Built as probably the world’s most ostentatious retirement home for Admiral Delaval, in 1728, Delaval Hall near the village of Seaton Delaval in the North East of England, has had as dramatic and colourful a history as its very eccentric aristocratic owners. It was in danger of being sold off to property developers, after both Lord and Lady Hastings (direct descendants of the Delavals on the female side) died in the same year in 2007. The local community was inspired and rallied to save the Hall, starting a great fund raising effort. It was finally taken over by the National Trust in 2009 and they have set about restoring its unique features and telling the story of those naughty Delavals to the new twenty first century visitors.
A very civilised Sunday
We visited this year on the day of the Men’s final at Wimbledon and there was Pimms and cream teas in the summer house while folk sat on National Trust Deck chairs next to the lily pond and listened to the match on the radio. So civilised!
Tuning in to the tennis
The gardens are quite beautiful and the tiny ancient chapel of Our Lady in the grounds is almost 1000 years old. I’m not really into churches but this is a special one and my favourite of all. The Hall itself is packed with fascinating objects and furniture from different periods of history. I loved the beautiful detailed tapestries on the chairs lining the west wing gallery telling the tale of a Delaval off to war, and the commanding portraits of other family members all of whom have an interesting story
The local volunteers are so enthusiastic and have so much information you really have to ask them things to get the most out of your visit. I took a particular shine to John Seymour 83, a local historian who had previously studied the Hartley Pit disaster which was the subject of one of my early blogs. John was stationed in the mahogany room which was one of the few which actually survived the great fire. He was looking after lots of old documents from the hey days of the Hall. He proudly displayed a special key which was made featuring a silhouette of the grand house itself, awarded to those who had helped to raise funds to save it from oblivion..
John and his special key to the kingdom
There were many fascinating documents but some which caught my eye in particular were original and entirely eccentric dinner menus. They featured dishes such as ‘Invisible greens,’ ‘Soles and Eels,’ ‘Mock Turtle soup,’ ‘Sham Hippopotamus,’ ‘Leg o’ nothing (boiled),’ ‘Pat my gun Piggy Wiggy’ and my favourite – ‘Shake ass and go imaginary stew!’ Heaven knows what was in that. In addition, the recorded orders for provision of prodigious amounts alcohol were nothing short of impressive. 65 bottles of port wine were ordered for one picnic alone, and we worked out from the beer order that 1,160 pints a day were being quaffed. The Delavals certainly knew how to party, and I can’t help but think that these would have been extremely memorable occasions and rather like something straight out of Alice in Wonderland.
Don’t look down!
The Delaval family had owned the estate since the time of the Norman conquest and Admiral George Delaval bought it from an impoverished kinsman Sir John Delaval. George Delaval had made his fortune from capturing prize ships while in the Navy, and also served as a hostage negotiator when effected the release of some 200 British hostages from with Barbary pirates marauding the the South coast. Quite cool on anyone’s CV.
The architect of Delaval Hall was the celebrated John Vanbrugh who also designed Castle Howard. Vanbrugh advised complete demolition of all except the ancient chapel near to the mansion and a total rebuild was underway. The construction work was completed in 1728, two years after the death of the Admiral. The resulting new mansion was the last country house Vanbrugh designed, and it is regarded as his finest work. On completion, the Admiral’s nephew Francis Blake Delaval (the elder) inherited the property, and moved in immediately.
Everything in the garden is rosy
During its lifetime Delaval Hall wasn’t lived in a great deal as in 1822, the central block was gutted by a fire said to have been caused by jackdaws nesting in the chimneys of the section of the south-east wing. I overheard one of the guides saying that Delaval had sent word that he was coming home and to put all the fires on to warm up the hall (no central heating in those days) and in the servants enthusiasm it all went horribly wrong and they heated the hall up just a bit too much. The effects of the fire remain clearly visible in the great hall, but despite having no roof for over 140 years the place is still standing, although the 10 foot tall muse statues are displaying understandable signs of wear and tear.
A hall with a view
Among other things the Hall was used to house German prisoners-of-war in WWII, who worked as labourers on neighbouring farms. Sir Francis Delaval was one of the hall’s most colourful inhabitants. He liked wine women, song and theatre. He shot coins out of a cannon to buy votes for himself as an MP and he took a bet that he couldn’t build a castle in day (which he actually did, and its remains can still be seen in the grounds) He wasn’t the most sensible custodian of the hall, but probably the most entertaining.
Have a seat!
Today, Seaton Delaval Hall is a perfectly charming place to visit. Beautiful grounds, a tea shop a little second hand book outlet (I got the latest John Grisham for 50p!) and a whole heap of history. Don’t miss it this summer!