WP_20151007_15_37_25_ProI finally got round to visiting a place I’d wanted to see for some time- Voewood, an arts and crafts masterpiece in north Norfolk.

Taking advantage of the ‘Invitation to View’ scheme we set off on a rather wet and windy day a week or two ago to High Kelling, near Holt.

Our tour of this private house was full of surprises and curiosities. Owned by a rare books and art dealer Simon Finch (who now lives in one of the coach houses) it has been decorated over the years in a very individual style with plenty of personal mementoes and artworks, many hailing from the 1960’s and 70’s. The house with its fourteen bedrooms can be hired out and it also acts as a centre piece for an arts festival.

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The house was designed (1903-5) by Edward S. Prior. Voewood is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of house design of the Arts and Crafts movement. More than almost any other building of the period the house fulfils the ideals for architecture developed by William Ruskin and William Morris.  In the designing and building of Voewood many of Prior’s philosophical ideas found physical expression.

Its design and construction were characterised by the use of radical planning and forms, innovative technologies, such as the use of reinforced concrete, extensive external decoration, a distinct building philosophy involving craftsmanship and the use of quality local materials and the integration of the building and its interiors with the garden and its surroundings.

The house is based on a butterfly plan. The three storey central portion of the house is flanked by splayed two-storey wings. The plan enabled Prior to maximise views out and to give the best orientation to a range of rooms. He could also relate the external spaces to the internal areas. The area contained within the splay faced the gardens, with the northern of the wings acting as the entrance, with a two storey porch and daylight basement. This wing also contained the library and billiard room at ground floor level. The wing opposite contained the kitchen and service accommodation together with the dining room. The fruit and vegetable garden lay adjacent. The entrance, through oak doors, leads into a six-sided hall up a straight flight of Hoptonwood stone stairs into an octagonal lobby.

Though never lived in by its original owners (there seem to be various theories as to why, including its proximity to a then T.B. hospital), the house was turned into an old people’s home and has also been a hotel. And despite some alterations (e.g. the closing in of two flanking loggias), it has retained most of its original features. I was especially impressed by the construction which used concrete formwork on a (then) extensive scale, resulting in nicely rounded corners to walls and window openings and some chunky concrete beams which provide an interesting, simple decorative feature to many ceilings. However, I was a little disappointed with the window and other ironmongery which, in contrast to many other houses of this style and period (see, for example my recent post on Goddards, York), was rather plain. Perhaps this is further evidence of the alterations carried out in the 1930’s.

Though visiting on a damp October afternoon when there was not much floral interest to be seen, the gardens still managed to impress. The main layout from the back of the house appears to follow its original stepped, symmetrical design, whereas the former kitchen garden to the side has been skillfully turned over to a rather more ornamental layout, though retaining many good examples of wall-trained fruit.

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The original gardens were of great renown and highly regarded. Voewood was perhaps Prior’s greatest garden design. Garden making was a preoccupation of his middle period. Terraces extend from the wings of the house and end in steps leading down to the garden level. The garden is also reached from the terrace by a double flight of steps leading to two stone paths, separated by a water feature in the form of a stepped stone tank containing water-lilies, iris and forget-me-not. The central feature of the garden is a large basin. Pergolas with masonry walls lead east and west.

The garden at Voewood (then called Home Place) was admired by Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Lawrence Weaver, who described and illustrated it in their book Gardens for Small Country Houses;

“The stepped scheme at Home Place, Holt, designed by Professor E.S. Prior will be a counsel of perfection to most people”.

Further information: Voewood website

Old School Gardener