Norton Conyers, North Yorkshire
An alarming lean to the 18th century clocktower at Norton Conyers in Yorkshire, exposes the serious degradation of the supporting beams. The repair of the clocktower will be the latest part of a continuing restoration programme begun by Sir James and Lady Graham in 1986. Funds from the Historic Houses Foundation will enable the urgent start of work before the fabric deteriorates to a dangerous state.
Kings, dogs and horses
Norton Conyers is an excellent example of a country house that has seen the comings and goings of eleven generations of one family. The first Graham to live here was Sir Richard Graham, acquiring the estate in 1624. Sir Richard enjoyed a successful career under the early Stuart kings and fought for Charles I in the Civil War. He added a Dutch gabled front to his new home, disguising the earlier house from outside but not the late medieval timber frame inside. King Charles I stayed with Sir Richard en route for Scotland in 1633 and his son, James II, was here in 1679, staying with his grandson, a devoted Jacobite. The bed James and Mary slept in is here still. The Georgian Grahams were typical country gentlemen who enjoyed hunting, racing and country sport embellishing the rooms with portraits filled with dogs and horses but also creating some fine interiors with plasterwork ceilings and mantlepieces. The 18th century also saw the creation of a formal walled garden which still survives.
Mrs Rochester was here
A later visitor was the novelist Charlotte Bronte who came to Norton Conyers in 1839 while working as a governess. She heard the story of Mad Mary, a Graham relative who had been kept confined in an attic room and saw the secret servants’ staircase concealed in the panelling which led to the attics. This story and architectural elements of the house’s interior make it a clear model for Thornfield Hall in Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, the scene of Jane’s romance with Mr Rochester. The secret staircase to the attic was only revealed during restoration in 2004.
When Sir James and Lady Graham devised a 25 year restoration plan for the house in 1986 they dedicated themselves to a lifetime’s programme of repair. The Historic Houses Foundation have supported this huge project before, granting funds in 2006 when extensive death watch beetle damage was discovered in the house’s medieval timbers and again, in 2007, for the restoration of a rare series of wooden boards dating from the mid-16th century, each painted, probably in Genoa, to represent fabric or tapestry and which probably formed part of a portable screen.
Getting back the Chime
The latest round of funding will allow the urgent repair of the clocktower topped with a columned cupola and weathervane. The clocktower is the centrepiece of an 18th century courtyard complex which includes a smithy, dairy, bakery and laundry, which together formed the engine room of the Georgian household. The clocktower’s added importance as a setting for the house is clear even in Nicholas Dall’s 1774 painting of Norton Conyers.
Today the tower is at risk from the decay of the main supporting timbers. The grant has enabled work to start immediately on a project where delay might be disastrous. Work over the next few years will replace damaged woodwork, renew the roof and restore the original clock. When complete, regular chimes from the clocktower will once again ring out to regulate the day at Norton Conyers just as they did 250 years ago.