Norton Conyers. Norton Conyers © Christopher Simon Skyes.

LONDON
– Celebrated as the inspiration for Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the late medieval house, Norton Conyers, has taken the prize for this year’s Historic Houses Association & Sotheby’s Restoration Award.

Launched in 2008, this award draws attention to the United Kingdom’s wide array of historic houses, encouraging visitors and generating publicity for the winning properties. It recognises and supports the meticulous care, dedication and restoration efforts continually made by private owners of the nominated properties, all of whom are members of the Historic Houses Association

Norton Conyers, a 17th century manor house near Ripon in North Yorkshire, is home to Sir James and Lady Graham, and has been in the Graham family since 1624. The couple, who have kept Norton Conyers and its collection since 1996, began restoration on the property in 2006 and have spent the past eight years uncovering layers of fascinating historical detail within the home.


The staircase before. Photo © Courtesy of Sir James Graham.

As the story goes, Charlotte Brontë is believed to have first visited Norton Conyers on a day trip in 1839 when she was employed as a governess, much like the heroine protagonist of her 1847 novel. During her visit, Brontë was told of a family legend in which a madwoman was imprisoned in the attic of the house. This tale reappeared in Jane Eyre as the fate of Mrs Rochester, the wife of Mr Rochester, who was restrained in the attic of Thornfield Hall.


The staircase after. Photo © Courtesy of Sir James Graham.

Strangely, in 2004, a secret staircase was discovered that lead to a third storey attic that is now known as ‘the Mad Woman’s room’, although at the time of her visit, Brontë could not have known of the room’s existence. The Graham’s have since added a door hidden within 19th century oak panelling to provide access to the attic, thus opening the space to the public for the first time.  The restoration works have augmented many features of Norton Conyers that were detailed in Brontë’s novel, such as the broad oak staircase and the battlements around the roof. Even the library has been refurnished to resemble Brontë’s description of Mr Rochester’s study.  During the restoration, Sir James and Lady Graham also uncovered Tudor painted boards hidden beneath 18th century plaster, and wallpaper from the 1760s was found in the main staircase passage.

Of a shortlist that included eight properties, the judges commended The Grotto at Painshill Park in Surrey, The Orangery at Weston Park in Shropshire, and the Encombe House in Dorset.  Norton Conyers is a Graded II-listed house and will reopen to the public in July 2015 upon completion of its final refurbishment phase.