Wiveton is a hamlet on the north Norfolk coast, with a pub and a church and pretty brick houses set behind their walls and fences.
Wiveton Hall stands on the edge of the salt marshes with its back to the sea, muddy-creeked Blakeney to one side of it and Cley to the other. There has been a house on this site since 1280 but the present house dates from 1652. ‘The outside is the unusual bit, the Dutch gables, the flint, the H-plan, built by a merchant, the Giffords from Gloucester, close to their ports on the marshes which were then all tidal. And then you can see them losing their money with the fall in the price of grain, then the Edwardian heyday when it was a bang-up place,’ says Desmond MacCarthy.
Almost everything here was inherited from Desmond’s grandparents Primrose and Dick Buxton, who bought Wiveton in 1944. The Buxton’s beautified the house and improved its gardens and model farm. Chloe Buxton, their only child, met her future husband Michael MacCarthy when, ‘a Buxton relation of my mother’s married a Warre-Cornish cousin of my father’s.’ Now their son Desmond MacCarthy keeps everything going here. He is a gentleman farmer, managing Wiveton’s café, shop, holiday cottages and environmental farming. and an occasional TV star.
The paneled Hall is the axis of this house and doubles as a dining room. The kitchen is through the door on the left. ” The buff curtains in the, hall they’re from Chappel and Russell, put in by my mother Chloe. She’s a great one for not making a decision, more often, when she was younger she’d go and buy some new material and then the piece was just left draped over the back of something. What they really need is some bright lively material appliqued … on a fringe – that would be nice! Something to give it a jollier… lighter…’ Chloe, aged 101, now lives across the farmyard at Dairy Cottage.
Annabel Grey painted this mural of species of wild and water fowl found in Wiveton’s fields and woods and the marshes beyond.
The main staircase
Some left-over toys. Desmond and Tina’s children Edmund and Isabel are grown up.
In the Morning Room next door.
One of my favourite wallpapers, ‘Alken Wildfowlers,’ by Lewis and Wood in the Gun Room
The kitchen chimney piece, circa. 1907, part of the new building carried out by the Arts and Crafts architect Sir Guy Dawber, when a new wing was added to the house to cater for Edwardian shooting parties. Portraits of Desmond and Tina’s children.
Desmond’s father Michael was born a ‘Bloomsberry,’ to highbrow, literary parents who were the intimates of the Bells and the Wolfs. The photo shows Bloomsbury Group painter Roger Fry, Michael’s father ( and Desmond’s grandfather) the writer Desmond MacCarthy and the art historian Clive Bell, husband of the painter Vanessa Bell.
‘My Bloomsbury grandparents never came here, it was after their time. My parents weren’t aspirational, they were quite down to earth.’
Ted on the ebonised Regency sofa bought in a local farm sale by Desmond’s father for £8. ‘He wasn’t really an aesthete, he would just notice things.’
Desmond is extra proud of the handsome Soaneian Morning Room chimneypiece. ‘I made that fireplace. There was no mantelpiece there, it’s nice to have a mantelpiece. I found the uprights in a shed taken out from a bit of early panelling, and got a man to make the top. So that was clever!’
Ancestors, taxidermy and comfy sofas. Here one freezing night last November, Louise Guinness and Mary Killen ( now of Gogglebox fame) were kitted out by Desmond in heavy tweed overcoats, enabling them to endure the cold and watch the 10 o’clock news.
‘Are you the stylist?’ ‘Sometimes,’ he says, evasively.
Desmond generally wears some form of tweed. ‘ The Victorians, as we know, ruined things.’
Chickens on the bench outside Desmond’s mother’s house just across the yard, Dairy Cottage.
‘Gardening was my mother’s thing, she liked books, she read a lot, she was a very good cook. She brought back cuttings in her sponge bag from abroad as mementos of her holidays, a small white Cistus from the Sand dunes at Arcachon in France, Box from a damp picnic in Spain. An unusual oval leafed Box from a monastery in China and a prickly Cunninghamia tree a bit like a Monkey Puzzle, also from China.’
Beautiful Wiveton is a natural venue for shoots, and for ‘shoots.’ Emma Bridgewater, Toast, Brora…
The walled garden
Pumpkins getting ready for Halloween. Also a key supper ingredient, roasted.
