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A Norfolk Retrospective and New Discoveries at Congham Hall:
The only part of my childhood where our family stopped travelling for a while, Norfolk has a fond place in my heart. Much of the coastline is stunning (even in the pouring rain!) with cliffs, rock pools, sand dunes and wide-open beaches. And, it’s unspoilt and still not too touristy, so somewhere like Hunstanton is the perfect family beach for me and for many others.
The small town of Hunstanton, where I grew up, is known for being the only place in the UK where you can see both a sunset and a sunrise over the sea. And, because the county was at one time one of the wealthiest parts of England, there’s a wealth of stately homes and fine churches.
An invitation to Congham Hall was, to some extent, a chance for me to reminisce. But, Norfolk has come of age and while time has stood still at some of the places I remember well from my childhood there are others which have evolved. Congham Hall has put together a fascinating programme of Norfolk Art Experiences which I used as the base for a day trip.
Closest to the hotel is Houghton Hall, somewhere that despite living in Norfolk for 10 years I had never visited. Apart from two particular art exhibitions currently showing at the stately home, I was also intrigued just to see the building. Having just returned from Vicenza, it was the perfect opportunity to see one of the finest Palladian buildings in England.
Built in the 1720s for Great Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, it’s the work of architects Colen Campbell and James Gibbs with interiors by William Kent.
Robert Walpole was an avid collector of art and the house was designed to showcase a collection of Old Masters. Sadly much of it was sold by his grandson to pay off family debts.
But, there are still a number of works to see around the house (which is still the home of David Cholmondeley, 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley and a direct descendant of Sir Robert). These include Thomas Gainsborough’s oil painting of his own family and William Hogarth’s portrait of the Cholmondeley family. There are some amazing marbles and bronzes too. And, scattered around the house and gardens are works by contemporary British artist Richard Long, an exhibition called ‘EARTH SKY’.
There is something quite stunning about this exhibition. I am no specialist in fine arts, but I loved how each piece appeared to be an interpretation of the setting, enhancing and drawing the viewer into the landscape.
Both indoors and scattered throughout the stunning landscaped gardens, each work complements the surrounding space perfectly.
Despite the stormy weather, I spent plenty of time wandering around the gardens mesmerised by old and new, by man made and by natural.
The Norfolk Art Experiences include a pop-up exhibition at Houghton Hall called ‘Norfolk by Design’ which is set in the old stables of the house.
This exhibition is the place to find works by more than 40 of Norfolk’s designers, artists and craftspeople, much of it for sale. There are some stunning photographs, ceramics and furniture.
On to nearby King’s Lynn, where I went to school.
The market town of King’s Lynn was a Hanseatic port and has some fascinating old warehouse buildings some of which are now repurposed as shops and offices.
Once an important port, the Customs House, which is now home to the Tourist Information Centre, is a particularly stunning reminder of those days. Built by Sir John Turner in 1683, it was designed by Henry Bell, a native of King’s Lynn who was a contemporary of Sir Christopher Wren. Called by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’, it still dominates the historic part of Lynn
I’m rather fond of the Bank House too, though the history of what is now a boutique hotel and restaurant had escaped me until this visit. It was built in the 18th Century for one of King’s Lynn’s wealthy merchants. The vaults under the building would have been used for storing wine for shipping. Later, in the 1780s, it was used by Joseph Gurney for his first bank and a dent is still visible in the floor of the Counting House where customers used to wait to withdraw money. The Gurney banking family went on to become what is Barclays Bank today!
GroundWork, a small gallery just off King’s Staithe, is the UK’s first gallery dedicated to art and the environment. Another recommended experience on the Congham Hall Norfolk Art Experience route, I popped in to find out more. They are currently showing an exhibition called ‘Bird after Bird’ which takes its name from the work of Norfolk-based artist, Jayne Ivimey. The Red List of bird species that are threatened and endangered grows day by day. Jayne’s work comprises an installation of white stoneware effigies of the dead birds, each labelled giving the date and name of the species.
Richard Long’s splash work, created using mud from the nearby River Ouse, forms a striking backdrop for the mixed media work of sculptor Patrick Haines
There are four more artists on display at GroundWork – and you can even stay in their penthouse for around £550 a week – contributing by doing so to the running costs of the gallery!
I was far too comfortable at Congham Hall to make my way to the remaining four experiences on the Norfolk Art Experiences programme which are all a little further away from the hotel. Instead, I took myself to Castle Rising in yet another bit of retrospective exploring. It’s only a few miles from Congham Hall and is a great heritage site to explore. I particularly remember rolling down the grass moats. Not something I’d attempt these days.
Obviously, I just needed to stay there for longer and make my way to The Gunton Arms, a pub near Thorpe Market where you’ll find an extensive collection of contemporary art by household names like Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud and Damien Hurst. The landlord is art dealer Ivor Braka.
I do remember the Peter Coke Shell Gallery from my childhood. And, Norwich is worth visiting whether to see the Old Skating Rink Gallery which now houses a collection of South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts or just to explore the pubs and churches (it is said to have more of both per capita than any other city in the UK).
And, I am sure I will be back. For me it’s the perfect place to relax
Thinking of visiting? why not pin this post for later
Art Experiences guide and package
Congham Hall recently launched Six of the Best… Norfolk Art Experiences which is available free to download from the hotel’s website, and introduces guests to some of the county’s unexpected artistic highlights. It is the latest in a series of free self-guided itineraries conceived by the hotel, which also include The Magnificent Seven… Norfolk Garden Trail and the Fantastic Five… Norfolk Nature Trail.
Guests wishing to put Norfolk’s art at the centre of a relaxing break can also benefit from a new ‘Art Experiences’ package specially created to accompany the new visitor guide. Congham Hall is offering two nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast and two tickets to the Richard Long exhibition for £438 per room in total, available Monday to Thursday until 26 October (excluding July and August), subject to availability.
Congham Hall has just relaunched its Stay Longer, Save More offer for this summer. So, for example, the Summer Explorer gives 15% off seven nights Includes breakfast daily and three-course dinner for two on five nights. From £1,183 to £1,953 per room, based on two sharing, a saving of up to £350.
All prices are the total per room, based on two sharing, Sunday to Thursday until 5 September, subject to availability. Dinner is offered from the usual menu up to a value of £35 per person.