Earl's folly shows off its finest features

The National Trust is giving 200-year-old Ickworth House a facelift, reports Stephen Goodwin
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The sound of breaking glass above a 70ft-high scaffold signalled the start this week of major renovation work at one of England's more eccentric country houses.

Ickworth House, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, is a vast rotunda, with wings to either side, conceived by the fourth Earl of Bristol 200 years ago. The earl, who was also bishop of the wealthy see of Derry, wanted somewhere fitting to display the works of Renaissance art he was gathering on European tours.

Inspired by the round house built by John Plaw on Belle Isle in Lake Windermere, Cumbria, he began work on the fabulous building - really an oval - in 1795. But it was still a shell when he died in Italy in 1803 and his collections were captured in Rome during the Napoleonic wars.

The glass canopy or "laylight" being removed this week screened off the never-finished upper floor from the magnificent entrance hall and staircase below. It had become unsafe and is being replaced by opaque safety glass in a pounds 63,000 restoration programme this winter by the National Trust.

Ickworth remained the home of the rich Hervey family, which amassed further collections. There are fine English portraits, Old Masters, silver, porcelain and furniture and is one of NT's premier properties, with 75,000 visitors a year.

But Ickworth has been as much a drain on the charity's funds as it was on the Hervey's - heating alone costs pounds 8,000 a year. The property passed to the trust in 1956 in lieu of death duties. The fourth marquess feared, with justification, that his successors would sell the collections. Last summer, the seventh marquess, John Hervey, raised more than pounds 1m in an auction of the contents of his apartment in the east wing.

Replacing the laylight is part of a five-year restoration plan. There are 270 panes of glass in the canopy, set in ornate plasterwork. A clear panel will enable visitors to look up into the dome. The entrance hall and staircase will also be repainted for the first time since 1968. Paint scrapes have revealed the colours commissioned in 1827 by the earl-bishop's son, the first marquess. Instead of nondescript Sixties emulsion, the hall will be a warm stone colour and there will be painted marble detail on the columns in time for the spring reopening.

t A High Court judge yesterday rejected an attempt to prevent "executive- style" homes being built by the Prince of Wales's favourite property developer at Downe Hall, near Bridport, Dorset. CG Fry and Son want to convert the Grade 2-listed hall into five flats and build eight houses with garages in the 18th-century landscaped grounds. Mr Justice Latham described the hall as "at one time a fine house" which had fallen into disrepair with unkempt gardens.