Carnfield Hall - The historic hall at South Normanton
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 August 2019
Lynne Dixon meets the family breathing new life into the ghostly historic Hall at South Normanton
It may have the reputation of being one of Derbyshire's most haunted houses, but for Graham Oliver and his partner Heidi, historic Carnfield Hall is the perfect, warm, friendly family home.
Since they moved to the hall in the Derbyshire village of South Normanton in 2011 - Graham adored Carnfield the moment he first set eyes on it - they've become used to things that go bump in the night. Fortunately it doesn't worry them unduly.
'But I have to say that some of our house guests can be a bit unnerved at times by these unexplained happenings,' Graham, 56, confides when I visit to see how they've progressed with their renovations over the past eight years.
'Yes we've heard harpsichord music when we don't have a harpsichord and we've both heard footsteps behind us and in front of us when there's been nobody else in the house. We've also heard singing and talking, which usually starts about two o'clock in the afternoon.'
But Heidi, 40, stresses that none of this really bothers her or Graham, an eminent orthopaedic vet who specialises in treating mainly dogs. 'Strangely enough we don't find these odd experiences particularly scary. It's something you just get used to.'
Carnfield Hall, which Graham bought from antiques expert and collector James Cartland, a cousin of the late novelist Barbara Cartland, is an atmospheric, rather romantic looking stone manor house dating back to early Tudor times. What's more it's surrounded by 100 acres of ancient land and woodland.
So perhaps it isn't that surprising to hear of intermittent ghostly goings on in the 27-room country mansion. Four years ago, television presenter Michaela Strachan was suitably spooked when she spent three days at the house filming for a Hallowe'en Special of Great British Ghosts.
Derbyshire's celebrity TV auctioneer and antiques expert James Lewis also had an unsettling experience when he stayed at the house. 'He felt some big hands placed on his shoulder but there was no one around, which was distinctly odd,' says Graham.
'Another guest told us he woke up to see a tall man standing at the foot of his bed. The man was wearing a full length grey robe with a hat of the same cloth. He had a long, unkempt grey beard. It's not the first time this guy has been seen in the Blue Bedroom.'
A further ghostly experience happened when a visitor to the house saw what looked to him like a priest sitting on a window seat in the dining room. Graham tells me: 'When we first moved in, Heidi was freaked out when she heard footsteps approaching in our bedroom.'
Heidi, a bubbly, no-nonsense sort of person, laughs it off. 'Actually I was more excited than scared.'
Then she imparts the somewhat chilling story of what is reputed to have happened in their bedroom, known as The Robert Revell room.
'The story goes that in 1714, Robert Revell, a former High Sheriff of Derbyshire, was murdered in his bed in this room by two of his servants. Robert was apparently very wealthy so perhaps the servants were after his money.'
But this oak panelled room with its magnificent four poster bed (thankfully not the one Robert was murdered in) is actually a very pleasant room and the intrepid couple are happy to sleep in there.
Exclaims Heidi: 'Despite that tale, the room has a nice atmosphere. In fact it's really peaceful until our young boys come bounding in in the morning. Actually I've heard that before we acquired the house, this bedroom was blessed on two occasions.'
Heidi and Graham share their spectacular rambling home with sons Hugo, 5, and Dougie, 3, and Graham's son Tom, 19, who is studying engineering at the University of Lincoln. Completing the happy crew are their two friendly dogs, Wilberforce the golden Labrador, and black Labrador Algernon.
Hugo and Dougie are in their element with so much space and garden to play in, but it has to be said that the first bedroom they shared didn't prove to be a resounding success. Says Heidi: 'Both boys would wake up in the night feeling scared and when a little friend of theirs also slept in that room, he reported seeing a man called Peter "and didn't like him."'
But since moving to their current delightful oak-beamed bedroom in the attic, Hugo and Dougie are happy and settled. It's a lovely room, although the puzzle is that some of its ancient timbers have black burn marks on them.
Heidi explains: 'This room was originally slept in by servants and at first I thought the burn marks had been caused by their candles. Then a historian told me that the servants had probably made them deliberately to keep the witches away! It must have worked because the boys love it up here. But we don't let children stay in that other bedroom anymore.'
