Rose Cholmondeley explores North Runcton Lodge, a beautiful, formerly derelict house in Norfolk that artist-owner, Kate Giles, first visited as a child. Rose discovers the courage, vision and artistic alchemy it's taken for Kate, and husband Tim Ellis, to conjure magic in this once dying house.

 

BY ROSE CHOLMONDELEY | 15 DECEMBER 2023

 

It was during her early childhood years, while living in a rickety Georgian Rectory in Norwich, England, that Kate Giles first came to visit North Runcton Lodge, then belonging to relatives Noel and Helen Gurney, and their three children.

“It always felt totally magical,” Kate says. “We used to rush up and down the corridors, delighting in the different levels and steps, and there was a rocking horse in the end room which I adored.” In the spring, the house looked out on a “tapestry of daffodils that almost swarmed; we were mesmerised.”

However, her family moved back to London when she was 11 and it wasn’t until many years later, while furtively looking at houses online, that Kate came across the property again and, despite its dilapidation, immediately recognised it from her childhood memories. “I suppose I became quite obsessed,” she admits. 

In its present state, it is easy to understand why it cast such a spell on Kate. It’s a house of endless curiosities, hidden cubby holes and cupboards, cornices inexplicably cut short, sealed up doors and hidden walls. Along one passageway, an upward sliding door reveals a secret stairway to the attics. Here, the doorways to the three bedrooms slant jauntily in line with the steeply vaulted ceiling. The end one, most intriguingly, has in its centre a sliding hatch or peephole, summoning fantasies of a Mrs Rochester figure kept captive behind. Indeed, the whole Narnia-like abode inspires an almost irresistible, childish desire to explore and discover.

Its exact history is also quite a mystery, but it's fair to assume the house was once the lodge for North Runcton Hall, an Elizabethan pile, rebuilt in 1835 and finally pulled down in the 1960s. The core of the building dates back to the 1580s, but was extended twice 200 years later, with Dutch gables added to the front elevation in 1800. Having belonged to the Gurney family for many generations, it was sold at the end of the last century, and changed hands again soon after.  

Both owners did little for its upkeep or redecoration, and during this period the house fell into a precipitous decline. It had been empty for several years before fate brought Kate, and husband Tim Ellis, to its rescue in 2017. Tim was initially reticent, finding it hard to ignore the smell of damp and the enormous amount of work needed to make the property habitable. “Kate wanted to save it, and I was dead against it, but when she said this was where she wanted to live and work, I knew I couldn’t get in the way.”

It was undoubtedly a leap of faith. When they first visited, water was pouring down the inside walls and plants were growing within. “The house couldn’t breathe,” Kate says. It was only after two years of essential works - stripping out sodden carpets and wallpaper, rewiring, re-plumbing - that life returned, almost with a sigh of relief.

“You have to live in a house to know what you want to do, and then it will tell you itself. The building owns you and not the other way around,” remarks Tim. “The idea was always to keep as much of its history with as little intervention as possible.”

 

 

This considered and light-handed approach meant no structural changes were made, with the exception of the kitchen. A handful of the rooms were repainted, but in many, the discolored and subtly patinated plaster (a happy result from stripping the wallpaper) are untouched and unexpectedly beautiful.

Much of the old paintwork remains, and patches of aged wallpaper, discovered when removing a piece of furniture, have been purposefully left intact. Panelling found by chance is now fully exposed, unrestored besides the addition of a partly-missing dado rail and cornice. These time-worn walls, a constant reminder of the past, provide a theatrical backdrop to Kate’s fanciful, yet thoughtful, interiors.  

The contents of the house were almost entirely new purchases, as the couple quickly realised Tim’s collection of mid-20th century art and furniture wouldn’t look right. Furniture, old prints and chinaware were found through scouring auction houses, antique shops and decorative fairs, while reclaimed cast iron baths and basins were bought from local salvage dealers. It’s a fascinating mixture; a set of plaster Strapwork, for instance - found at an antiques fair, almost the cause of a fight with another hopeful buyer - hang either side of a heavy four poster, which was bought at auction, painstakingly reassembled, and hung with curtains from another sale.

 

 

Unusual textiles (a passion of Kate’s) abound, with tapestries lining walls, ancient linens and French quilts on beds, and vintage clothes, draped like costumes from a play, along corridors. In one upstairs room an antique paisley fabric, acquired from Katharine Pole, hangs like a canopy above a bed; while in another, an old pelmet creates a half-tester to a bed nestled cosily within an archway. As Kate reflects: “It’s a curious house, as often quite odd things that nobody wanted look good here.”

Kate’s natural talent to create and see beauty where others might not, is perhaps unsurprising given her profession. Indeed, many of Kate’s artworks, predominantly semi-abstract Norfolk landscape paintings, adorn the walls of North Runcton. They show an obsessive sensibility, with the capacity to be enthralled and captivated by a specific place, often returning to the same subject over and over again.

And just like the stark, stripped walls and corridors in the house, so too in her work does Kate allow the natural texture of the canvas or wood to come through and play its part. “I think the instinct to put things together is the same instinct that is germane to painting,” she observes.

“It’s basically colour, texture, composition and all the usual suspects. If you are putting two or three things on a shelf it really matters to me where they are. With painting you carry on until it feels right and it’s the same with a room.”

 

 

Kate’s intuitive approach to collecting and arranging appears effortless. A geometric Eileen Gray carpet in one sitting room seems in conversation with a collection of large glass and earthenware vessels carefully placed in front of a window, while two of Kate’s large monochrome paintings - inspired by David Lucas’s mezzotints after Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral - hang opposite each other in the hallway. The spires mirror a pair of towering shell candlesticks, created by fellow Norfolk artist, Carolyn Brooke-Davies, which are perfectly positioned below.

In the narrow passageway leading to the kitchen, meanwhile, a video-work of shimmering sea scenes by Lynn Denison is projected on to the ceiling - a witty nod to the once wet walls - while tables throughout are decked with collections of curious items, including three pale celadon-colored pots bought from school friend, Edmund de Waal (“when he still sold or gave away ‘seconds’”).

This truly is a home where every room tells multiple stories. Kate’s passion for North Runcton Lodge is palpable as she tours the rooms, explaining the numerous decisions made in its restoration. It seems an unlikely full circle to be living in the otherworldly house that enchanted her as a child, but clearly this is where her heart belongs. Time, effort and energy have been fully invested in saving this cherished home; but retaining its soul, and living in harmony with it, is perhaps the greatest achievement of all.

 

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