Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:27 am
Blickling is an extensive estate and stately home in Norfolk, with walks, gardens and a splendid house to enjoy wandering around. People will tell you that it was Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, but don’t believe a word of it. Anne was indeed probably born at Blickling, in 1501 or 1507, but there is no visible trace of the house that she might have known and, anyway, she spent most of her childhood at Hever Castle, in Kent. The current Blickling Hall was built in the century after Anne Boleyn. That doesn’t kill the rumour that she haunts the place, however, especially on 19 May, the anniversary of her execution. Let us say that she does, along with a dozen other places; after all, these things help sell tickets.
“The settlement of the followers of a man called Blicia” (Oxford Dictionary of Place Names), Blickling, was mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086. The Boleyn connection came almost five hundred years later, in 1452, when the estate was bought by Anne’s great-grandfather, Geoffrey Boleyn, a hatter, mercer and, in 1457, Lord Mayor of London. Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn, was also born at Blickling. Thomas was a skilful, well-connected, diplomat; Mrs Boleyn, Anne’s mum, was Elizabeth Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk.
But you don’t really need the brooding absence of Henry VIII’s second wife, bless her, to appreciate the elegant red-brick Jacobean mansion that is Blickling Hall. It was built sometime after 1616, when the property was purchased by politician and lawyer Henry Hobart, and was designed by Robert Lyminge, or Lemynge, the architect of Hatfield House. Its long gallery was converted into a wonderful, unique, library in the 1740s, when the then owner, Sir John Hobart, Earl of Buckinghamshire, inherited a carefully assembled book collection from the scholar, Sir Richard Ellys. The long gallery library now contains more than 12,500 volumes. The greatest changes to the house were made when Blickling was owned by William Schomberg Robert Kerr, 8th Marquess of Lothian (1832-70), who had the west wing rebuilt to accommodate a new kitchen and other mod-cons. Kerr married his cousin, Lady Constance Talbot, in 1854 and they travelled extensively together. Sadly, William Kerr died young, aged just 38, apparently from a mysterious disease caught overseas. His ornate memorial in St Andrew’s church next door to the estate includes an astonishing, life-size, life-like, effigy; his equally magnificent tomb is in Jedburgh Abbey.
The final private owner of the Blickling Estate was the 11th Marquess of Lothian, Philip Kerr (1882-1940). Lord Lothian was an influential Liberal politician, diplomat and newspaper editor, whose fascinating career included a spell as Prime Minister Lloyd George’s secretary and, at the end of his life, Ambassador to the United States of America. Previously an appeaser, Lothian later came to realise that Hitler had to be stopped and, in Washington, he played a vital part in encouraging support for that view – and in the creation of the Lend-Lease Programme. He also donated the Blickling Estate to the National Trust.
Lothian inherited the estate in 1930 and entertained an eclectic array of celebrities there, including the Astors, Stanley Baldwin, Joyce Grenfell and (somewhat surprisingly) Joachim von Ribbentrop. But he is rightly celebrated by the National Trust (and should be by you, too) as the force behind the National Trust Act of 1937 and the Country Houses Scheme, which meant that a family donating their property to the Trust could avoid paying death duties and able to continue to live in the property, provided at least part of it was opened to the public. So, without Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess of Lothian, you probably wouldn’t be able to visit Blickling, plus a bunch of other places.
During the Second World War, part of the Blickling Estate became RAF Oulton, a station used by both RAF Bomber and Coastal Commands, as well as by the USAAF. Service personnel were billeted in Nissen huts in the grounds of Blickling Hall and officers in the house itself. The National Trust has set up a museum on the site to commemorate this period in Blickling’s history and there’s more about RAF Oulton on the excellent Aviation Trails website.
The Blickling Estate is a lovely place to visit. The house is beautiful as well as fascinating and the grounds are super. I spent ages trying to replicate a photograph I had seen, of the house seeming to rise majestically from the slightly misty lake, before I worked out that it was probably taken from a boat. We visited in 2020, during a lull between lockdowns when the National Trust, and others, were gamely trying to open some properties on a limited basis whilst ensuring Covid-19 restrictions were adhered to. So it was that, on a dull, overcast, autumn morning, we found ourselves lining up outside Blickling Hall to gain entry as numbers permitted. The inevitable consequence of the Trust’s excellent efforts was an erratic crocodile of masked tourists, most of whom maintained safe distances from one another. However, in the interests of fairness, the scheme relied on everybody walking round the house in a considerate manner and at roughly the same speed, requirements that the couple ahead of us had not cottoned on to. Blissfully unaware of the restless queue forming behind them, they stopped to examine every object, read every notice, talk earnestly and at length to every room steward and take photographs from every conceivable angle. They were probably the only ones who had time to focus their cameras. By about a quarter of the way round, the sound of unhappy mutterings and foot-shuffling in the rear was audible to all but the stone-deaf. People were craning their necks, to see what the hold-up was. Had a headless Anne Boleyn suddenly appeared, Lazarus-like, in the South Drawing Room? And then we came up against that feature of the English stately home that the National Trust does so well; the patronising and pompous attendant. “Come along, move along, keep moving,” bellowed this lump of a female as we were finally allowed to enter the room she was guardian of. I narrowed my eyes at her in a ‘don’t mess with me, my good woman’ kind of manner, which she ignored. So I casually tasered her as we walked by and I believe the couple behind us threw her out of a window.
To be clear, the vast majority of National Trust staff and volunteers are simply wonderful. But something in the organisation’s unique culture ensures that people who shouldn’t be allowed out in public can occasionally escape onto the front line. Once there, they roam freely, able to offend at will. Dear National Trust: forget trying to win brownie points by banging on about diversity awareness; invest in some basic customer service training.
In closing, I should like to take the opportunity to offer my ranting services at a highly competitive rate and direct you to the National Trust’s website for further information.
And don’t forget to visit Blickling’s church, St Andrew’s, next door. It is 15th century on an older site, significantly restored in the mid-19th century. As well as the astonishing marble memorial to William Schomberg Robert Kerr, the interior contains some significant medieval brasses, a medieval font and some wonderful stained glass.