‘With the help of Reggie Holman from Glandford, my mother kept the kitchen garden productive, pruning and taking cuttings have always been her greatest skills. At 93 she was still keeping roses, buddleia, and camellias all flowering well, pruning as she picked flowers for the house or the café, secateurs, clippers, and loppers were never far away. She has kept the more tender plants such as Myrtle Carpentaria and Jasmine (taken as a cutting from the Ritiro Park in Madrid) healthy for over 60 years.’
‘The white peaches were sweet, and gloriously juicy. If it was cold when the blossom was out my grandfather would go round with a horse’s tail on the end of a stick to aid the pollination.
The high walls which surround the kitchen garden, and which provide the shelter essential for successful vegetable cultivation, date from the 18th century.
Mulberry and vegetables. Someone was repairing the wall.
‘Every year the mulberry tree produced masses of fruit and then there were the figs, maybe it was the rambling fig trees that thrive in the hard stony ground sheltered by the walls that made my Greek grandmother love the place. We ate figs with my father in the early morning chilled by the dew and the best and sweetest were so ripe they were bursting.’
End of the summer season. Outside the Wiveton cafe.
‘My father thought farming was only something you did when you had retired, but it is a business here,’ Desmond says.
Inside the Wiveton cafe, business as usual throughout the autumn. Everything made here, and most of it grown or produced on the estate or locally.
More recently the gently filmed BBC2 documentary series, Normal for Norfolk (in which Desmond and Wiveton star) has bestowed its Midas touch, boosting annual turnover to more comfortable levels.
Wiveton’s rare breed outdoor-reared porkers, possibly Large Whites
Wiveton Song, composed by Giles Wood, and kindly supplied by Mary Killen, old friends of Desmond’s and the couple who bring the TV watching public joy each Friday on Gogglebox.
[To be sung to the tune of Sing a Song of Sixpence, ideally by a
man in a falsetto voice.]
Sing a song of Wiveton
The pigs have left the sty
Did you post those letters
On your way to Cley?
Reggie’s sorting rotten fruit
Desmond’s on the lawn
Do be careful of those curtains
They’re already torn.
Looking across the marshes and dykes to the windmill at Cley. The sea is to the left.
This shepherd’s hut might come in useful one day
Around the back of the house
‘Beachwatch,’ a carefully curated and colour-coded exhibition of jetsam and litter picked from local beaches. Twice a year the National Trust organises a litter pick along the coast here from Blakeney to Cley for ‘jetsam’, items thrown into the sea. In 2014 and 2015 over one hundred bin bags full were collected, sorted and the plastics, glass etc recycled. This exhibition was put on in one of Wiveton’s outbuildings.
In Wiveton’s Edwardian heyday, much change took place. The planting to the east of the house, and the sunken garden, date from this period, there was a tip-top dairy farm and a fruit farm. The estate employed no less than 7 gardeners then. Sir Guy Dawber was the architect responsible for the west wing, built in 1907-9,
The Sunk Garden.
And the principal front, the grey-faced Jacobean house with its flint façade that gleams silver under moonlight. “The great point is the beautiful knapped flint façade with its galleting, that is unusual and in the moonlight its very spectacular.’
This little nineteenth century painting found by Giles Wood in a junk shop, now hanging in the entrance hall, shows the principal front in the nineteenth century.
‘A painting in my possession from circa 1880, shows a hedge planted above a low haha at the edge of the lawn on the east front with the aim of combating the bitter north east wind. The painting was given to me by a friend who chanced upon it in the window of a junk shop in Aldeburgh in Suffolk.’
Potato sacks in the seventeenth century porch
And now, upstairs
Bedroom corridor, curtain fabric from Borderline.
A lesser guest bedroom with ancient paintwork, where the Highland Spring water is always chilled.
other end of the lesser guest bedroom
Greater guest bedroom,Chinoiserie lacquered tip-top table.
Chimney piece in greater guest bedroom
2 Oriental teapots and a tulip vase
Attic floor bedroom with Morris ‘Sussex’ rush sofa
Nature Valley Crunchy Canadian Maple Syrup bar.