A true hidden treasure of a place, Carnfield Hall dates back to the reign of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, but the couple are pretty sure that its origins go back much further still. One clue is the Edward III penny they have in their possession, found on the site some years ago. In the mid-15th century the Babington family (later of Babington Plot fame in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) lived at Carnfield, while subsequent owners included the Revell family.
The couple's research also shows that Carnfield was originally known as Carlingthwaite, which is old Norse Viking for 'an old woman's clearing'.
Since taking over the house, with its eight bedrooms, drawing room, morning room, library, boot room and cellar rooms, Graham and Heidi have been gradually improving it, while carefully keeping all the character and heritage of the ancient manor house. 'It's a very uneconomic property to run but we are attempting to do it in an environmentally friendly, sympathetic and cost effective way,' Graham explains.
Adds Heidi: 'We are using modern technology to bring this ancient hall into the 21st century without changing its structure or appearance, which we feel is rather miraculous.'
When the couple first moved in, the house was freezing cold but it is happily much toastier now that two biomass boilers fuelled by wood chips have been installed to heat the hall. The system, for which they receive a subsidy, also heats an attached cottage and two coach houses, all of which have tenants, as well as heating Graham's canine hydrotherapy pool to around 32°C.
Graham tells me: 'The pool provides a rehabilitation and physiotherapy service for dogs not only from my own veterinary practice at Hucknall but from other practices in the region.'
This is one of several commercial activities that Graham and Heidi operate to create an essential income stream to help fund the enormous upkeep of the hall. Other ventures include renting out the adjacent cottage and coach houses, selling logs from the woodland, farming some of the land and hosting events like the Rock & Bike Fest that took place on 11th to 13th July. 'Around 3,500 people came to the event last year,' Heidi says.
The couple also like to involve Carnfield in the local community and this summer will host the annual Pinxton and South Normanton fête. On Fridays children from the local primary school also arrive by minibus to conduct woodland studies in the grounds.
In addition the couple have their own herd of Highland cattle and look after three rescue horses as well as several llamas.
One of the most charming rooms in the hall is their Tudor kitchen with its original flagstone floor and a huge round table for all the family to sit round. A focal point is the cream Aga which the couple inherited with the house.
Laughs Graham: 'It's an Aga saga we've been fighting for years. It's always been temperamental and has taken hundreds of man hours to sort it out. But we've been determined to get the better of it and I'm glad to report that we've finally got it working!'
Heidi and Graham love their kitchen's slightly battered oak freestanding units that they bought at auction but it seems that Graham's widowed mum Billie, 87, and Heidi's 93-year-old granddad Fred, had other ideas.
'While we were away, it transpires that they got the idea of bringing in a firm to fit a brand new kitchen for us. Fortunately we discovered their plot and foiled it,' laughs Graham. 'Between them they are quite a double act. They get on really well because they have a lot in common. They were both wartime evacuees.'
Billie, it turns out, is the brilliant seamstress who has made all the new curtains and cushions for the window seats since Graham and Heidi took over the hall. 'She has made a spectacular job of our new soft furnishings,' Heidi smiles.
When he isn't working as a vet or managing matters at the hall, Graham indulges his passion for flying. He recently gained his private pilot's licence after having lessons from his flying instructor friend Will Flanagan, who rents one of the coach houses at Carnfield.
Amazingly Graham has now acquired a Mark 9 Spitfire which he is currently having restored at Biggin Hill.
He explains that the plane was shot down during the Second World War in Normandy in 1944. 'I know that the pilot was a Canadian, Harold Kramer, and that he survived the war. I'm told he died only a couple of years back. When the Spitfire is finally restored, I definitely plan to fly it.'
Heidi has also caught the flying bug and is having lessons from Will. 'I'm working towards gaining my private pilot's licence,' she says. But she very much doubts whether she'll ever be allowed to fly Graham's Spitfire when its restoration is complete. 'I think I'd be very lucky to be given the chance to do that,' she smiles ruefully. u