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A Private View: Raffaella Barker’s storied house by the sea in Norfolk

The novelist has always sought homes with narrative and character, and her house in Cley-next-the-Sea is no exception. In the decades she’s had it, Raffaella has added her own texture to its tale too, transforming it with landscape-inspired colours into a place of both glamour and comfort that nurtures her creative work. As it comes on the market, she reflects on this most recent chapter

Grace McCloud
Adam Firman
A Private View: Raffaella Barker’s storied house by the sea in Norfolk

Raffaella Barker is good at finding stories. Of course, it’s not surprising – she has made a career out of it, having spent the past three and a half decades turning them into novels. It runs in the blood too; her mother, Elspeth Barker, was a novelist, and her father, George Barker, was one of the great figures in 20th-century British poetry. The business of stories, then is close to home – quite literally, in fact. “In looking for places to live, I’ve always sought out those with narrative and character,” she says. “I bought my old flat in London after finding out Tolstoy had visited. And the reason I was so drawn to this house was because it had such a history – there’s a sea captain involved, an Irish countess… It’s pure theatre.”

Norfolk, too, where the house is and where she grew up, has always had a pull. Raffaella has written before that the county “sends a shiver through my soul”. I ask her what she means. “Norfolk does not have, in many ways, the most interesting landscape in the British Isles. But because of the light, which rushes from nothing to everything in a matter of seconds, because of the emptiness and the enormous skies here, I feel a positive sense of awe when I’m in it.” There is shapeshifting magic in its mercuriality, she explains, in a way “that reminds you of the many facets of a human character”. More than anything, “there’s plenty of space to imagine and think without being distracted by people in the way.”

But all that natural wonder can be distracting too. “I have to work facing the garden rather than the sea,” Raffaella says, “as otherwise the weather will change or I’ll see a ship and want to run outside.” That said, “I don’t see it as procrastinating any more. It’s the machinations of a writer’s work – you’ve got to live so as to have something to write about. And one can’t write all the time – there’d be too many words in the world if everybody did that.”

As such, Norfolk and the house itself have wormed their way into Raffaella’s work over the years – and one gets the sense, could continue to. Yet Raffaella and her husband, James Henderson, are putting the house on the market order to be closer to her new grandchild. She seems sanguine, however, not least as “Norfolk will always be with me.” Besides, this new chapter will bring with it new stories too. They’re looking at Dorset – Thomas Hardy county. Who knows? She might find Angel Clare striding over the brow of a hill. “Or it’ll just be me and my husband surrounded by cows in the middle of nowhere.” Either way, she’ll be happy.

“A large part of this house is old – early 19th century – but part of it was rebuilt by our predecessor here, the Irish countess, who was quite a tour de force. She added another level to the house as well as some amazing architectural features, including the Dutch gables – I think because she wanted to recreate some of the grandeur of her country house in Ireland. In fact, the gables are very much in keeping with what’s here in North Norfolk. I like that they look like they’ve been here for 300 years. At some point, there was what’s called a widow’s walk – a foot passage behind a parapet from which you can stare out to sea, waiting for your sailor to come home – that ran around the top of the house, though it’s gone now. I think it dated from the sea captain’s time, in the Edwardian era.

“The house is called Umgeni, after the South African river, which is quite romantic. It’s another legacy of the sea captain, who had a ship of the same name. I’m not sure what it was called before, but its renaming is itself rather Edwardian. At the time he lived here, it had a very Edwardian garden too – I’ve seen photographs of all his neatly trained climbers; later, the countess – who was a very gifted gardener with a much wilder sensibility, transformed it, plonking gorgeous peonies and roses all over. It still feels properly tousled and colourful and it has wonderful views, as it runs up a hill. We mow paths into the lawn every year; each time, they follow a different course.

“We moved here in 2011, having been in London for a long time. I was hankering after the countryside – in London, people kept getting in the way of me thinking. And James wanted to be somewhere he could swim every day. Norfolk, which I knew and loved, was the obvious choice – though I’d grown up inland, in a hamlet on a river, rather than by the sea.

“I am very affected by my surroundings. I like to be able to daydream – and not bump into too many people while I’m doing so, which is why this place is so perfect. I find there being so much to rest my eyes on immensely relaxing.

“I’m also very interested in the idea of the outside coming in to the house, which is something I’ve tried to express here. All the paint colours, for instance, are those I’ve seen in the landscape around me – the setting sun, the reeds, the sand, the shifting skies. There isn’t a single colour here that doesn’t relate to the world on our doorstep. They’re all made by Francesca Wezel, who runs Francesca’s Paints. She’s utterly incredible. In fact, I made a collection with her, called ‘Colours of my Mind’.

“I love making a home. My aim has always been to create spaces that are comfortable and relaxing but also glamorous. I think a bit of glamour is important, especially when you live on the North Norfolk coast, which isn’t necessarily sunny 100 per cent of the time. After a wet and windy walk on the beach, to be greeted by jewel-like colours and squishy sofas and beautiful smells is just what you need. It’s wonderful to feel swaddled by a house – wrapped up and taken care of. In order for that to happen, I believe you musn’t be too precious about things. In the end, it doesn’t matter if someone spills their drink on the sofa; it’s more important that they can sit comfortably and enjoy it.

“Just as it was in my parents’ writings, Norfolk is a character in my work too. I love its villages, its landmarks, its history. It’s a place alive with the ghosts of the past, in part because it’s been such a successful county for so long, thanks to its farmers and shepherds and Viking raiders. It’s always had something going on, which for someone like me is so exciting. I find them creeping into my novels in all sorts of ways.

“This house feels part of the patchwork of stories here – not just mine. We opened it for charity recently and all sorts of people came to have a look. I was astonished at how many people had a connection to it – they remembered walking past it as a child, or visiting someone here for tea. Umgeni is part of the bigger picture of Cley, in a way, which I find rather wonderful.”

Further reading

Raffaella will be hosting a creative writing retreat at Uig Lodge on the Isle of Lewis, running 7-14 September. Details can be found here or on her Instagram page, where she posts updates on courses and her work

Raffaella’s memoir about the house she grew up in, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, will be published in 2025

Raffaella’s website

Coast Road, Cley-next-the-Sea, Norfolk

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