For decades they have stood sentinel within one of north Norfolk’s best known landmarks providing a barrier to the elements and a grand welcome to visitors.

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The history of Blickling’s stained glass

All of the 12 panels were originally installed in the Great Hall when Blickling was under the ownership of Lady Suffield in 1820. This was during the Gothic revival in England when certain features, including stained glass windows, had become very fashionable.

The panes were arranged in three rows, with four in each. The top eight panels were originally bought from the Steinfeld monastery in Germany while the bottom four are believed to be of French, German and Flemish origin.

It was down to Norwich man John Christopher Hampp that the Steinfeld panes came to be in Norfolk.

Mr Hampp, described as a merchant with “an eye for a bargain”, obtained 27 of the German panels and through him they ended up scattered across the country. While eight remained at Blickling others have travelled further, with one even on display at the Victoria and Albert museum in London.

The glass stayed in the Great Hall at Blickling until 1935, when Lord Lothian had them removed and replaced by clear glass after his sister fell on the stairs and broke her leg. It was felt the plain panels would let in more light.

Once removed they were boxed up in crates and stored in a barn until they were discovered by a land agent in 1948 and saw the light of day once more, after being installed in St Mary’s Church in Erpingham in 1954.

There they remained on permanent loan until the National Trust, which was bequeathed Blickling in 1940, requested they be returned. They took their position once more above the Great Hall in 1992 while replicas were made for St Mary’s.

But after years of service the 12 panels of stained glass which sit atop the staircase of the Great Hall at Blickling are being removed to undergo a much-needed spring clean.

Experts are tenderly sweeping, swabbing and polishing the delicate panes to bring them back to their sparkling best - but the colourful windows, which date back to the 16th and 17th century, have not always been a much-loved feature of the house.

Lord Lothian, the then owner of Blickling, had the intricate panels removed in 1935 after his sister, Lady Gertrude Minna-Thwing fell down the stairs and broke her leg.

The colourful glass was blamed for adding to the gloom over the carved wooden stairs and was taken out and replaced with clear panes in a bid to let more light into the hall.

It was not until 1992 that the stained glass returned to Blickling, after spending more than 30 years in St Mary’s Church in Erpingham, and this week staff and visitors have watched in eager anticipation as it has been carefully removed pane by pane for cleaning.

Jan Brookes-Bullen, Blickling’s house manager, said: “It’s interesting for us because we’re getting up really close to the glass, and the more important element is sharing it with everyone. Everything we do that used to be behind the scenes we now like to do in front of our visitors and it shares the knowledge out a bit.”

The specialist work is being carried out by stained glass conservators Stephen Clare and Sarah Mullender from Holy Well Glass in Somerset.

Together the pair clamber up a scaffold to individually unscrew the 400-year-old panes and then drop them carefully down to ground level where Miss Mullender painstakingly polishes the delicate designs, while Mr Clare cleans the clear glass beneath the panels.

They have been working at Blickling since Monday and are expected to finish the job at the end of the week, but Mrs Brookes-Bullen said the results were already clear.

“You can see a lot more shine and a lot more glow to them,” she added. “You don’t realise until you start this work how much time has affected them.”

The panels depict various religious scenes including the nativity, Christ appearing to his followers and the massacre of the innocents watched by King Herod, and as they are removed staff are documenting their condition by photographing each piece on a light box after it is cleaned.

Mrs Brookes-Bullen said: “They have had a survey but it’s the first time I’m aware that they have been taken out and cleaned and there is some signs of deterioration, so it’s a timely opportunity to record what condition they’re in.”

Mr Clare, who is also the National Trust’s advisor for stained glass, said the Blickling windows were “internationally important” and although he was not wary of handling them, the job of renovating them required plenty of concentration.

He added: “They were commissioned by very wealthy patrons who used the best artists and best materials, they’re top notch. It’s nice to be able to keep them that way and that’s what the whole job is - keeping them for future generations.”

● Visitors can watch the work being carried out today and tomorrow during Blickling’s normal opening hours. For more information about tours, admission costs and opening times visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/blickling or call 01263 738030.

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