It’s one of the most individual properties in King’s Lynn and it’s still undergoing a loving and sympathetic restoration thanks to its history-loving owners. Charlotte Thorneycroft is invited to Clifton House…
Nestled into the Georgian backdrop of King Street, Clifton House is a completely unique property dating back to the days when King’s Lynn was first established as a wealthy trading town. Built mainly in the 15th century, the property still has many original features and surviving elements, thanks to the considerate actions of past owners.
Its Georgian facade (like so many disguising our medieval town) is a later edition, a facelift to revamp an old tired building in the same way we renovate our modern houses today to move with the times.
Inside the Grade I listed property there are historic interiors spanning a wide timeline from the 13th century to the 18th.
Happily, the property is now in the best possible hands for a historic building such as this – Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage and his wife Anna, who is also a historian. The couple have lovingly breathed life into the ancient rooms to create a wonderful family home which they share with their two young children, without losing any of the historic details.
Having stood empty for a period of time the property was taken over by the King’s Lynn Preservation Trust who undertook some costly repairs and protection work to prevent further damage from the elements.
What Simon and his wife purchased was a shell of a magnificent building with years-worth of renovation needing to take place.
“We gave ourselves a 10-year plan for the building which we thought to be a realistic target,” says Simon.
“Now we’ve reached the halfway point – there’s still some way to go but a great deal has already been achieved. Plumbing and electrics all had to be installed, and some rooms even needed floors so we kept lots of local tradesmen busy! Much of the panelling was damaged or missing so this has been a major project and it still continues.
“With any property of this age, ongoing maintenance is always required, which often eats away at the budget for other things, but we are both passionate about Clifton House.”
The jewel in the crown of this building is Clifton House Tower which was built in 1520. Many of the merchants of the town had towers built onto their properties, but these weren’t used to observe the return of their ships, as many people believe.
In a port where wealth created from the docks was in abundance, merchants would use these towers as a status symbol to show off their riches to others in the same way their ships would be built bigger and more impressive than their neighbours.
Clifton’s tower was the biggest in the town and the only one still remaining from the era that built King’s Lynn.
The Elizabethan tower is five storeys high with one room at each level and a terrace at the very top. Simon Thurley describes this as one of his favourite parts of the house.
“In the summer it’s lovely to have family meals in the tower dining room which is laid out as it would have been in the 1500s,” he explains.
“We also enjoy taking friends up onto the top of the tower for drinks whilst they admire the breathtaking views of the whole town – a sight which cannot be matched anywhere in Lynn.”
Another of Clifton’s most distinctive features is the vaulted undercroft – which was the first brick building in King’s Lynn. This would have been used to store wine (a regular import to the town) and was the business of Clifton’s first resident. A series of equally-distinguished residents followed, mostly merchants (many of whom also became mayor) but possibly even the Bishop.
Throughout the property the decor compliments the historic features, with authentic paint colours from the English Heritage range chosen by Simon’s wife Anna, an expert in historic interior design for English Heritage.
Most of the rooms are now 16th–17th century in style although the kitchen is still Tudor. The staircase leading from the main entrance is particularly impressive, and the morning room on the ground floor (although one of the most modern in the house) is a wonderfully casual sitting room where the sunlight floods in from the large windows.
Each year the Thurleys kindly open the doors of Clifton House and its tower to the public, sharing this fabulous piece of King’s Lynn’s heritage.
“The property had a tradition of being open to the public for 30 or 40 years and we both felt that this should continue when we purchased Clifton House,” says Simon.
“There isn’t another property like this in the town – and our open days are a great opportunity for people to see one of King’s Lynn’s most important remaining buildings.” KL