Plenty of surprises on offer at Parham House

PUBLISHED: 16:33 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 16:33 11 August 2014


Alice Cooke is given a tour of Parham House by Lady Emma Barnard, and is both surprised and delighted by what she finds

To be shown around Parham House by one of its experienced and charming guides is a treat as it is, but to be shown around by Lady Emma Barnard, whose family have lived here for generations, and whose life and history surrounds us at every turn, is nothing short of a privilege.

What makes Parham such an intriguingly beautiful place to explore is the fact that it is a home – yes its splendour, heritage and grandeur are clear for all to see, but at its heart it is a house that has been loved and lived in since the day that it was built in 1577, and it shows.

In 1948 it was opened to the public – not because the coffers were running dry or anyone insisted, but because the family simply wanted to share it with other people. The general consensus from friends and relations was that they were stark raving mad – open their home to members of the public? What on earth for? But to the day their pioneering attitude serves them in good stead.

Every generation of every family that has lived in the house has made their mark on it, be it in the form of paintings, tapestries, furniture or indeed even a roof in one case. And that is what makes it a home – it is not a museum to be admired from afar, it is a place for family, for living and for enjoyment.

I was hard pushed not to bed down and stay when I visited last month, such was my love for the place. (I grew up very locally and learnt to ride my bicycle without stabilisers for the first time on the drive, so it has always been somewhere that I am very fond of.) But this aside, you cannot fail to be intrigued, charmed and entertained by the myriad of quirky artefacts that make the house what it is.

The clock in the Great Hall has stood there for hundreds of years – very early black and white photographs of it in situ are testament to the fact. “There’s something wonderful about having clocks ticking throughout the house,” says Lady Emma. “I think that they keep the place alive, giving it a sort of rhythm and purpose.”

The portraits that line the walls of this room, as in much of the rest of the house, are astounding. Many have been leant to other collections over the years, in keeping with the family’s insistence on sharing their story and heritage.

In the Great Parlour, Lady Emma learnt to play the piano as a child. “I spent hours here; it was brilliant, and always so warm and homely.” An odd thing to say perhaps given the size of the room, but it, like all the others, does feel like part of a home. “There are flowers in every room of the house – my great grandmother established the idea that we should keep them replenished – all from the garden of course, never a shop. It really does make the rooms feel alive.”

For all its quirkiness, everything at Parham has a place and everything is there for a reason. “It is all so well thought through – a globe that was made before the discovery of Australia sits close to the doorway of the Green Room, so that guests don’t miss the fact that only a slither of Australia exists on its map.” Similarly, a diminutive lion made from shells stands proudly facing out of the window in the Long Gallery. “He is one of my favourite things in the whole house,” says Lady Emma. “Look at his amazing expression and how proud he is to have caught that sheep.” He stands where he does so that guests who need to sit down on the window seat that he faces have something to look at. “My great-grandmother was an amazing woman – every detail is considered. It is all I can do to try to carry on her good work.”

But the task is one that Lady Emma clearly relishes. “Oh I absolutely love it, but it is totally bonkers – every time I look around the house I see something new, and every time I open a draw I find something previously undiscovered and utterly mad.”

“Parham is like a big jigsaw,” she continues. “The story is constantly growing, and every new chapter is a new adventure.”

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