Just off a narrow backroad to Ripon in North Yorkshire, an unsuspecting modern gatehouse does much to conceal the far more intriguing scene awaiting visitors within the vast encircling stone walls.
Traversing the winding path through the main gates leads one to a grand 17th-century country house. And though it is an architectural masterpiece in its own right, its true prominence is perhaps less obvious. For this great sprawling horizontal timber-framed mass was in fact the inspiration for Charlotte Brontë’s celebrated novel, Jane Eyre.
The site upon which Norton Conyers Hall now stands stretches all the way back to the 1066 Norman invasion, when it was owned by the Bishopric of Durham, and is mentioned in Domesday Book, though may even hold earlier origins. The external appearance of the current house however is rather distinctive, yet its repetitive Dutch gables sit somewhat harmoniously in the surrounding rolling bucolic landscape. Indeed, its architecture is as grand as many of its guests.
Home to the Graham family since 1624, though the estate of many notable Northern families prior to (the Scropes and Nortons), this prominent Stuart dynasty hosted kings Charles I and James II (and wife, Anne), but it was that famous Brontë sister, Charlotte, who would visit in 1839, and turn this rather unsuspecting country house into a national landmark.
During Charlotte‘s time at the hall, she had been privy to the tale of a mentally unwell lady who had been confined to the attic centuries earlier. The legend stayed with Charlotte and apparently later inspired her character Mrs Rochester while the hall’s Gothic “gloomy” interior (as she saw it) influenced what eventually became the home of her male protagonist, Edward Fairfax Rochester, Thornfield Hall. The discovery of a staircase in 2004, blocked yet connecting the first storey to the attic, may just be proof that Charlotte had been inspired by something very real indeed.
And for those who are not Brontë enthusiasts, there’s still more to discover. Embracing the mansion is an 18th-century walled garden, a 2.5-acre rarity laid out in the style of a Paradise Garden. Many of the original features still remain and continue to supply the house with fresh flowers, fruit, and sumptuous vegetables.