We have long described our garden as a ‘work in progress’. When I say that to guests they always says that gardens are never finished – after seven years it seems like a good time to take stock.
When we arrived the garden was mostly grass, old bushes and giant conifers. So many conifers! Bruce headed off to learn how to wield a chain saw and start felling. There was no real plan with the garden other than to try and create something close to the house as quickly as possible.
I am in no way a garden designer and while I did have some ideas at the start there was a lot of making it up as I went along. Apart from a few mature trees it was a blank canvas which in a way is a great thing and in other ways a little overwhelming.
We have long described our garden as a ‘work in progress’. When I say that to guests they always says that gardens are never finished – after seven years it seems like a good time to take stock.
When we arrived the garden was mostly grass, old bushes and giant conifers. So many conifers! Bruce headed off to learn how to wield a chain saw and start felling.
There was no real plan with the garden other than to try and create something close to the house as quickly as possible. I am in no way a garden designer and while I did have some ideas at the start there was a lot of making it up as I went along. Apart from a few mature trees it was a blank canvas which in a way is a great thing but it also has its challenges.
Although we have spent quite a lot of money on the garden we have tried to keep it within a reasonable budget. There is no fancy hard landscaping, no dramatic water features and no help! To keep the costs down we plant a lot of self sowers and move them around, we have raided WI plant sales on numerous occasions. We are also lucky enough to have some great local nurseries – Ladybird and the Walled Garden – and some further afield – especially plantsman Preference and Knoll. More recently we have been able to get a wholesale account with a Suffolk based nursery that allows us to buy affordable small pots in larger numbers.
Initially we bought a poly tunnel but we got a bit bored of it been blown into the woods so eventually bought a green house. It’s not fancy (it’s still made of plastic) but it really helps with growing from seeds (though this year I hardly managed to germinate a single one – no idea what I was doing wrong. Fortunately Bruce has had more success with his veggies).
We have been told that Suffolk is so dry that technically is semi-arid (we are close to Essex that apparently as the same rainfall as Jerusalem). Rain can be very patchy (this year has been a real challenge and no doubt there will be a fair few losses) and if you add the fact that soil is effectively pure sand then what little water we receive quickly soaks away. We invested in a huge subterranean water tank to collect the rain off our huge roof.
Early on, someone sensibly suggested that we contact local tree surgeons who often have a surplus of chippings. Before we knew it, we had a mountain of chippings that covered the lawn (and continued to do so for at least a couple of years – which explains the weed-ridden state of our lawn). After the chippings have aged a while we use then to cover the beds. It doesn’t mean a lot of barrow journeys but it’s worth it – moisture is kept in the soil, weeds are by and large kept at bay and over time the soil is improved.
Initially I pretty much threw in whatever I could find in the garden centre. If there were three then I bought three and if there were five I bought five. Only in the last couple of years have I planned areas more but also bought in numbers to try and increase the repetition. So not unusually for such a large garden, we have created some separate rooms to provide some variety. Here is a quick summary:
• White garden – we initially said that this was influenced by Sissinghurst but after a guest told us that she was the archivist here we stopped saying it (that’s where we got the idea but in no way do we think that we are on a par with them).
• Cottage garden – this is a riot of blues, pinks and white. I think that this is the weakest part of the garden. I didn’t realise how hard it was to maintain this kind of the garden through the seasons. It all falls over by July. It’s also full of couch grass. Grr.
• Grass Garden – This is the area behind the guest rooms. Initially after the build this area was a mass of weeds. In fact after six months there was virtually a forest of tree lupins. Funnily enough guests loved it and ignored all the nettles and docks – ‘I love the countryside!’ was a common response. Now it has been planted with all sorts of ornamental grasses and wild flowers. Funnily enough we have spent quite a lot of money to create something that developed naturally!
• Japanese Inspired garden – this has only partly been completed. It’s been a bit of challenge – little rain, no running water and no rocks – all the constituent parts of the Japanese Garden. So much so that Guests look blankly when I mention it. I’m not surprised really. Give me a couple of years and all will become clear.
