The Great Staircase: Stepping up to the challenge

Two young girls climb the wooden stair case looking around in awe at the yellow walls with old paintings hanging all around.

Few houses have stairs as spectacular as these! This grand staircase has been the focus of major conservation work that will allow the stairs to be opened up to the public for the first time in 40 years. Read on to find out more about the project.

Designed to impress 

 
If you were building your dream home – what would you spend the most money on? A grand kitchen? A fancy bathroom? The man who built Sudbury Hall (now known as The Children’s Country House at Sudbury), George Vernon, started designing his dream home in the 1660s.  

To celebrate his wealth, social position and political ambition he hired the most skilled and talented 17th-century craftworkers available, to design and build state rooms, service rooms, large gardens and a grand staircase.  

Located at the heart of the property, this staircase needed to possess a wow factor that would get everyone talking. He installed (and we believe contributed to the designs of) one of the country’s finest examples of a 17th-century staircase.  

The ornate balustrade was carved by Edward Pierce, the decorative plasterwork surrounding the staircase was carried out by James Pettifer, and the figurative painted panels looking down on the stairs are by Louis Laguerre.  

 

Sudbury's magnificent great staircase
sudbury's great staircase
Sudbury's magnificent great staircase

Steps to conservation success


The Great Staircase had been closed to the public for over 40 years, due to concerns over the structural integrity, due to its poorly fixed treads. The resulting unsafe vibrations, and the undersized carriage beams, meant it had to stay closed and could only be used in real emergencies, otherwise it ran the risk of becoming loose, and damaging the surrounding plasterwork.

In 2019 we initiated a project to get the Great Staircase carefully repaired and restored to its former glory so it could be used as a staircase once again. Here’s a little insight into everyone who stepped up to The Children's Country House, Great Staircase challenge.

 

Starting steps

We’d known for years about the structural integrity of the stairs due to the poorly fixed treads, the resulting vibrations and the undersized carriage beams. With the help of Structural Engineers, Frank W. Haywood & Associates, Building Surveyors, Kirby Surveying Ltd and conservation and joinery experts we came up with a detailed plan, which was reviewed by our National Trust teams before heading off to our local Conservation Officer for listed building and planning consent. Due to the nature of the planned repairs and the importance of the staircase we needed to tread carefully to ensure this one-off opportunity to fix the stairs didn’t fail.  

 

Permission granted 

Once permission was granted, a team of experts began the much-anticipated work. The Structural Engineer, Building Surveyor and Regional Conservator worked side by side, bringing in relevant specialists when needed.  

This included the National Trust’s Specialist Craft Team from Clumber Park – a band of two specialist joiners who lovingly took the staircase apart, conscientiously carried out all the repairs, and then - one piece at a time - reconstructed the staircase. At one point, the staircase was stacked in a state room (numbered and labelled) like a giant puzzle ready waiting for some keen-eyed individual to put back together.  

 

The plasterwork was carefully removed and repaired.
Decorative floral sculptural pieces from the Great Staircase are lined up on acid-free tissue paper in front of a fire place ready to be inspected
The plasterwork was carefully removed and repaired.

 

Uncovering history 

We discovered that whilst the extant appearance of the staircase is regarded as one of the finest surviving examples of its period, the underlying structural carpentry is rather crude and 70% of the timberwork is reused from an earlier building (evidenced by empty mortices and cut joints). This a classic example of only using the best quality materials for the areas that were to be on show and making do otherwise to save costs!

 

The original carpentry proved to be rather crude.
A view from the top of the staircase looking down, with the floorboards removed and original beams exposed.
The original carpentry proved to be rather crude.

 

A team of experts from every field 

We brought in Cliveden Conservation who surveyed the plasterwork which surrounds the Great Staircase and assembled a very complicated set of scaffolds and supports to ensure that no damage would occur when the staircase work was taking place. They ensured the irreplaceable plasterwork remained intact and undertook the cleaning and assessment of the lath and plaster soffit.

 

Removing the decorative floral sculptures helped the team to carry out detailed inspections and conservation work.
Close up detail of the decorative flower sculptures removed from the staircase for conservation work
Removing the decorative floral sculptures helped the team to carry out detailed inspections and conservation work.

 

Archaeology 

Archaeologists Jessop Consultancy were brought in to survey the staircase before, during and after the works. It’s not often you get to see inside a staircase, so we were very excited to see and hear about what they found when the treads and risers (the steps) had been lifted. Their findings included dirt, nails, a plank with integrated wheels which was probably part of an early bell-pull system and a bone button!  
 


Local supplies 

As the repairs begun, we used our neighbouring National Trust property Calke Abbey, for the supply of oak wood, and we used a regular supplier for the fabrication of a massive metal girder, which now sits within the staircase ensuring its fully supported for years to come. 

It was a mammoth (and nerve-wracking) effort to get the metal girder in through our historic Saloon window! It was lifted and guided through with an army of National Trust staff from Hardwick Hall Stonemasons.  

 

Protecting paintings: a fine art 

A team of experts from Crown Fine Art Handlers removed all the paintings on and around the Great Stairs to be sure they weren’t damaged with the work taking place. When the paintings were down and safely stored in the Great Hall they were inspected, cleaned and catalogued.  

The paintings near the work were carefully removed and stored during the work.
A view looking down the staircase at the yellow walls where the historic paintings have been removed.
The paintings near the work were carefully removed and stored during the work.

Strengthening and moving 

The team from Hog and Fitch Conservation Cleaning and Collections Care ensured the protection and supervision of strengthening work – they moved what could be moved, and protected what had to stay in place. They also took photos, cleaned up after everyone and were on hand for troubleshooting. 

 
As the work came to a close... 

At the end we used a specialist decorator, Steve Lambert, to touch up some of the paintwork in the areas that had been disturbed by the work. This was a chance for the famous Sudbury yellow to be used again on the Great Staircase (who else has a Farrow and Ball paint named after their walls?). 

 

The result of team work 

Throughout the project, we had the full support of the National Trust specialists (past and present) – this included our Planning Officer, Archaeologist, Finance Business Partner, Assistant Director of Operations, Curators, Conservators, Building Surveyors, Operational Risk – they were on hand to advise and encourage. 

Everyone in the property team also had a role to play – from project managing aspects of the repairs, opening for contractors, staying late so a tricky bit of staircase could be fitted, overseeing streams of activity, advising on solutions, finding the money for the work, promoting what we were doing on social media, cleaning, the list goes on…

A very grand staircase indeed
Sudbury Hall Grand Staircase
A very grand staircase indeed

Climb the stairs for yourself 

Finally, after 40 years being closed, with a wide ranging team of experts, and a mammoth amount of team work, the stairs are safe to walk up once again. We couldn’t have done any of this work without your help – from your admission tickets, donations and memberships which all helped to fund this work to look after the history here.

We look forward to welcoming visitors back to the Hall later in 2022. Do come back and visit when we're open and climb the stairs for yourself – but please no sliding down the bannisters!