Charlotte Brontë based Thornfield Hall on Norton Conyers – and the recent history of the house deserves a novel of its own
Sir James and Lady Graham, whose 30-year restoration project saved Norton Conyers (Paul Macnamara/Guzelian)
Norton Conyers is no ordinary home. Charlotte Brontë visited the country house in 1839, when she was a governess to a family called the Sidgwicks. She was so taken by the property that it is believed she described it in great detail as Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre.
Charlotte heard about the legend of a mad woman hidden in the attic, from the house’s history. And it is believed that this inspired her to create the insane Mrs Rochester character in her classic novel.
Wood panelling on the first floor conceals a hidden door, which leads up to the attic space above. Snaking through a warren of corridors lies the “Mad Woman’s room”. It sits almost empty and forgotten. In fact, the original staircase was only uncovered in 2004, having been panelled in during the 1880s. The similarities between the actual secret staircase and the fictional one in Jane Eyre are striking.
The legend of a mad woman hidden in this attic fascinated Charlotte Brontë. The attic is reached by a secret staircase (below)
But there is far more to learn about this medieval manor house than this enchanting literary connection. A renovation project on an enormous scale has saved it from ruin. Sir James inherited the house in 1982 after his father died, then married his wife, Halina, four years later. The property was in need of some serious TLC.
Every roof on the house and its surrounding buildings – all Grade II listed – needed urgent attention. Generous grants from the Heritage Conservation Trust enabled these repairs. And in the main house, 20 buckets were used to catch the rainwater as it dripped onto the floor below. As every new hole appeared, another bucket was ushered into action.
Sir James’s parents had a novel approach to renovation: “houses repair themselves”. As a result, very little work had been carried out over the years. If the property was to survive, something needed to be done quickly. They rolled up their sleeves and carried out much of the meticulous conservation work themselves.
Yet a far worse problem was lurking within the fabric of the building. Sir James discovered carcasses of the deathwatch beetle. To many, these haunting words mean two things: sell up or give up. But the Grahams decided to declare war on the pervasive pest.
“We knew we were tackling a very large and difficult project, but had no idea how hard it would prove,” says Sir James. “When we were investigating the extent of the infestation, I carried out the very trying task of cleaning all the attic beams and covering any insect holes with the thinnest Japanese paper attached by a flour-and-water paste.”
The beetles were found under the floorboards in the main hall and within the beautiful duck-egg-blue dining room. And although the property dates back to medieval times, substantial alterations were carried out by William Belwood (a pupil of Robert Adam) during the late 18th century. Like all good builders since the time of the pyramids, they threw their rubbish under the floorboards. The lack of ventilation only made things worse.
The house was turned into a war room, where the beetles were placed under constant attack. Even the antique carpets covering the floor were frozen for seven days to kill off the little intruders.
It was an extremely trying time for the owners. “The poisonous chemicals involved meant we spent a miserable year living out of Norton Conyers in a succession of local b&bs,” says Lady Graham. “The house was so cold that it was with relief that we left it every day. We thought of renting a smaller house elsewhere or a caravan on site, but neither proved feasible.”
Lady Graham then broke her ankle, which was a major setback as there was then no downstairs bathroom or shower. Despite the constant hardship, the couple battled on with the help from some trusted advisers.
“Colin Kerr, of the historic building specialists Molyneux Kerr architects, has helped us on an entirely voluntary basis for almost 30 years,” adds Lady Graham. “He advised us in our choice of wallpapers and is responsible for the colours of our redecorated walls.”
A substantial grant from the Heritage Conservation Trust helped them complete the work. The conservation project could not have been much more challenging. But the couple’s guiding principle was surprisingly simple. “We always ask the house what it wants,” says Lady Graham. “It has a very strong presence. The house talks to us through feelings. It reveals its secrets grudgingly, so we have to work hard.”
And the house spoke out, revealing secrets that no one could have imagined. On the ground floor, romantic ruin wallpaper, dating from 1760, was discovered behind plasterwork. It had been covered up for centuries. Today, the wallpaper is so crisp that you might think that it was printed only yesterday.
Looking back at the conservation work, Sir James acknowledges: “You should only expect what happens and be prepared for anything. There is a strong sense that we are guardians of the past to benefit the future.”
Norton Conyers will be open to view work in progress from July 19-26 from 2pm-5pm (bookings only;).