Where do I start in trying to describe Holkham?  And it’s not just me. Historic England’s  Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest says : ” Because of the complexity of this site, the standard Register entry format would convey neither an adequate description nor a satisfactory account of the development of the landscape” and then proceeds to give a 2300 word brief summary of one of the the largest and most significant landscapes parks in the country.

The Holkham Hall estate is on the north Norfolk coast, near Wells-next-the-Sea and is enormous to put it mildly. The scale almost has to be seen to be believed. The walled park around the house  stretches about 3km east to west and 4 km north to south, and covers an area of  over 1200 ha.   While its landscape of pasture, woods and water look entirely natural they are  largely a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed the  estate’s  development much of which is recorded in Holkham’s extensive archives reads like a roll-call of the great and good in garden and architectural history.

It was laid out between the 1720s and 1760s by Thomas Coke, [later earl of Leicester] with the  help or advice  of Lord Burlington, William Kent, Colen Campbell and Matthew Brettingham. Later Lancelot Brown, William Emes, Samuel Wyatt and Humphry Repton, all had associations with the site whilst in the mid-19thc more work was carried out  by William Burn, William Andrews Nesfield, Samuel Teulon and Thomas Sandys.


So a trip to see Holkham was bound to be eye-opening!

The Coke family rose to prominence with James I’s Lord Chief  Justice, Sir Edward who bought up several estates in Norfolk to set his 6 sons up with a  good start in life. His fourth son, John, inherited the land at Holkham and after marrying local heiress Meriel Wheatley in 1612 lived at Hill Hall  the forerunner of the present Holkham Hall. But it is with Thomas Coke who inherited the estate in 1707 at the age of ten that the Holkham story really begins.  Like most others of his class Thomas went on  the Grand Tour in 1712 although he was only 15 and he stayed away for six years not returning to England until 1718 just in time for his coming-of-age.

On his travels he not only assembled a large collection of art and antiquities – including the Codex Leicester, containing 36 sheets of scientific observations by Leonardo da Vinci, which was sold at auction in 1980 for over $5 million- but he  met and befriended two of the most important cultural figures of his day: Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, who was to become the principal promoter of the Palladian revival in England and the artist and designer William Kent. Both were to become  advisors for his architectural projects at Holkham.

A couple of weeks after his return Thomas Coke, in an arranged match, married the 18 yr old Lady Margaret Tufton,  daughter of the  Earl of Thanet.  She bought a dowry 0f £15000.  Although the couple would be spending most of their time in London and only used Hill House  in the autumn Thomas  began  planning a replacement house.   Initially, in 1722, he seems to have approached William Talman who was paid for a set of drawings and then in 1724 Colen Campbell  was also paid for drawings. Unfortunately neither set survive.


But while he was thinking about the house, and indeed actually chose the site for it work was very slow to get started. Instead work began on the landscape. Coke and his estate steward  began to reform the farm holdings, enclosing land, diverting roads and partially removing the existing village  to enable the development of the future mansion and its gardens.  Then he and his head gardener, John Aram, began laying out carriage drives around the estate and a geometrically-inspired  landscape centred around where the house was to be built.   It was  based around a long main vista running from north to south right across the estate and had an avenue leading south for half a mile to a limestone obelisk designed by Kent, but adapted by local architect Matthew Brettingham,  on the highest point.

A large block of woodland – Obelisk Wood – was planted around it.  This hides a Doric temple, also by Kent, also dating from c 1730 which is the first building Coke commissioned.  Built of white brick with some Bath stone for the portico,  its cupola and central octagonal room may well have been inspired by Burlington’s villa at Chiswick. Burlington  certainly is supposed to have called it ‘the best-executed piece of work he had seen performed in his lifetime.’

It was clearly a destination on walks, rides or drives and was hung with crimson damask and furnished with chairs. Unsurprisingly its now a wedding venue.

