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2:35pm Wednesday 1st September 2010 in Interiors
First impressions can often deceive and that’s certainly the case as you approach Carlton Towers, where the meandering drive finally turns to reveal a majestic façade that suggests Victorian Gothic.
Sunlight glistens on the gold hands of an imposing clock tower which sits in perfect symmetry amid adjacent chimneys and as you pass through the wrought-iron gates, a sweeping flight of stairs comes into view; a confection of fleur de lys and acanthus leaves leading up to the heavily-studded oak front door.
But the exterior masks Jacobean origins and the clue to its real age sits dowager-like on the left. A three-storeyed square block clad in ivy turns out to be the original Carlton Hall of 1614 and a manor house on the site was mentioned in the Domesday Book.
In fact Carlton has been passed entirely by inheritance since the Norman Conquest and today’s owners are Lord and Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard who moved in when they married in 1991.
Howards have the bluest of blood and rank second only to the royal family in the British peerage. Lord Gerald is a direct descendent of Edward I and two of his ancestors, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were wives of Henry VIII.
Gerald and Emma live in the old wing with their children Arthur, Florence and Grace, but the rest of the house is given over to wedding receptions and corporate events.
While the 19th-Century Gothic transformation was down to Henry, 9th Lord Beaumont and his architect Edward Welby Pugin, Emma has given the place a makeover of her own.
“Carlton is an immense responsibility,” she says. “Gerald’s father lived here as the Duke of Norfolk and when we moved in he said, ‘I trust you, do anything you want to the house’.”
While it is not a hotel, you can stay at Carlton Towers, and Emma’s latest project is to add 11 stunning new bedrooms in the Bachelor Wing, a long, elegant corridor leading from the Minstrels’ Gallery. Each of the ensuite rooms have unrivalled views over the walled garden and have been decorated to the highest standard.
“I used Lewis and Wood fabrics and wallpapers throughout because they really work here,” says Emma. “Some are very lush, others are plain linens, but they all work well together.
“I designed the rooms using instinct really, I wanted to be traditional but I didn’t think this is a Victorian house or we needed to go back to Domesday, so I injected a bit of newness such as chrome lamps and square headboards in some of them.”
Emma has also created the lap of luxury in the Baroness’s Tower, a suite of rooms on the west wing which boasts an enormous copper bath, four-poster bed and far-reaching views of the gardens and countryside.
Then there are the Norfolk and Glossop suites in the clock tower which offer the sort of panoramic views you might expect and again feature massive freestanding bath tubs and four-poster beds with lavish drapes.
“I love pairs; I can’t have a dressing table with just one lamp, there has to be two. For me it is about symmetry and detail. If a picture hanging above a fireplace is just a bit off-centre it really bugs me.”
Emma’s new suites complement others such as the fascinating Priest’s Hiding Hole Room complete with four-poster bed and glass floor panels through which you can see where hapless men of the cloth escaped persecution during the Reformation.
At Carlton Towers, the main business these days is weddings and corporate hospitality and the elegant state rooms offer a chance to live like lords for the day.
The Venetian Drawing Room is the epitome of grandeur with an exquisite painted ceiling, sparkling chandeliers and opulent marble fireplace, whereas the Bow Drawing Room is a far more intimate affair, cosy even, with ruby walls, sumptuous textiles, and a log fire which begs you to curl up beside it.
“The state rooms were built as a sort of folly,” says Gerald. “And it’s only now that they are really being used for what they were designed for. If today you were going to produce somewhere for weddings and conferences, it would be exactly like this. The rooms lead through to one another and it’s as if Pugin had foresight of things to come.”
While throwing the doors open to the public may be a sign of the times, Emma sees it as a positive move. “It’s fine really because of the door that separates our part of the house. We’ve chosen to do functions and let the bedrooms because we have to, the upkeep here is extraordinary. But we’re very lucky to have this absolute cut-off wing. It’s so well designed, almost unintentionally, and totally separate.”
But Emma and Gerald don’t take Carlton Towers for granted and they are a surprisingly ordinary couple. Yes, they need help to clean the place and with 200 acres, a gardener is essential, but both are very down to earth.
“Although the house is a stately home, there is nothing stately about us,” says Emma. “Gerald does the cooking, because he’s a great chef, and I clear up. It’s a great arrangement.”
With parkland and farmland to play with, Carlton Towers is also gaining a reputation for quality partridge shooting. The birds are bred as part of a carefully-managed conservation programme which won silver in the 2007 Purdey awards.
We all need a bit of splendour every now and then, and with Carlton Towers on the doorstep finery fit for the nobility is there whenever you want it.