My Home: Miranda Seymour - to the manor born
As a child, the novelist and biographer was ambivalent about her run-down home. Now she's fallen in love with the family pile – and saved it from ruin
Wednesday 11 June 2008
Thrumpton Hall can be thought of as a venerable old lady, ageing gracefully. But I didn't always feel this way. Children want more than anything to be very conventional and very normal, so it was excruciating and, at times, very upsetting to grow up in a house like this. I'd go to great lengths not to ask friends back, to hide my life away from my peers. It takes a long time to feel able to justify such privilege.
Before moving into the main house when I was three, my parents, my brother and I lived nearby, in the village manor. My childless uncle and aunt had the main residence at that time. The place was terribly run-down when we arrived; the staircase was painted with dark varnish and there were rats running around the outside yard.
My father had been deposited here by his parents in 1923, when he was nine years old and could not accompany them abroad. Everyone who had worked here previously had been taken off to war, so the place was pretty much derelict.
By the time we moved here as a family, it needed a lot of hands-on work, much of which my parents did themselves, while employing anyone they could get. The work was too much for most people: one employee would carry a pedometer in her pocket and eventually resigned, because the "mileage" was getting her down.
In retrospect, growing up here was idyllic in many ways, especially for a writer. My brother and I shared an isolated area at the top of the house; we would clamber over the roof and gables, and grow our imaginations. But it didn't feel ideal at the time.
The house became a complete passion for my father, more so than people. He committed his entire life to Thrumpton. When I was growing up, it was very much my parents' place. My father had a vision for the home, into which we fitted.
Once, when I was 17, I had a bob haircut at Vidal Sassoon and my father decided that a wig would be more in keeping with the property, so for three years I was made to wear one, whenever I was here.
I left home not long after the haircut incident, setting off around America on a Greyhound bus, to find myself. Having later moved to London, I married quite young and for a while I wasn't closely involved with the house. It was at rather a gloomy time in my life that I returned here, and it became a kind of haven. I began, very slowly, to fall in love with Thrumpton Hall.
A Jacobean stately home, it has such a rich history, which can be traced all the way back to 1685. This does constrain one when it comes to choosing suitable furniture and fittings. I was in Morocco recently and found myself in a market in Marrakech picking out carpets that I thought would look amazing. But then, shock horror, I realised: you cannot do that!
I did, in fact, put down some flamboyant carpets and a hung a couple of modern paintings the other day and my mother just clapped. I think that said it all: it is very clear that you cannot modernise everything, but some things just work.
A Roman Catholic family had originally owned the property, but they were later implicated in the Babington plot and a sort of repossession took place in 1685.
It is said that the owners then put a curse on the home, that no child ever born here would ever inherit the house. And so it has been, to this day.
There are many rare features in the house and gardens. A priest's secret passage leads to the River Trent, which provides great opportunities to leap out at unsuspecting visitors as they pass by; a first-floor double-cube reception room with school of Grinling Gibbons carving; an 18th-century library; Elizabethan knot garden; spectacular curved yew hedges, and supposedly the finest carved Carolean cantilever staircase in the UK.
What is also extraordinary about this house is that it sits in a lucky dip, in a beleaguered part of the East Midlands. On one side of the hill is a very large, coal-fired power station. But this actually adds a strange charm of its own.
If you climb to the very top of the hill, on one side there is industrial England: the smoke from the great cooling towers, the motorway and the airport.
If you then turn your back on this scene, you're looking down on tall Jacobean brick chimneys, and a house resting in its park. It is a truly ravishing vision of the past. Because it is at the end of a one-street village, a cul-de-sac, it has remained very much back in time, like a little lost world.
It is terrific now to see the house coming back to life through the weddings and functions we hold here, and that it is – at last – paying its way.
There have been times when the constant repairs and problems have been disheartening and the idea of returning here from London, where I have a second home, has seemed daunting. And then something happens as you pass under the red arches leading up to the house: life's stresses start to fall away. It is as if time is going back. It really is magic.
Miranda Seymour, 59, is a novelist and biographer. In 1994 she inherited Thrumpton Hall, a Jacobean home in Nottinghamshire, where she lives with her husband and mother. It is available for hire ( www.thrumptonhall.com). She is appearing at the Althorp literary festival on Saturday ( www.althorp.com; 01604 770 107)
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