Jolly Japes at Seaton Delaval

Seaton Delaval Hall has an unusually attractive location, close to the North Sea coast and commanding beautiful vistas in every direction. Just a short drive from Tynemouth where I was bred if not quite born – that was in South Shields, just across the river – I was delighted on my latest visit to see that the National Trust has been hard at work opening much more of it to the public.

Sir John Vanbrugh completed this grand, stately home in 1730 for Admiral George Delaval. He was also responsible for Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, and this house is the finest in the north-east of England, and one of his own best efforts.

The family down the years made its fortune in salt, coal and glass, and many of its members were great eccentrics. They were heavily into lavish entertainments, and an invitation to one of their events was regarded as quite the hottest ticket in town. They were especially good at theatricals, and one visitor described the Hall as being like an ‘Italian Palace and the grounds were a perfect fairy land of light, beauty and music’. This is all very fine stuff, but I take issue with one of their entertainments, which was a competition to bite the heads of sparrows.

The Delavals were also notorious pranksters. Whilst guests were undressing, mechanical hoists would raise the walls of their bedroom and expose them to public view, and in one bedroom the four-poster could be lowered along with its occupants into a tank of cold water. Another room was inverted: all of its furniture was stuck to the ceiling and its chandelier was in the middle of the floor. Drunken guests would become seriously disorientated in the morning when they awoke to find themselves lying on the ceiling.

All the beauty and music have long since departed, of course. Whenever I wander around stately homes like Seaton Delaval Hall I marvel at the lifetimes of energy and ingenuity expended on what are, in the last analysis, piles of bricks for prestige projects by the dead. 

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