Why we're selling our magnificent Palladian house, Wolterton Hall

Peter Sheppard and Keith Day, owners of one of Norfolk's most beautiful 18th-century houses, are selling up after a seven-year renovation. Here, Peter explains the excitement and pleasure of being a serial restorer of historic houses, and why it's time to move on
Why we're selling our magnificent Palladian house Wolterton Hall
Christopher Horwood

T.S. Eliot wrote ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons’. Some people measure their lives out in the jobs they’ve had, the children they’ve sired, the books they’ve written or the symphonies they’ve composed.

In my partner Keith Day’s and my life, it's the houses we’ve restored, beginning humbly with a four storey wreck next to an Edwardian pub in Reading.

Since then, we’ve restored seven major houses and a few smaller ones. Our first was a Georgian rectory in Reading which appeared in House and Garden in 1989, the second was Sir Winston Churchill's duplex overlooking Westminster Cathedral which appeared in 2000.

Next was the Catholic Library behind Westminster Cathedral which became our design offices and eventually our home. We then converted the London Foot Hospital, a house designed by Robert Adam, in Fitzroy Square which had been the Omega Workshops while simultaneously restoring a 15th century palazzo in Cannaregio in Venice. A little later we made our first incursion into Norfolk with a Tudor house and the largest brick barn in Britain belonging to Sir James Hobart, Attorney General to Henry VII.

Keith Day and Peter Sheppard (right) beside an 18th-century Brussels tapestry and a bust of King George III in the largest of the rooms.

Christopher Horwood

All these houses we completely restored and expected to live in forever. However, circumstances change and opportunities arise. We had to move to London so the Reading rectory went, the flat owners below the Churchill flat objected to the noise through our uncarpeted wooden floors. The financial crisis put paid to both the house in Fitzroy Square and the Venetian palace.

While we were living in the award winning mediaeval house in South Norfolk and feeling a bit bored (as we had finished the restoration) we considered buying the hall at Melton Constable, which had been used as the location for the great film of The Go-Between, but it was in a terrible state.

Then one day I got a telephone call from George Bramley, an agent to whom I’d said that if he ever found a house of architectural consequence to call me. “I’ve got the property you asked for”. When he sent the details of Wolterton Park, we were knocked out. It wasn’t a smart glossy brochure but just two A4 sheets with twelve small photos. However, it was obvious that this was the best house and project we’d ever find.

The property included the main hall, designed by Thomas Ripley for Horatio Walpole - brother of Sir Robert, who had built Houghton Hall just twenty miles away. The hall was in a perfect condition for us. It hadn’t been lived in for thirty years since the last Lord Walpole had died there. All the cornices and plasterwork, doors, door cases and wooden floors were in good order. The roof had been replaced in 1951 after a fire, but the electrics and bathrooms were needing replacing and updating. However, a 1947 ship’s boiler still heated the hall.

Wolterton Hall sits in 500 acres of parkland with an eight acre walled garden and the primitive fencing all needed replacing and the invasive rhododendrons, laurel bushes, and holly bushes, ivy and brambles all needing cutting back to reveal the glory of Charles Bridgeman’s landscape. We have replaced the barbed wire with two miles of elegant estate fencing, planted 300 oaks and beeches, restored two half mile ha-ha’s and dredged the Moat and Horse ponds.

Inside the splendidly restored 18th-century Wolterton Hall in Norfolk
Gallery15 Photos
View Gallery

We have restored six estate houses to the highest level which are now regularly rented by guests which creates income to keep the estate going. But most fun was restoring the main hall, including eight double height state rooms, nineteen bedrooms and bathrooms, three kitchens, library etc, and winning first prize last year in both the Georgian Group award for the restoration of a country house and Historic House's award for restoration of an historic house, climaxing with a ten page feature and front cover of House and Garden in February.

I love walking the pugs up to The Gatehouse through the half mile avenue of beech trees and meeting people on the way. First coffee with glamorous Laura, handsome Chris and lively Lisa who manage the estate, then off for a walk and probably meeting one of the shepherds in their truck before I visit the builders to discuss ongoing projects. Later I see the gardeners: Mike and Jed on the estate and Cat in the walled gardens. And of course we have loyal guests who are so appreciative of what we’ve done at Wolterton.

Christopher Horwood

When we tell people we are selling they are all very sympathetic and usually disappointed. They often say how sad we must feel after putting so much effort and money into the estate. But the truth is we have finished as much as we can and the remaining works - like the Ripley coach house, Ripley stables and the estate yard - need someone who can invest even further.

So what will we really miss about selling Wolterton Park? Moving from south Norfolk we were virtually unknown in north Norfolk when we first arrived, but rumour and gossip being rife here, we were recognised everywhere from the corner shop to garden parties. People were keen to meet us and were curious to know our plans for the hall.

As we began restoring the hall they were very supportive and once we’d finished it, very complimentary. So we quickly made friends and were invited everywhere. I became the chairman of the Norfolk Churches Trust and we held events and parties for the Trust as well as the Air Ambulance, Ethiopian Hospices and other charities. We opened up the house to members of Historic Houses and the park to CPRE. So of course, we will miss all the friends we’ve made in Norfolk, especially those who’ve worked on the estate..

Looking back on all the houses we’ve owned, we are never sad at what we’ve left behind as we’re always excited about the future. Keith and I are now thinking of our next home. Where will it be?

We’ve found one of the best houses in London: a six storey Georgian house overlooking St James’s Park which is currently offices, so we now have all the excitement of arguing with Historic England and the conservation officer about its restoration - since the house is grade I listed. However, we expect it will be a rewarding project and hopefully one day soon it will also appear in the pages of this illustrious magazine.