The salvation and restoration of Gunton Park: ‘Everyone thought it was a hopeless cause 25 years ago’

Every Tuesday, we take a look back into the Country Life archive to revisit an architecture article from the past.

This week it’s the turn of Gunton Park, which in 2007 was celebrating victory in the Genius of the Place award.  That prize was well-deserved: a huge amount of effort had gone into turning the place around, and saving a jewel of the nation which might have been tarnished forever.

Today, Gunton Park is a kind of paradise. Twenty years ago, the picture was almost the reverse. The degraded parkland had been in arable use for decades, and the park trees untended. The final fragmentation of the estate, owned by the Harbord family since the 17th century, seemed to threaten the total destruction of a once-proud Georgian landscape.

This was a matter of major concern to Kit Martin, the entrepreneurial architect who had rescued the part-derelict mansion house (designed originally by Matthew Brettingham in 1742, and extended by Samuel and James Wyatt), and converted it and its estate buildings into 20 dwellings, one of which was his own home. Mr Martin observes: ‘I had put all my energy into saving the house, but I came to realise at Gunton – perhaps more than at any of my other projects – that the designed landscape was as important as the quality of the architecture itself.’

Mr Martin’s determination to reverse the decline of the historic parkland and the relationship of that parkland to the main house and other listed park buildings, and his persuasion of others to join him or support him in the enterprise, were cited as particular reasons why Gunton Park was chosen as the winner of the Genius of the Place Award, from a list of six highly impressive finalists, each with their own hugely inspiring and impressive stories.

Award-judge Lady Carlisle referred to ‘The extraordinarily complex process by which such a handsome result has been achieved. There is great evidence of consulting the genius of the place in the revival of old parkland, but also in imaginative new buildings, the encouragement of wildlife, practical use of land and, above all, tremendous patience’.

A view of the exterior of Gunton Park seen from over the lake.

Mr Martin — who with his wife, Sally, lived first in a house in the main mansion, later moving to a farmhouse in the park — shares this award with neighbour Ivor Braka; Charles Harbord-Hamond has also restored the historic parkland in his ownership, which means that, although in different ownerships, most of the original parkland has been revived. Mr Martin says: ‘Without Ivor’s enthusiasm and determination to revive the parkland that he could see from his home in the restored Observatory Tower, we couldn’t have achieved the revival of Gunton Park.’

Mr Braka, a London art dealer, came across the tower by chance when staying with a friend in a house in the main mansion. ‘The owner came round to dinner that night by chance, and wanted to sell. Soon afterwards came Marcus Binney’s article in Country Life (May 8, 1986), which made me aware of the degree of despoliation of landscape, and it became a mission to start buying back the land.

The observatory tower at Gunton Park. ©Paul Barker/Country Life

‘I have been very motivated to restore the ecology of the park. My personal hero in all this has been Keith Ward, who played the major role in new tree planting.’ Mr Martin adds: ‘I think the whole theme of this place and this project has been ‘partnership’, between friends, neighbours, agents and agencies, our deerkeeper, James Ellis, stockmen, builders, blacksmiths who remade miles of park railings, those who helped us put nearly a mile of electrical power cables underground rather than overhead, and so on.’

He also pays tribute to the district council, Defra, the Norfolk Windmills Trust, which restored the sawmill, and the Churches Conservation Trust, which cares for the Robert Adam chapel (designed to appear as a temple in the park).

The chapel at Gunton Park was designed to resemble a garden temple. ©Paul Barker/Country Life

The biggest challenge at Gunton was that the original parkland – a classic example of a Georgian landscape which had grown throughout the 18th century, from contributions by Bridgeman to Repton and later W. S. Gilpin -was divided between six different farmers. ‘The tenant farmers acquired the land in the early 1980s, after I acquired the house, and they set about making the fields more efficient, and thus started to fell park trees. In the 1940s and 1950s, it had been possible to convert parkland into arable land without doing this, but by the 1980s, the scale of the machinery required the clearance. We knew then we would have to start buying back land or lose the last vestige of this glorious landscape.’

John Phibbs did a landscape survey. Mr Martin managed to agree one of the first ever Countryside Stewardship schemes with Defra. He explains: ‘We have followed the spirit of the historic parkland here, and not sought to re-create it slavishly.

If it was Gilpin, we have planted in his characteristic clumps; if Repton, then more with single oaks. It is about using the principles of the past work here.’ The reintroduction of a deer herd – a mixture of fallow and red – to the park is one of the most impressive elements. The deer herd has now been going for 19 years and has supplied several other parks with new stock, such as Harewood in Yorkshire, and the Royal parks at Richmond.

The park is once again the perfect setting for this important listed mansion, and the 14 other listed buildings in the park. Crispin Holborow of Savills observes: ‘I think all the shortlisted estates and finalists were profoundly inspiring in different ways. Gunton impressed the judges with the ingenuity of the solutions and the determination of Mr Martin and Mr Braka to put something special back at Gunton, a place that everyone must have thought was a hopeless cause 25 years ago.’