The giraffes in London Zoo today are enjoying the fruits of a six-year holiday taken in the 1700s by Thomas Coke, the man who built Holkham Hall near Wells-next-the-Sea in North Norfolk.
The giraffes, the world’s tallest mammals, munch their way through ten tons of leaves and branches pruned each year from evergreen oak trees in the grounds of the hall grown from acorns which were brought to Norfolk from the Mediterranean 300 years ago.
But this is just one of many surprises about the 25,000 acres estate which is rich in history, art, wildlife and architecture. The Palladian-style mansion is a gem of a stately-home on the North Norfolk coast and in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, collected many valuable and unique manuscripts and printed books along with many great classical art and statues on his European grand tour 300 years ago.
Aged 15, he set off with his tutor travelling for six years from 1712 to 1718 . And in order to protect the valuable art works he collected during his trip, he used used Mediterranean acorns as packing material to protect them for their journey home to Norfolk.
After unpacking, he planted two million of the acorns in avenues and woodlands around the estate where he built his family home.
The holm oaks - Quercus ilex - grown at Holkham from those acorns planted three centuries ago, each year provide the 10 tons of fodder for giraffes - and have done so for the past 60 years. Staff from London Zoo in Regent’s Park collect the clippings and feed them to the giraffes who eat the leaves and strip the bark.
Holkham Hall was built between 1734 and 1764. It replaced an Elizabethan house where the Coke family had lived since 1609. Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, conceived the Palladian Hall as a replacement. It was his vision of an Italian villa on the windswept north Norfolk coast.
The Hall has been the home of the Coke family and the Earls of Leicester ever since. It is now home to the 8th Earl of Leicester and his family with large parts of it now open to the public.
The Coke family has been highly influential nationally over the generations, from prosecuting those behind the Gunpowder plot in 1605 – the roots of our bonfire night tradition - to playing a major part in the agricultural revolution by reforming farming methods.
Holkham Hall reflects their importance. It houses Thomas Coke’s classical art collection from his grand tour. The Greek and Roman marble statues, packed in Italy, decorate the Marble Hall. Paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Gaspard Poussin, and Gainsborough dating back to the 17th century are on display in the state rooms along with collections of tapestries, statues and original furniture.
The house is surrounded by rolling parkland with fallow deer, a large lake and many historic landmarks. There are a number of Champion Trees registered on the Tree Register of the British Isles in the parkland. The work of these successive generations of the Coke family and landscape architects, have created majestic avenues and formal clumps of holm oak, sweet chestnut, lime, and Corsican pines, all of which add a dramatic impact to the Hall’s architectural grandeur.
The Holkham estate is a working farm with converted barns offering a home to many other businesses. The estate’s various enterprises include a huge farm covering a vast tract of 25,000 acres of North Norfolk, a commercial shoot, holiday park, shops, property, a wedding venue, and the award-winning Victoria Inn which offers accommodation and wonderful food. Major open-air concerts are held in the grounds featuring musicians such as Sir Elton John, Jools Holland and Status Quo.
Visitors have the opportunity to tour the house, boat on the lake, take a tractor ride around the estate, a Landrover safari of the nature reserve, hire a cycle to tour the grounds, enjoy a picnic or a peaceful walk.
Holkham may have even been the birthplace of driven game shooting. Records of hunting game date back to 1793. And Holkham is certainly where the bowler hat was invented.
Thomas William Coke, a nephew of the first Earl of Leicester, commissioned London-based Lock & Co Hatters' chief hatter, Thomas Bowler, to design a close-fitting hat which was strong enough to protect his gamekeepers from low-hanging branches or being struck by poachers. The ‘Coke hat’ or ‘Bowler hat’ became part of the keeper’s uniform in 1849 and later the hat for London businessmen. It remains part of the shoot-day clothing tradition for the keepers at Holkham. And to this day the Earl of Leicester continues to purchase the hat for his gamekeepers after they have completed one year of service.
The award-winning beach at Wells is part of the Holkham Estate. It joins up with the biggest beach in North Norfolk at Holkham. This was the setting for the film Shakespeare in Love starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes and is where members of the Household Cavalry exercise their horses each year. The horses are ridden bareback into the sea for a swim before galloping along the endless flat sands when on an annual break from ceremonial duties in London. It is a memorable sight.
Both Wells and Holkham beaches are renowned for stunning, unspoilt space and diverse flora and fauna, particularly migrating birds with thousands of pink-foot geese.
Wells beach has a row of gaily-coloured picture-postcard beach huts which change hands at up to £80,000 each. The beach huts look out over extensive sands framed by beautiful pine trees on the dunes behind.
The three-mile long strip of pinewoods, stretching from Wells to Holkham, are one of the major landscape features of the North Norfolk coast. The pines were planted as a coastal defence against dune erosion from the sea and are part of the North Norfolk Special Protection Area, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve – one of a few and the largest privately-owned nature reserves in England.
The North Norfolk coast is a blend of wilderness and working landscape. Freshwater grazing, tidal creeks, saltmarshes, shingle and the sand dunes have become a haven for wildlife especially ground-nesting birds and over-wintering wildfowl and waders. It was designated as a National Nature Reserve in 1967 and managed by Natural England until 2012 when the Holkham Estate took over running the National Nature Reserve.
Guided walks are given throughout the year and are an ideal way to discover the wildlife on the reserve – one of the most important in England.
Here, you will be able to hear the rare natterjack toad, the UK's loudest amphibian, but also one of the rarest. The rare toad is only found in small populations in sandy and heathland areas in Merseyside and the Cumbrian coast, parts of East Anglia - and Holkham – where coastal sand dune systems, coastal grazing marshes and sandy heaths with shallow warm pools are found. These shallow pools are a vital part of the toads' habitat as they need the warm water for successful breeding.
The rare natterjack toads, love them or loathe them, are just one more of the many surprising things about Holkham. The Holkham website is packed with information about events and the numerous things to do at the Hall and the nature reserve.