From the obelisk  the avenue then ran on for another half-mile to  a triumphal arch just outside the park boundary which was once the main point of entry to the estate from the then main road. Finished in 1760 it was again built by Brettingham but based on designs by Kent.

“When the hall was built,” explained Lady Leicester  in an interview for Great British Life “status was somewhat determined by the length of one’s drive. The arch was built to extend the South Drive, as entering under it as they must have done in their carriages, meant an even longer drive and by the time guests arrived at the hall, they would have been properly overawed, if not travel-weary.”   The arch is now a holiday let and there are a couple of pictures of the interior – well we’re all a bit nosey – in the article with more on the letting site.


Around the same time the accounts show that work began on damming up the little stream, the Clint, that ran across the site intended to create a “Canale”  which was linked to existing geometrical ponds. It was the start of what was eventually to become  the lake or “Great Water”.  A bridge was put up and Kent even planned small pavilions to ornament the banks. Geese and ducks were imported to stock it.


Coke also bought in large numbers of “forest trees” and  planted  belts of them round the estate’s boundary, while nursery was installed to raise “evergreens of all sorts”.  He was equally keen on exotics, building an orangery and later, in 1735,  an “ananas house” [for growing pineapples]. There was an ice house too while four  acres of ground were walled in for a kitchen garden with more outside for growing vegetables.

Lastly in about 1734 work began on “the New Park” which was enclosed with a timber fence although it seems deer were not introduced for another hundred years or so.  However  animals and birds of all kinds  did arrive in the 1740s when an aviary and thatched menagerie were added.

Unfortunately Coke had lost  the enormous sum of £37,000  in the speculation around the South Sea Bubble in 1720.  The interest alone ate up a third of his £7,000 annual income so it wasn’t until 1734, after several non-Norfolk landholdings were sold off,  that the foundations of the new house were eventually laid.  By then  Coke had abandoned Campbell’s suggestions and turned for ideas and advice to Burlington and Kent.  The result of this collaboration led to a palatial but externally extremely austere two storey mansion.  Unusually it wasn’t built of stone but of local  white  bricks from a brickworks established on the estate.  The design is based loosely on Palladio’s unbuilt Villa Mocenigo with an unornamented  principal facade over 100m long.  Internally the story was somewhat different with Kent’s taste for “the eloquence of a plain surface”  coming to the fore in  what Nigel Nicholson described in Great Houses of Britain in 1965 as   “the finest Palladian interior in England.”


The construction was overseen and  completed by Norfolk architect Matthew Brettingham the Elder, whose own drawings from 1726 still survive and who was already being paid £50pa  for “taking care of his Lordship’s buildings”.  He published a book of the designs dedicated to the Countess in 1761. As can be seen from the plan the Hall  has a large central core of state rooms and four large corner blocks: one each for family, guests, chapel and domestic offices.

It was a slow slow process!

In 1744 Thomas Coke was created Earl of Leicester, but when he died in 1759 the mansion had still not been finished. His only son had predeceased him and so his widow, Lady Margaret, spent the next five years overseeing  its completion, before  in the early 1760s calling in Capability Brown and paying him 50 guineas a year for 3 years.  It’s unclear precisely what he did, apart from some earth levelling and road layouts but its  likely that, as usual,  he softened much of the existing formality laying out  parkland instead.

Christine Hiskey, Holkham’s archivist, sums up the early stages of the creation of the estate by saying it was “an integrated exercise in which radical changes in local farming, the establishment of a designed landscape and the building of the Hall were interdependent. Then park, like the Hall was not the product off a masterplan by a single designer, but reflected Coke’s vision of how he wanted it to be seen and enjoyed.”   He himself realised what an impact he had had saying “It is a melancholy thing to stand alone in one’s own country. I look around, not a house to be seen but mine own. I am a Giant, of Giant’s Castle and have ate up all my neighbours.”