• Gravel Garden – this was the first part of the garden that we planted – because it was a long way from the house and the building work. For a long while it was a narrow strip leading to nowhere. Now there is a destination – a large space with a fire pit and a BBQ area. This new area was only planted at the end of 2021. After a dry summer it has a long way to go – I have been a bit complacent and things are not thriving. There are limits to how dry a dry garden can be if the plants haven’t had enough time to bed in
• Driveway – this is the most recent addition to the garden. For a long time the drive was lined with bamboo, bramble and old shrubs. At the end of 2022 we dug it all up in order to lay a cable for our car chargers. It’s now a mass of blue, yellow and orange. It’s struggling at the moment but hopefully it will be a welcoming site in the years to be (and not scratch the paintwork of cars). There are still some areas that are to be put in place – the area lining the lawn and the final section of the Japanese Garden. Jobs for the autumn and the winter!
So that’s a little introduction… I guess that the obvious thing to say is ‘come and see it for yourself!’.
From the start we wanted a pond – but it takes a Covid lockdown to provide enough time to make one!
The Pond is the first part of a larger Japanese influenced ‘Stroll’ garden – with the aim of creating a peaceful understated space to sit and relax.
Unfortunately before we could start we had to hack back the rampant bamboo that we had allowed to get out of control. People don’t often consider a pickaxe a gardening tool but it is absolutely the right one for the job. You also need to be super vigilant as the smallest piece of root is enough to send a shoot rocketing into the air. I can’t help but think that the shoots look slightly evil!
Once the ground had been cleared of the bamboo and nettles we had to dig the hole. The shape is a traditional Japanese one – apparently originally based on a Chinese character for ‘heart’. Fortunately the soil is very sandy and relatively easy to shovel. It was exhausting nonetheless – it needs to be at least a metre deep in areas to ensure that it never freezes over at the weekend. Several days in and I was wondering why we didn’t use a digger. Ultimately it was good exercise and it did mean that I could keep an eye on the stray bamboo roots. At the some point it did look as though open cast mining had arrived at the Suffolk Coast.
Unfortunately we had to fill the pond with tap water. It’s not ideal – a waste of drinking water – but to try and wait for rain water in Suffolk could take years. It does mean with all that chlorine it was initially a very wildlife – friendly environment. That said, it is amazing how quickly life finds it’s way in. Pond skaters, water boatmen and mosquito larvae (!) moved in pretty quickly. Fortunately for us (less for the mosquitos), after a couple of weeks, our neighbor came round, with an ice cream tub full of smooth newts.
They had been quietly hibernating under a concrete slab. They were a little surprised to be tipped (gently of course) into the pond, but they have settled in. The pond has three pebble beaches and shallow areas to allow creatures to find their way in and out. Next year we will be on the look out for frog spawn to add to our amphibian collection.
A few weeks later, once the pond had settled in and sourced ten Rudd (muddy brown with orange fins) from a friend’s pond and then added in a couple Tench (bottom feeders that I haven’t actually seen – but they are there). They are now swim around in a shoal. We just have to hope that the herons don’t spot them or else it would be short lived. They seem happy enough as the pond is now full of fry.
We have planted plants on the banks with traditional Japanese plants – Japanese holly, that can be clipped into mounds, azalea, hostas, acers, Solomon’s Seal, black Ophiopogon, Liriope and ferns. They are all small plants so they look a little teletubby at the moment but hopefully they will mature in a few years into something respectable.
Five Acre Barn news
Well its almost been a year since the last Five Acre Barn post. I realise that there are probably not many (any) people hanging on our every update…. but if you have a blog then I think that you are supposed to write something on a regular basis.
So here is a quick update.
Summer was incredibly busy – we had at least one guest staying with us every day from mid May to mid September. This was our third summer and it is great to see ourselves getting busier with plenty of guests returning for repeat visits and others being the result of recommendations. We have been lucky enough to get some very generous TripAdvisor and Google reviews which all help give potential guests the confidence to book. We also joined the Alastair Sawday platform with the aim of accessing the seemingly elusive week day market.
As in 2019 we hosted some of the talent from the Latitude Festival. It’s a real novelty for us to meet people in the public eye and it’s even better when they turn out to be so lovely and appreciative. Here is a photo of Colin from Mull Historical Society rehearsing his session with Bernard Butler. How cool is that?
We have also hosted a few photo shoots – for Volvo and for local fashion label Lavenham. Again it’s a real insight into a life that we have never had anything to do with in our past lives (I’m an accountant and Bruce was a Royal Navy Officer!). Unfortunately for the Lavenham team it poured with rain throughout (very un-Suffolk) but they soldiered on. Here they are in a huddle, capturing one of the models on the deck of room five.
