Blickling Hall: a living British comedy

There are two ways to experience Blickling Hall in Norfolk, England: straightforward or quirky. The former is intended, with a veritable army of committed volunteers on hand to explain every detail of the Jacobean house. Soak in the tapestry, portraits and antique furniture. Learn the history associated with each of the many rooms in the major … or, look just below the surface to see how crazy this place can be (unintentionally, of course). As you move from room to room, you can see the oddity that has crept into this National Trust property.

In nearly every room, you’ll be introduced to the ceiling. Except in a few cases, what covers your head dates back 400 years. You’ll hear this a lot. The expression “17th century ceiling” is spoken in nearly every room in Blickling Hall by the cadre of zealous volunteers who are quite proud of their overhead cover. It looks about the same in every room – except at the entry, where one of my fellow journos explained a tad condescendingly that the ceiling dates back only to the 18th century (silly me for not catching it). Once you get passed the obviously impressive stuff above, most rooms are packed with furniture and paintings that reach back centuries – they are certainly worth a close look.

None of this matters, however, when you get to the mysterious “17th century cabinet.” On its own, this classic piece is rather plain. Sure, it’s an antique – just like everything else in Blickling Hall. The volunteer staffing the room was great about talking up the cabinet, revealing that the inner artwork was a sight to behold. So, I asked that he throw open the doors for all to enjoy. Instead, he showed me photos of the inside, because the doors are only once a year. “I’m told the pictures don’t do it justice,” the volunteer said.

I’m told?


Alas, he has not been in the house the past several years the cabinet was opened and has not been able to enjoy the experience. But, he’s hopeful for 2009. The doors will be opened sometime in September or October. There is no pomp. There is no ceremony. Hell, there’s no warning! Apparently, the much discussed cabinet is opened sans publicity and sans any sort of planning. So, if you want to peer into the hidden treat at Blickling Hall, it would be smart to call ahead (though you may not get much in reply). Lean on the dedicated volunteers of Blickling Hall, and you may even be able to influence the schedule.

Lobby the volunteers for answers.

If you think a closed cabinet is fun, you’ll be blown away by the rooms downstairs. Before descending to the kitchen where the staff works, take a look at the staff organization chart provided by Blickling Hall. The two positions that stand out are the “footman” and the “odd man.” The former tended to be selected for his “physical attributes,” as the footman traditionally ran behind the carriage to make sure journeys proceeded smoothly. In the modern era, the footman’s duties included schlepping dishes up and down several flights of stairs.

Up until World War II, that was good for a mere £1 a week, though occasional generosity in the form of tips could bump a week’s take to £5. It’s hardly surprising that the last man to have the job didn’t return after serving a hitch in the war.

The odd man’s role at Blickling Hall remains a mystery, as the footman appears to steal the spotlight. I assume he did odd jobs – as the title implies – around the manor, but it’s unclear. Odd man out, perhaps?

When the footman took off for the war, did the odd man get promoted? Or, did he become the mildly strange man? One can only speculate.

Among the last rooms you’ll see is a stunning library containing 10,000 volumes, which Blickling Hall received in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, it was the exercise room. On many days, the children were set loose in the oversized chamber. But, what about the adults? When asked how adults exercised in 1745, the room’s volunteer offered a perplexed look before offering, “I guess they walked … and gossiped.” Dishing burns calories!

One can only assume that the footman and the odd man didn’t use the exercise room much, as they were kept busy enough.

A walk through Blickling Hall is a step back in time, and you can explore the world through lenses that are four centuries old. At the same time, it’s a contemporary comedy, in which volunteer retirees wax in serious tones that can’t help but make you chuckle. It almost seems like a British comedy written by an American.

Either before or after you tour the house, do check out the adjacent gardens. There’s no hint of quirk in this carefully manicured landscape. Wander the trails and hedges … and take a minute to chill (unlike the odd man, who I doubt ever had that luxury).

Whether you see Blickling Hall as a taste of classic England or a bunch of crazy Brits obsessed with ceilings and odd men, the experience is well worth the trek out to Norfolk. Time your stay to correspond to the grand cabinet unveiling – whenever hit may be – and you’ll pick up the rare experience that some on the staff have yet to enjoy!

Disclosure: Visit Britain shelled out some cash for this experience, and British Airways supplied the flights. Any questions about my objectivity? Read the article again. This is far from what they wanted from me.