catholic Priest of the Estate if the Pursuivants (Priest-Hunters) came looking during times when Catholics were persecuted by law.
A tiny entrance leads to a larger hiding place complete with a seat and shelving. However, the guide explained that it was by no means luxurious, given that it had to be pitch black and might be occupied for up to a fortnight at a time.
He told us, they know that Oxburgh was searched twice. When I asked “Was the Priest ever found?” the guide replied “Well, the Family are still here”. Being a Catholic Priest attracted a heavy penalty. Hiding one on purpose was presumably considered even worse.
We also took the winding staircase (it seemed to go on forever!) to the roof. Despite a wholly rum smell (“pigeons” we were told) and slight nervousness about the Little Men leaping to their doom, it offered breathtaking views across the rolling countryside around the Hall.
After the Hall, we enjoyed lunch in the cafe (formerly the Servant’s Kitchen – it felt very ‘downstairs at Downton Abbey’) and then headed off on the Woodland Trail (taking in “The Wilderness” and the “My Lady’s Wood”).
The Trail was in large parts flanked by carpets of snowdrops, and also featured a huge pile of fossilised Oyster Shells (165M years old no less), a tiny Pet Graveyard with tiny Pet Graves (it’s on the pamphlet!) and a fairytale cottage that you can actually stay in (we told Little Man it was the Witches House out of Hansel and Gretel. Naughty us).
There is a crystal clear stream and plenty of space for compete reconnection to nature (not all wheelchair/buggy friendly, note. We took a toddler framed rucksack thing for Littlest Man. Even though he never actually went in it).
There are also formal gardens and a longer walk around Home Covert. We’ll return to tackle these another day as time was getting on.
And there’s so much reason to return soon. Oxburgh Hall is a beautiful place to visit and a real gem of an experience for all ages.
Throughout our visit we found the NT staff to be incredibly approachable and knowledgeable about the Hall (example: ask in the Queen’s bedroom about the origins of the phrase ‘Sleep tight’). They were friendly with the Little Men (2 and 5), offering stickers and trails that could be completed around the place.
The Hall itself offers unrivaled freedom – much more than most houses or castles we’ve visited, and is in superb shape throughout.
A day out in Norfolk we’d highly recommend.
Oxburgh Hall opens on Saturday 1st March, from Saturdays to Wednesdays, (seven days during school holidays) until November 2nd.
There are special events, workshops and walks throughout the year.
See the website www.nationaltrust.org.uk/oxburgh-hall for detailed opening information.
Oxborough, near Swaffham, Norfolk, PE33 9PS.