We were offered an opportunity to be dressed and photographed in their (very cool) clothes but we decided that that really wouldn’t be a good idea!
We have also been lucky enough to have been featured in a couple of Interiors magazines – Country Living Modern Rustic and more recently House Beautiful. It’s very flattering to think that we are worthy of being included. It’s also fascinating to see how the professional photographers capture a room – hint always use natural light. Unsurprisingly they don’t follow my approach of standing in a corner up against a wall as if I were an estate agent trying to make the room seem as large as possible.
In other news…. we continue to work hard on the garden. The vegetable patch and gravel garden – some of the first areas we created – were wrestled back from the control of nettles and brambles. They had fallen by the way side as our attention went elsewhere. Of course it’s a constant battle but at least they don’t look as embarrassing as they did previously The area in front of the guest bedrooms has been extended further (see our previous post on the stumpery) and planted with grasses. It will need some time to mature as well as some additional planting (one guest with a drone showed us an aerial view of the area and it seemed to be a mass of earthy spaces from the air), but we are happy with the results so far. Here’s a photo from the autumn on a rather dull day.
I think that that is about all our news. Watch this space if I can think of something vaguely interesting to say!
It’s the start of February. Most gardeners would have put their tools away in the shed a couple of months of go, settled in front of the fire and patiently waited for spring to arrive. At Five Acre Barn we don’t have that luxury – we have a garden to create.
When we first arrived (about 3 1/2 years ago) we had a large number of towering conifers that just had to go. They were far too tall – we couldn’t see anything – and were downright ugly and well a bit suburban. Bruce – aka ‘man of stihl’ – despatched them pretty quickly.
We managed to get rid of most of the small branches but the bigger pieces proved a bit more of a challenge. Had we thought about it we would have asked our builders to bury them. We didn’t, so we tried to get burn the stumps – but try as we might the buggers wouldn’t burn!! We were therefore left with a number of charred stumps. So what to do….. build a stumpery!
Stumperies are oddities from the nineteenth century gardens which became popular as ferns became fashionable and hundreds of new species arrived in Britain from around the world. The first stumpery was built, at Biddulph Grange with an arguably more famous modern version at Prince Charles’ home at Highgrove House. Apparently Prince Phillip’s verdict when he first saw his son’s effort was “When are you going to set fire to this lot?”. The Duke of Edinburgh would love our effort then!
The largest stumpery is in the US with around 95 separate tree stumps. Ours is on a more modest scale – with five and a couple of trunks that were too heavy to move. Most stumperies are located in shady areas (hence the ferns) – whereas ours in out in the middle of the ornamental grass garden. That’s where we tried to burn them and they are simply too heavy to move. I have to say that I quite like the fact that they are charred but it is doesn’t work out then they will soon be surrounded by grasses!
Unfortunately when we started we first had to remove the nettles that had settled in over the last couple of years. Ouch. We also had to excavate considerable amounts of building rubble – not the best basis for planting.
That’s now gone and the first few plants have been added. Many are traditional – hellebores, hostas and (sun-loving) ferns – but also the less obvious acanthus, hakonechloa macra (Japanese forest grass) and even edelweiss. We will let you know how we get on……
Stephen Lawrence prize
When we were working with our architect we wanted something different that would stand out and hopefully intrigue potential guests. The fact that the building has gone on to win a national RIBA award was a lovely, unexpected bonus. We had thought that the journey ended there but then we were nominated for the Stephen Lawrence Prize…..
To be honest we hadn’t heard of the Stephen Lawrence prize – though as our architect was extremely excited we knew that it was something special. We hadn’t known that Stephen wanted to become an architect before he was murdered in a racist attack. The prize, now in its 21st year, honours projects that cost less than £1m to complete and is intended to encourage fresh architectural talent. I have to admit when I told my parents they laughed. I think that they were amused that someone should be honoured building a house for less than £1m!! I reassured them that we didn’t spend anywhere near that much!
The judges came to visit earlier in the summer and included Stephen’s mother – Baroness Lawrence. In the great tradition of judging panels they were pretty inscrutable so had no idea what they thought. We were one of seven projects on the shortlist so the odds seemed reasonable. You can see the shortlist here
The winner was to be announced in October at the same event as the Stirling Prize – at the Roundhouse in London. The only slight problem was the price – £400 a ticket! Way too much for B&B owners. Fortunately RIBA let us go in the cheap seats with the architecture students for only £50 ahead. Now that was more like it.