On Coke’s death Holkham- but not the earldom- was inherited by his nephew, Wenman Roberts [who in the best aristocratic tradition changed his name to Coke] and then on his death in 1776 by his son, another Thomas often known as Coke of Norfolk.

This Thomas Coke was radically minded and became MP for Norfolk in 1776. He was   a friend  of Charles James Fox, and Humphry Repton’s patron, William Windham , but after the Whigs lost office  in 1784 he returned to Holkham  and began a massive programme of agricultural and landscape improvement. He returned to Parliament in 1790 and stayed there until the Great Reform Act of 1832 when he retired.  The title of Earl of Leicester was revived for him in 1837.

Along with the estate Coke had inherited huge debts from both his great-uncle and father. He took out mortgages to clear them but then continued to spend lavishly. He could afford to do this partly because he continued to sell off non-Norfolk estates and more particularly because his farming reforms – particularly in sheep and cattle breeding, soil improvement  and crop rotation- did wonders for the estate’s income which rose from £2,200pa in 1776 to £20,000 in 1816.  Indeed so successful was he that a book was written about it in 1816.     As a result he is often traditionally given credit for  starting the Agricultural Revolution, even though his main contribution was probably developing and promoting techniques and ideas of others on a grand scale, rather being innovative in his own right.

For more on Coke’s agricultural works [and the downside of selling off non-Norfolk land] see Geoff Monks, PhD thesis Land Management: Welbeck and Holkham in the Long Nineteenth Century, 2015 which is available online via The British Library. 

Coke’s  increased income meant that he could not only modernise  the way the estate was run but the way it was laid out. Everything done earlier was  now seen as old-fashioned. Despite what Brown may have done a visitor in 1780 commented that  the layout was “chiefly evergreen cut in Dutch formal vistas and looked very artificial, which is unpleasing in everything.”

There was a huge flurry of activity in both building and landscape work during the 1780s. A new head gardener John Sandys was appointed in 1781 and instigated a massive woodland programme planting of  well over 400,000 trees, including plenty in thick perimeter belts, which can still be seen today.

William Emes was called in to extend and “naturalise” the lake with a curve towards the sea creek at its northern end, which meant diverting the coast road.  Later the southern end was extended with another curved section and this involved the clearance and relocation of the kitchen garden

 The Duke of Rutland visiting in 1796 wrote in his journal: “A beautiful shrubbery hangs over the lake which is one of the finest artificial waters I ever saw It is so well contrived that the eye cannot view the end and the imagination may conceive it to be a river. On each side woods extend to the very margin bowing their foliage over the water with majestic grandeur. At one time the walk came down towards the lake at another receded from it then again the watery expanse burst upon our view forming a beautiful contrast to the noble amphitheatre… [it]  resembled a polished mirror not a ruffle was be seen on the surface except indeed when occasionally a light evening breeze stole over it and rose towards the woods.”

In the northern section  the park today


Sandys retired in 1805 and his successor James Loose continued the woodland work so that by the time the earl died in 1842,  well over a million trees had been planted.  This was possible because gradually, as leases fell due,  the remaining farms on the estate were absorbed into the the home park which grew to over 3000 acres, incorporating virtually the entire parish.

But this was nothing compared with what was to come…but since there’s so much to say about it  I’ll have to continue the story next week.

For more information the best place to start is  Christine Hiskey’s beautiful book Holkham: The Social, Architectural and Landscape History of a Great English Country House, 2016 [although be warned it is £60 -but definitely worth borrowing from the library]. There are also three scholarly articles on the building of the house which also cover to a lesser extent the landscape:   Jonathan Hill,  “Between the Grand Tour and the sublime sea: Thomas Coke and William Kent at Holkham”, The Journal of Architecture,2012, vol 17:1, 33-50;   Frank Salmon,  “Thomas Coke and Holkham 1718 – 1734” in the Georgian Group Journal Vol.23 2015; Leo Schmidt,   “Holkham Hall: An Architectural Whodunnit” in Architectural History, Vol 58 2015

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