Tuesday, November 29, 2011



On the night of a full lunar eclipse, I arrived after dark at a country house in Deepest Norfolk, to spend the weekend with a house full of strangers. It was a dark and stormy night...oh, no, wait a minute. It was actually a clear and crisp evening, the first of many glasses of wine were already poured, and in the hearth a log fire was getting cheerfully underway. 

Our inspiration boudoir
As the guests arrived, we gathered in the Music Room. To live up to its name, this contained a Steinway baby grand piano, a spinet, and diverse violins, guitars and trumpets. It was also decorated with Big Game Hunter flair, including the skins, skeletons, feathers, wings, fur and horns of a variety of animals. Under the glass top of an occasional table pressed butterfly wings made a colourful, rare and fleeting display. And here is a clue to the house: Voewood is known as a ‘butterfly house‘ because of its architectural shape, with two wings spreading from a central hall. It is one of only three left in Norfolk, and was built in 1905 from stone and flint quarried on the site. The quarries now form a sunken garden restored to a spectacular formal arrangement, with clipped hedges, spreading trees and a stone fountain in the centre.

Voewood House was the first of several pleasant discoveries this weekend. What an astonishing place!  The owner and our host, Simon Finch, has not merely restored the house to its warm Arts & Crafts character, but has created an amazing, unique and eccentric wonderland. The decoration of each room is lively and surprising, the house is filled to the brim with artworks, objets and old books. Simon is an antiquarian book dealer. The inaugural Voewood Literary Festival was held in August, when the lovely gardens could absorb the crowds, and there can hardly be a better setting for a weekend designed to inspire nascent writers.

Stretching a metaphor....
And that’s what this crowd of strangers were: embryo writers like caterpillars inside our cocoons, ready to burst forth with butterfly wings. We’d come to sit at the feet, so to speak, of DBC Pierre, fiction writer and winner of the Booker Prize with his very first novel, ‘Vernon God Little’. As it turned out, we did spend a lot of time sitting around the fire with Pierre (a nickname) but also a lot of time sitting around the long Voewood dining table. In the manner of all true gritty fiction writers, we immersed ourselves in late nights, alcohol and roll your own cigarettes (well, some of us). After strong coffee with breakfast, we were ready again to listen to the very generous, honest, detailed and inspiring rambles of Pierre, sitting in front of the fire, the fine gardens of Voewood faintly visible through the leadlight french doors.

In our beautiful and eclectic - even eccentric - surroundings, absorbing conversations sprang up every where. At mealtimes, and long afterwards, as the candles burnt low and the red wine ran out, heads were bowed together in animated and lively discussions. Never have I seen a group gel so quickly and find so much common ground so soon after the first introductions. We parted on Sunday evening having made several pacts: we’ll all be at each others’ book launches, for one. And we’ll all go back to Voewood again.

The Voewood dining table: convivial.
What a house: not only is it a visual cornucopia, the air of the place crackles with vitality. My little room on the third floor was called ‘The Seagull Room’ and was furnished to match. There is a magnificent Games Room, a spectacular downstairs toot (think Lucien Freud and Mondrian), a wonderland of a bathroom known as ‘The Shell Bathroom’. But the most popular space was under the rafters in one of the butterfly ‘wings’: the Chill Room, the Sixties Room: hey man, cool. The country kitchen with an Aga warming the room, a mosaic-tiled sunroom off the terrace, a huge central meeting room with a baronial sized hearth. Words fail me. The pictures will have to do to show you a small sample of Voewood’s interiors.

The Sixties Room
Watch their website for news of next year’s Voewood Literary Festival in August. How many members of the freshly-minted ‘Voewood Group’  - the Voewoddians - will have completed their novels by then? Excuse me, I have some work to do.....

The swans were never fully explained...

Just a house and some books...electric
Voewood's hearth: great for gathering around.

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