It was a great night – a brief window on a world of which neither of us are a part. Funnily enough as we bumped into a number of our previous guests (we have a lot of architects staying) we actually felt quite at home.
Unfortunately….. we didn’t win, with the award deservedly going to ‘Old Shed New House’ by Tonkin Liu Architects. It looks amazing. Our architect Greg was a little disappointed – I think that they had rather cruelly sat him right next to the stage. He very generously bought a couple of bottles of champagne which was as much compensation as we needed!
It was a fun ride while it lasted and we look forward to see the winners in future years.
During the building of our new guest wing, it was a pretty much impossible to develop the garden. Any gardener that has ‘had the builders in’ knows that they have big boots and are not averse to running over plants every now and again. As the build drew to a close towards the end of 2016, we started the ‘white garden’ in front of the Barn. It probably seems a bit pretentious (we have just stolen the idea from Sissinghurst in Kent to be honest) but we figured that it would look great against the black decking.
Having just criticised our builders (!) they were great at landscaping the ground, shifting soil around to even out the lumps and bumps. However by the end it was a bit of a quagmire with bricks and nettles not far below the surface. Just to complicate things further there is a network of pipes carrying waste out to mains sewerage (not a lovely thought but can’t be avoided!) so plants should be shallowly rooted to avoid causing any potential problems. Oh and three manhole covers….
The result is a roughly triangular patch with a gravel path dividing the garden into two beds – one of which is partly north facing and the rest baked in the sun. So all in all a bit of a challenging patch of ground.
Eighteen months later we thinking it’s looking ok. The bareroot yew plants lining the path, planted in the middle of winter (not a fun task) have, by and large survived. The beds have been planted with lots of delphinium, peonies, roses, lavender, wallflowers, salvia, nicotiana, alliums, ferns, hostas, hellebores, astrantia, valerian …… all white of course.
We would like to thank….
Our architect Greg Blee (www.bleehalligan.co.uk) asked whether we wanted to be entered into the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) East 2018 awards earlier in the year. We thought ‘why not?’ and then didn’t give it much thought. We were surprised and excited to find out that we had been shortlisted in March and the judges came round to visit in April. As we had already committed to go on holiday (a rare event!) we could only guess from the snippets of feedback we received from Greg and our B&B sitting friend James, whether or not Five Acre Barn had impressed the judges…..
Bruce and I then went off – with some trepidation – to the awards ceremony on 24th May just outside Cambridge. The long and the short of it was that we were an award winner and also received an additional gong for ‘Best small project’ (not that it felt very small to us, but it is in relation to university libraries, social housing estates etc.).
It was a very interesting event and a rare chance for people like us to hear about the incredible projects being undertaken in the area. Each shortlisted project was featured and the judges provided insight about how the project had been conceived and executed. Unfortunately we missed most of the feedback from the judges about our own build as we were busy gurning for the cameras with our awards – but we were really pleased that as well as celebrating the great work of Greg and Josh, our architects, they also acknowledged the excellence of our builder Paul Rolph. We have come to realise that builders are frequently the ‘unsung heroes’ and it was great to see him get some well deserved credit!
The awards are currently in the loo in the Barn – isn’t that what you are supposed to do with them?? We will contact Adele for some advice….
Suffolk Open Studios
We have been very lucky in our three years in Suffolk to have been admitted as ‘honorary’ members of the local artist community. We can’t offer anything particularly creative ourselves but can appreciate the amazing work that people are producing. We particularly love the ceramics of Steven Will who makes pots from the local landscape, Annie Turner’s amazing clay baskets referencing the traps used by fisherman on the River Deben and Anna Mac’s bold bright abstract canvases, the epitome of fresh Scandi style..
If you are interested in their work we can often signpost you to their studios (albeit with a little notice and luck) and we also display examples of some of their work. Another alternative way of connecting with the makers is the Suffolk Open Studios – which takes place over the first four weekends in June. You can see the artists involved on their website www.suffolkopenstudios.org. There are some great trails to follow, taking in a diverse array of talents, including oil painters, collage artists, textile artists, jewellery makers….. the list goes on. It’s all pretty affordable too so don’t leave your wallets and purses at home!
