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Family home not just bricks and mortar

PUBLISHED: 10:14 12 September 2008 | UPDATED: 11:01 08 July 2010

High House, West Acre

High House, West Acre

We've seen the grand houses and estates of Claxton and Kelling come up for sale as their owners take what must be the heart-breaking decision to part with the homes which have been in their families for generations - and face passing them on to complete strangers.

We've seen the grand houses and estates of Claxton and Kelling come up for sale as their owners take what must be the heart-breaking decision to part with the homes which have been in their families for generations - and face passing them on to complete strangers. Now another Norfolk family house and just under 1100 acres of its estate is also on the market. CAROLINE CULOT, property correspondent, reports on the fine Georgian property, High House, West Acre, which could be yours for a total price of £9.5 million.

What the sales of these wonderful country houses and their estates mean is that, basically, things will never be the same again.

These houses, part of Norfolk's heritage, represented the treasured possessions of the landed gentry who still carried out the age-old tradition of passing down to the next generation properties which had been in their families for a century or more.

Whatever the responsibility or burden, it was up to the heir to take on the challenge. These houses are not just bricks and mortar; they are proud monuments paying homage to some of the county's most prestigious families. Portraits hang on the walls depicting ancestors long gone who gave Norfolk something special, something to last, architectural delights the like of which we will not see again.

And although those houses will stay standing (thanks to their listings), a certain part of their magic will definitely die when new buyers walk through the doors.

The walls of these houses will still retain fond memories - but the people living in them won't be capable of remembering them - although let's hope new ones are created.

It is with this sentimentality that I personally feel just a little sad as the latest big estate comes up for sale, High House, West Acre. It is completely different in structure from Kelling Hall in that it is a fine Georgian property with later additions including its castellated front facade added in 1829.

It was commissioned by Edward Spelman, "Yallop of West Acre", who returned from living in Holland to inherit the land from his father and had the house built in 1756 to replace a Jacobean house which had stood to the north of the present property and fallen into disrepair.

Spelman wanted a house in the fashionable "Italian style" which was the inspiration for a stunning gallery on the first floor which is 18ft high, 18ft wide and 90ft long - five cubes of 18ft square.

However, it did not stay in his possession long because of financial difficulties, with history records stating a Richard Hamond bought the property from an "impoverished Spelman" in 1761.

The Hamond family were landed gentry and apparently granted a coat of arms in 1698. The house then passed to Hamond's nephew and heir, Anthony Hamond, who was the high sheriff and, in 1798, deputy lieutenant of Norfolk.

He was also nicknamed "Rabbitskins" because of his rabbit farming and the estate was also famous for its "highly esteemed venison".

During the 19th century, two wings were added to the house and plans commissioned for an orangery to the west and stable block to the east, with the new front added in 1829.

The Birkbeck family then purchased the estate in 1898 and it has remained in their family ever since. The late Captain Henry or "Harry" Birkbeck, also a former high sheriff, carried out extensive refurbishment in the 1950s and now the house is run by his son Henry Birkbeck, cousin of the colourful character, former high sheriff and county councillor John "Tiggy" Birkbeck.

In 1965, the house hit local and national headlines when it was the subject of a burglary with 40 historic snuff boxes stolen along with a pair of double-barrel guns. Apparently. Capt Birkbeck himself tracked down the thief so retrieved the stolen goods on Thetford Chase in the moonlight - and the criminal was eventually arrested!

So what do you get for your money?

The house itself is an architectural delight in that it is believed it may have been designed by an employee of Matthew Brettingham, who first worked supervising the construction of Holkham Hall and designed Gunton Hall, being later known for his Palladian, Italian-inspired structures, very much evident in High House.

For example, entering the house through the front door leads into the main entrance hall with a wide, really impressive stone staircase, with the red carpet rolled out, to a half landing with pillars either side, candelabras overhead and an absolutely stunning ceiling bearing decorative plasterwork.

This kind of entrance emulated the grand openings to the palaces of ancient Rome - basically stamping authority; built as a status symbol evoking power and importance. This staircase then leads to the first floor with the magnificent gallery which dominates the interior of the house and gives access to the principal reception rooms and bedrooms. There is an impressive dining room with two open fireplaces, a stone floor and an unusual ceiling rose in the form of Medusa.

There is a drawing room at the west end with a door through to the far drawing room at the front of the house with views over the park. There is a library with floor to ceiling bookcases and a notable master bedroom suite comprising four bedrooms and a bathroom.

In total there are five reception rooms and 13 bedrooms over two floors, giving in total about 24,500 sq ft of accommodation. The house sits in 298 acres of its own parkland including a two-and-a-half acre walled garden with agricultural land to the north, west and south and woodland of about 800 acres.

The property is for sale with estate agents Strutt & Parker, also selling the Kelling estate, and described by James Laing, a partner from the London office, as one of "Norfolk's superb family estates which very rarely come to the market". In his brochure, he also calls it a "hidden and little known West Norfolk jewel - secluded and private".

The property was rewired in the early 1990s and reroofed in the late 1990s but could benefit from some modernisation and reorganisation.

When contacted its current owner, Henry Birkbeck, he said: "For family reasons I am not prepared to say anything," so it is not known exactly why he is selling.

The sale is divided into two lots, with the house, 1,030 acres of arable and parkland, 58 acres of woodland, a secondary house divided into three and five cottages. Also included is a Grade I-listed stable block built in the early 1800s, and an impressive ice house. This lot is for sale for offers in excess of £4.25m.

The second lot is the estate - Park House and Dairy Cottage, Home Farm Cottage, 698 acres of arable land, 32 of pasture and 48 of woodland with farmland suitable for growing cereal, sugar beet, potatoes and some vegetables. This lot is for sale for offers in excess of £5.25m - or both lots can be bought for £9.5m. Unlike Kelling Hall, which is for sale lock, stock and barrel, the majority of the estate land is being kept by the Birkbecks and is not for sale.

For more information, contact Strutt & Parker on 0207 318 5185 or 01603 617431.

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