All of these will come in useful one day
Nursery beds with matching Welsh blankets bedspreads
Junction of the bedroom corridor
Bedroom corridor. The trompe l’oeil Gothick wallpaper on this door to the attic was discovered under green baize.
‘Tina hung up the uniform and the children’s coats. Some of them we got out of boxes and cupboards and havent yet found a place for them or got around to putting them back. They hang there for old times sake.’
‘There are some rather good diplomatic corps trousers.’
The new wing bedroom corridor…
…gives a bird’s eye view down over the pantiled roofs, high flint garden walls and the ridge tiles of red brick outbuildings, the flat marshlands beyond and bird-rustling reed beds stretching over to the sea.
darling deep green Arts and Crafts tiles on the window sills
‘Upstairs there are lovely views of the roofs… But views are not particularly the thing.’
best bedroom in the ‘new’ wing
The bed that photographer and author Christopher Simon Sykes did not sleep in, and Roger Fry’s Bloomsbury oil painting.
The new wing corridor
Children’s dormitory bedroom with Cowboy wallpaper by Cath Kidson.
My favourite twin bedroom in the wing, Indian quilts.
Window seat in the ‘ballroom’ in the new wing
The new wing looking towards the old Billiard Room, now a Kitchen and Dining Room. ‘And its now come into its own because I rent out that wing of the house!’
‘Annabel Gray did the curtains and fabrics through there in the wing.’
Vanessa Bell’s Venice painting in the new wing Dining Room
Very pretty chandeliers that enhance the Turkey carpet-laid upstairs corridors were added by Desmond’s Buxton grandmother, Primrose, who was Greek by blood but English born.
The ensuite Master Bathroom eschews modern sanitary fittings. Accents of bright paint box blue and green throughout the house were chosen by Tina Loder Desmond’s ex-wife, a fashion designer turned Men’s tailor with work rooms in Savile Row and Norfolk. ‘Tina and I, we did quite a bit together, gradually getting round. You can’t do a big house in a hurry.’
Note the 2 Eric Ravilious Coronation mugs as tooth mugs. Famille Roae plates.
And next door the Master Bedroom, with door furniture by Guy Dawber.
‘Sir Guy Dawber was the architect for all the renovations. That’s of interest because he did all the Arts and Crafts door latches and joinery. My bedroom was an upstairs sitting room.’
In his thirties Desmond began dealing in Ottoman tents, sleeping inside this spectacular example that canopied his four-poster bed then, but he remained a farmer au fond.
The same bed in its latest, more sober, reincarnation in the new wing.
My grandparents loved the garden, but sensibly they had made no attempt to keep it as it had been before the war, partly on account of the cost, but partly as a reaction against the highly ordered Victorian-Edwardian world of their youth. My grandfather was a great naturalist; he saw nothing wrong with seeing large parts of the garden overgrown with nettles, brambles, and self-sown saplings. Gradually the saplings grew into trees and elm suckers formed thickets on the old bowling green, perfect cover for the numerous woodcock that loved the abandoned woods and garden.’
Here at Wiveton in the early 1950s that curiously English poet Stevie Smith composed The Old Sweet Dove of Wiveton, conjuring the numinous spirit of the place:
The gray of this heavy day
Makes the green of the tree’s leaves and the grass brighter
And the flowers of the chestnut tree whiter
And whiter the flowers of the high cow-parsley.
So still is the air
So heavy the sky
You can hear the splash
Of the water falling from the green grass
As Red and Honey push by,
The old dogs,
Gone away, gone hunting by the marsh bogs.
‘Red and Honey were my Buxton grandfather’s dogs. I can only remember Red, and Stevie who made an instant impression . She used to come and stay with our friends the Brownes every summer, so we got to see her. I remember her sitting outside here where those chairs are.’
To visit Wiveton’s gardens, farm shop and renowned cafe, buy a ticket for one of Desmond MacCarthy’s conducted tours or rent the west wing or one of the holiday cottages at Wiveton Hall, go to www.wivetonhall.co.uk
Normal for Norfolk is on the BBC iplayer for a few weeks more.
Thanks to Desmond and Emma.
All photographs copyright Desmond MacCarthy and bibleofbritishtaste.
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