Climate Change and the Impact on Historic Houses – Felbrigg Hall

Felbrigg Hall was the first stop on the Attingham Trust Norfolk Country House course. A fascinating site under any circumstances, the timing of our visit allowed us the opportunity to observe first-hand the impacts of climate change on historic properties. But first, a brief history of Felbrigg Hall.

The estate was established by the Felbrigg family prior to the 11th c. Norman conquest and continued to evolve over the centuries. In the mid-15th century, the property passed to the Windham family and significant changes were made between 1621-24 when Sir John Windham built the south range for his son Thomas from the remains of an earlier Tudor building. The south front is notable for the stone parapet carved with “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the Highest).

The South Range of Felbrigg Hall.

The Jacobean house may well have seemed a bit old-fashioned after the restoration of Charles II, so Thomas’ son William Windham (1647-89) commissioned architect William Samwell (1628-76) to design the west wing which was constructed between 1675-87. Some of the rooms retain their original plasterwork such as the ceiling in the drawing room. The orangerie drawings are unsigned, but it is thought to have been designed by William’s son Ashe Windham (1673-1749) with the lack of ornament apparently the result of his mother’s strict control over the budget.

The Orangerie.

Ashe’s son William Windham II (1717-61) embarked on a Grand Tour from 1738-42. Upon his inheritance of the estate in 1749 he commissioned architect James Paine (1717-89) to remodel the house. A new service wing was constructed, the staircase was relocated, and the state rooms were updated. A library in the latest Gothic taste was completed in 1755 resulting in the blind windows on the west side of the south wing due to the installation of bookcases.

The Gothic library completed c. 1755.
The blind windows resulting from the installation of bookcases in the library.

Windham also commissioned Paine to design a Cabinet Room to display the splendid collection of paintings that he amassed during his travels. Viewing cabinet rooms today often involves the use of a lot of imagination to envision what the room would have looked like when it was originally decorated. This is not the case at Felbrigg Hall, however since the Cabinet Room remains almost as it was when it was originally installed. A sketch of the original layout, a remarkable surviving piece of evidence, confirms that this is one of the most intact Grand Tour cabinet rooms in all of England. Special thanks to Louisa Brouwer, Cultural Heritage Curator for the National Trust for her insight into this extraordinary room and the collections therein.

The Cabinet Room.
Sketch of the original layout of the Cabinet Room.

The stable block and a corridor connecting the kitchen to the house were built in the 1820s and the Great Hall was redecorated in the 1840s. The estate was bankrupted by William Frederick “Mad Windham” in the 1860s and sold to the Ketton family. The last Ketton heir bequeathed Felbrigg Hall to the National Trust in 1969.

The 1820s corridor connecting the kitchen to the house.

In recent years, Felbrigg Hall has experienced a type of flash flooding – heavier than usual rainfall in a short time span that overwhelms the 18th century gutter system. The scaffolding on the west and south sides of the house was erected to repair the roof and gutters to better handle this increased rainfall. This work is certainly timely.

At the time of our visit, scaffolding had been erected to address gutter issues related to flash flooding.

On September 8, 2022, heavy rains caused significant water ingress through the library windows which then poured down into the Great Hall below. Staff quickly removed waterlogged curtains and books with some textiles being sent to the Trust’s conservation labs and books being monitored on site. At the time of our visit, furniture in the house had been moved out of these areas to allow for better air flow and the library was not open to the public. With these intense bursts of rain predicted to continue and even intensify in the years to come, the National Trust is working to prepare this centuries old site for the climate conditions ahead.

Scaffolding erected in the Great Hall after water intrusion on September 8, 2022.

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