Open, upstairs and down

If Downton Abbey did it for you, then Invitation to View could be even more your cup of earl grey. Instead of simply watching on TV step inside a local mansion for real. ROWAN MANTELL reports.

They are the homes you glimpse beyond high hedges or across acres of parkland, the kind of house you might imagine you could only get inside if you were dripping with titles and tiaras – or delivering the groceries.

But some of our most lavish and beautiful homes, still loved and lived in, are welcoming visitors this spring and summer.

The owners of 54 historic houses and gardens across the region have signed up to this year's Invitation to View scheme. They will show visitors around their homes, some twice a month through the spring and summer, and some just once in 2011.

Not all the houses are enormous, there are farmhouses and a few more modest halls alongside the grand manors, abbeys and at least one tower.

Invitation to View is unique – nowhere else in the country do the owners of historically important

houses, still lived-in and loved as family homes, get together to welcome visitors. Elsewhere specialist historical or architectural groups might book a tour, but in East Anglia individuals can simply enjoy looking around lovely, nationally important, homes and finding out about the centuries of history each one represents.

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Some have generations of family history to share, or monastic ruins, or a great art collection, or a moat, or a garden full of follies, or even ghosts. Many provide tea and home-baked cakes alongside fascinating tit-bits of history.

Brinton Hall has been one of the first homes to welcome Invitation to View visitors this year. Jeremy Bagnall-Oakeley has been welcoming visitors to the home which four generations of his family have lived in, and loved. He leads a tour of the grounds, sweeping through gardens, parkland and meadow to a lake and woodland gardens beyond.

Inside, a glorious wooden staircase which is believed to have once graced Lord Nelson's London home, a series of large and lovely rooms, and his wife Esme's splendid home-made cakes, vie for attention.

Brinton lies in the midst of a maze of tiny lanes and idyllic villages, between Holt and Melton Constable. 'Brinton has been a secret place for a long time,' said Esme.

But although recent history might have passed this lovely place by, the Hall dates back more than four centuries, and people have been living here for far, far longer. Archaeological finds reveal the village once included a Roman villa.

Some Invitation to View owners just open their ground floor rooms, but the Bagnall-Oakeleys allow guests up into the bedrooms too – via that unique staircase, brought from Nelson's last home through a family connection between Britain's naval hero and Brinton Hall. Esme said: 'I love sharing what we have here, because I think we are so lucky.'

Hindringham Hall is another property that will be open. The moated manor is stunning — three gabled storeys of mellow bricks and stone and flint; high, ornate chimneys; glass in the leaded windows which would have been blown by Elizabethan glass-makers; roses climbing around the sturdy stone-flagged porch and a vast doorway.

Charles Tucker, who bought Hindringham with his wife Lynda 17 years ago, said: 'I still pinch myself when I come back home and see it.'

Despite the magnificence of this moated manor, the hall is such a tucked-away secret place that they had been living just four miles away and had never heard of it.

The garden was perfect, although Charles remembers feeling overwhelmed by the hall and incredulous at the idea this fairytale place could become their family home.

Visitors will be shown the ground-floor rooms, beginning with that remarkable beamed hall with its huge stone fireplace and leading into panelled sitting and drawing rooms and a large stone-flagged kitchen.

Charles and Lynda have pieced together a detailed history of the hall, ranging from accounts of servants who worked here, to village children who played in the empty rooms when it was virtually a ruin, and even including an exorcism.

They are hoping future visitors might be able to tell them more, and are looking forward to sharing their enthusiasm for their home. 'There is so much to tell!' said Lynda. 'People seem so appreciative and it is nice, really, to share it. It sounds rather hackneyed but you never actually own a house, you are a custodian. We look after it to the best of our ability and will eventually hand it on.'

She believes the history this venerable, beautiful old house reflects the history of Norfolk. 'It's not like the huge stately homes which were protected from much of what was happening around them,' said Lynda.

t Invitation to View visits must be booked in advance. To find out more about the 2011 programme and book call 01284 827087 or visit: