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Inside Seaton Delaval Hall, whose previous owners packed the house with practical jokes

Eleanor Doughty
Inside the central block at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland, which was gutted by fire in 1822 - National Trust Images

If you’re not careful, you could miss Seaton Delaval Hall – which seems impossible when you look at it. Sir John Vanbrugh’s architectural masterpiece sits on the side of The Avenue, 15 miles from the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, imposing with its central hall and two wings. Yet plenty of ­people drive straight past it, surprised by its sudden appearance, says Emma Thomas, its general manager.

In 1718, Admiral George Delaval commissioned Vanbrugh, the architect of Castle Howard, to build him a mansion. The resulting “playhouse” has two reception rooms on the ground floor and bedrooms upstairs.

The mansion was built on a ­bastioned mount, which looks from a distance like cushioned rolls of stone resembling springs, as if the house is the top of a jack-in-the-box. This quirky style is fitting for a family that became known for a playful attitude to life.

After Admiral ­Delaval died in 1723, his nephew, Captain Francis Blake Delaval, took over, building an east and west wing; later, his son Sir Francis ­Delaval would go on to build a south wing, which historians believe might have, in time, been accompanied by a north wing.

Seaton Delaval Hall Credit: National Trust Images/John Hammond

Captain Francis and his wife Rhoda Apreece had 12 children, a gang of ­mischief-makers known as the Gay ­Delavals who constructed elaborate schemes to unnerve visitors. Guests would retire to their bedrooms to find that while they were undressing, ­mechanical hoists would raise the ­bedroom walls, exposing them to their hosts. In one room, a four-poster bed could be lowered into a tank of water, wound by a handle in the room next door. In another, guests would wake to find the room upside down, with chairs and tables stuck to the ceiling.

But the fun couldn’t last forever. When the captain’s son Edward Delaval died in 1814, the house passed to his nephew Sir Jacob Astley, a Norfolk landowner. In 1822, a fire broke out in the south wing, gutting Vanbrugh’s central block, as well as the south wing. Local people managed to save some furniture and the archives, along with the stables and kitchen wings, but the rest of the house was without a roof. The fire had burnt so hot that the windowpanes ran down the wall like water.

In one room, a four-poster bed could be lowered into a tank of water, wound by a handle in the room next door

Now owned by the National Trust, the house is set to undergo a huge ­restoration. But this not be an ­ordinary country house rescue, as the fire left the majority of the property a conserved shell.

The trust has to overhaul whole parts of the house, rather than simply sprucing up curtains, or gluing down wallpaper. It will restore the flagstone floors in the basement, secure the ­spiral staircase, conserve parts of the roof, and provide new visitor facilities, including a pathway system inspired by a 1781 estate plan. A former barn-cum-brewhouse will also be converted into a new café. In April, the house was awarded a £3.7 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help conserve parts of the house and landscape; the total cost of the project will be £7.8 million, with the remainder of the money coming from the trust and public donations.

While the damage caused by the blaze is plain, Jo Moody, the National Trust curator, finds the silver lining. “It means we’ve got a work by Vanbrugh which hasn’t been rejigged by 250 years of intensive living in it, apart from the lost interiors, of course.” The house remained a roofless ruin until 1859, when Sir Jacob’s son, also called Jacob, installed cast-iron columns to support the internal structure.

The Seven Eldest Children of Captain Francis Delaval and Rhoda Apreece Credit: National Trust Images/John Hammond

A century later, following Seaton ­Delaval’s stint as a prisoner-of-war camp in the Second World War, ­Edward Astley, the 22nd Baron Hastings, opened the house to the public. “I had three objectives in mind: the maintenance and improvement of the fabric, not only for the present day but for the future; the preservation of a monument, architecturally and ­historically priceless; the pleasure I hoped it would afford many thousands of holiday-makers,” he wrote in 1966.

Delaval Astley, the 23rd Baron, faced with an inheritance tax bill after his father’s death in 2007, gave Seaton Delaval to the National Trust ­after a public appeal for funds. It ­reopened in 2010. His late father’s idea, that the house would be a great draw for holidaymakers, has come to fruition: last year, the house welcomed 78,000 visitors, which Thomas hopes will ­increase to 104,000 when the first phase of restoration is complete.

View along the arcade of one of the wings at Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland Credit: National Trust Images/Dennis Gilbert

Standing in the basement, where new flagstone floors are to go down, she explains that the restored Seaton ­Delaval won’t be over-interpreted, a criticism that has been levelled at other trust properties in recent years. “These rooms say so much as they are. We’re going to do just a couple of ­installations here, rather than over-­explaining them.”

Telling the story of the servants is a priority, adds Moody. “We’re keen to pick out what the staff were up to in supporting the pranks and jokes that went on here – in order to make Seaton Delaval tick.”