We like to say to guests welcome to ‘sunny Suffolk’. For the most part this is true, as Suffolk is one of the driest, sunniest counties in the UK. Unfortunately I have to admit it’s been a bit of a stretch for most of Spring so far. At the risk of tempting fate it does feel like we have turned a corner and the garden is finally coming alive (though unfortunately that applies as much to weeds as it does to plants). We can also hear the boom of the bittern as they settle down to raise their brood and an extremely loud cuckoo has set up shop in our woods. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem that there have been any takers for our many bird boxes…
Spring has arrived in the countryside too. As we have mentioned before, we are on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Beauty – miles of heather, silver birch, broom and gorse. Many guests walk out to Thorpeness from the public footpath that runs at the end of the garden. In only forty five minutes, the meandering route takes them through farmland, woodland, heath and fen – before arriving at the beach. It’s stunning at any time of year but we love the spring – not least because of the incredible coconut fragrance of gorse blossom.
The only challenge in such a flat landscape is finding your way around with so few reference points to help guide you. We do supply detailed guidance for the walk to Thorpeness (and lots of maps and guidebooks if you are feeling adventurous).
Spring wouldn’t be spring without bluebells. At the moment we don’t have many in ours (we will get there eventually) so we have to venture a little further afield – about a twenty minute drive to Foxburrow woods at Farnham. In May these ancient woods are a truly breath-taking carpet of bluebells and wild garlic. Although this wood is private, it is open to the public as long as you promise to stay on the path – which seems a pretty fair deal.
Thanks to our friend – and photographer extraordinaire – Richard Wilson for this wonderful photograph of last year’s show.
Happy Birthday Five Acre Barn
It’s hard to believe that our first guests checked in exactly twelve months ago – 8 April 2017 (even harder to believe that we had thought we would be ready by the previous November – apologies to the people whose bookings sadly we had to cancel).
It had been a big build up to opening – first the long search for a suitable site and then fourteen months of building and renovating – and we weren’t even 100% sure that we would enjoy the experience. Fortunately it turns out that – perhaps bathroom cleaning aside – that it is really a lot of fun.
That it has been so enjoyable has mainly been down to our wonderful guests. We have been extremely lucky, meeting so many interesting, enthusiastic, positive and supportive people (possibly more architects in 12 months than in the rest of our entire lives). As B&B newbies, we have particularly appreciated all the lovely things that our guests have said – it has really lifted our spirits and helped reassure us that we are on the right track. We have equally valued the more critical feedback along the way – all helpful pointers how we might further improve our ‘offering’. Sometimes we are asked ‘have you had anyone awful to stay’ and we can honestly say that we haven’t. Long may that continue!
We have also been really lucky to have had some great exposure in the press and online – on the beautiful interiors blog www.designhunter.co.uk, the amazing www.Outthere.travel magazine and www.zafiri.com (the intersection of style and endurance!). Not forgetting Emily Mathieson’s Guardian feature which really put us on the map and filled the bookings diary (and continues to do so)!
Here’s a few random things we have learned in the last year:
Tumblefluff – we designed the rooms (concrete and ply floors) so they were easy to clean…… however you will always miss a bit of fluff floating ready to settle once you have left the room. Sorry about that – we do our best.
Dogs can open doors – Murphy (the Great Dane) taught us this valuable lesson in January, who set off in search of his owners who had just gone out for a cross country run. It seems that doors with lever handles are a doddle for dogs the size of a Shetland pony.
Weeds can be beautiful – we kind of lost the battle against the weeds last year – especially the tree lupins that eventually formed an impenetrable hedge along the guest rooms. However we realised that our guests weren’t bothered what the birds and butterflies were visiting as long as they could watch them from their rooms.
It’s surprisingly hard to get out of the garden – whilst we do have a large garden we were surprised to have a few people struggle to find their way out (no names) – so we will be investing in some paths shortly to help with the navigation.
Gluten-Free doesn’t mean taste-free – quite a few of our guests have had dietary requirements and we have always done our best to accommodate them. It’s amazing to see how many great recipes there are out there that are dairy or gluten free or Vegan. Our greatest challenge was vegan, gluten and nut free. Thank goodness for coconut!!
People love lemon drizzle cake – maybe that wasn’t such a surprise….
So that was our mini review of our first years – fingers crossed for the next twelve months. If you have visited before then it would be lovely to have you back and if you are thinking of coming to visit the Suffolk Coast then please do come and try us out!