Lady Walpole

In her latest Face to Face interview KAREN BETHELL talks to Lady Laurel Walpole who, as a university student, dreamed of being the director of the British Museum.

In her latest Face to Face interview KAREN BETHELL talks to Lady Laurel Walpole who, as a university student, dreamed of being the director of the British Museum. Although she is yet to fulfil that ambition, her current job is perhaps the next best thing - looking after not one, but two of north Norfolk's grandest stately homes . . .

Born in Swindon, Wiltshire, in 1947, the young Laurel's keen interest in archaeology and historic houses saw her head off to study history at Leicester University a year early.

She went on to gain a post graduate degree in museum studies at Reading, before taking a job at the town's Museum of English Rural Life.

Laurel's next job, as assistant director of the Area Museums Service for south east England, saw her making regular trips to Norfolk, and it was during one of those visits that she met future husband Robin, who was then chairman of Norfolk Museums Service.

A shared love of all things historic saw the couple hit it off straight away.

They were married in London in 1980, and Laurel, who was by this time Area Museums Service director, found herself charged with researching and cataloguing the family archives - Lord Walpole is descended from Britain's first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole - and helping look after the 15th century Mannington Hall and gardens.

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She gave up her job after getting married and, after Lord Walpole inherited Wolterton in 1989, was given the added responsibility of helping take care of the 18th century hall built two miles down the road by Thomas Ripley for politician and diplomat Horatio Walpole.

Over the past 20 years or so, Lord and Lady Walpole have developed public access to the Mannington and Wolterton estate, hosting weddings, staging history, music and drama events, running a children's nature club, launching conservation schemes, and creating countryside walks, a sensory garden, and a 20th century garden.

An arboretum was created at Mannington in the 1980s, while the couple's latest project will see the ruins of a church dating back to Saxon times preserved for the future.

Laurel also found time to chair the fundraising committee of Norwich Arts Centre, and has, in the past, been chairman of the Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and vice chairman of Norfolk Red Cross.

After Lord Walpole took his seat in the House of Lords in 1989, she gave up much of her work for good causes, although she continues to chair the Friends group of Norwich charity Livability, which provides a range of services include care, education, accommodation and training for people with disabilities.

In her spare time, Laurel enjoys knitting, reading and spending time with her 3 children, 4 step-children, and 11 step-grandchildren.

What is the best thing about your job?

I do everything from manning the entrance and answering the phone, to serving tea in the tea in the tea rooms. But what is nice is that, because what I do is what I have always been interested in - history and art - then even if things are sometimes quite routine, they are always related to something I enjoy.

And the worst?

Difficult people!

Where do you go to unwind?

Probably to London because, however lovely it is in north Norfolk, it is still where I work. Another place I thoroughly enjoy is Edinburgh, we have managed to have a week there during the festival for the last 10 years. It is lovely as there are all these events going on and I have nothing to do with any of them - if only two people turn up, it isn't my responsibility!

What is your favourite Norfolk building?

I have to say Wolterton and Mannington, it is the history and all the people who have lived here I find so interesting.

What is the one thing you would save if your house was on fire?

I would take as many of my family photograph albums as I could grab.

Have you ever done anything outrageous?

No, I'm too busy!

What is your proudest moment?

When my children were born. My parents have both died in the last four years and it is nice to see something of them in my own children and to know that there is a continuation into the next generation.

And your greatest achievement?

I think that is something for other people to judge.

What is the one thing you would change about yourself?

In the past, I would have said my over-quick temper, but I'd like think that as I have got older - and my hair has got less red - that has improved.

Who do you most admire?

The Queen, because I think she is a survivor and to have gone through so much and still remain dignified and always looking perfect is wonderful.

What makes you angry?

People not telling the truth.

Favourite book, film and TV programme?

Book has to be Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. I thought the film Amelie (2001 French comedy romance) was very good and, although I did enjoy Cranford on television, I'd much rather listen to the radio!

How would you like to be remembered?


Lord and Lady Walpole will be hosting an evening concert by the Vardanyan String Quartet on June 1st. An optional supper is available. To book, or for more information, phone 01263 584175 or visit