This week, as part of my research for an ideas article I am working on, I had tea with one of my great heroes, Kit Martin. Kit made his name in the 1980s rescuing a series of forlorn (even derelict) country houses by dividing them and their dependent buildings into a series of different dwellings. But instead of dividing them up, as many developers might and have, into hundreds of flats and building in the grounds, he divided them, where he could, into substantial houses, with their own entrances and gardens. He made it a principle that major interiors should not be divided. The atmosphere is therefore rather in the spirit of a cathedral close community in the time of Austen.
One of his major projects was at Gunton Park in Norfolk, where the main house had been burnt out and stood as a shell, but supported by miles of service buildings and stables, carefully restore and turned into a range of different homes. I got a full tour of this wonderful complex, especially the restored deer park, all looking like a dream of England in the evening sunshine. Mrs Martin said: “The best way to see the park is from above, come on, I’ll take you” . . . it took me a while to realise she was offering me flight in a two-seater plane.
I was in Norfolk that day looking at a particularly wonderful Queen Anne house, preparing an article which will appear in the next smaller country house special issue in the autumn. I had wanted to write about this house ten years ago, but had been told by a local contact it was all looking very sad and its future uncertain. It has since been bought by sympathetic owners and could not be looking better cared for. It now has that agreeable air of a family home: pale Georgian colours, watercolours and a grand piano below, poster-clad teenagers rooms above. We ate lunch in the shade of an umbrella and had raspberries straight from the garden. I drove away thinking it is the sort of house Englishmen dream of – and would walk on their knees from Zanzibar to own .
Jeremy Musson is architectural editor of Country Life and presenter of the Curious House Guest on BBC 2. To listen to Jeremy talking about his visit to Holkham Hall download the file here