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……
Do it yourself
The Suffolk countryside seems to be full of talented artists. It’s staggering just how many beautiful things are produced close by and how easy it is to track them down – there are lots of makers markets (particularly around Christmas time) and open studios.
There are also opportunities to learn how to make too. You might not become as immediately skilled as the professionals – but it is great fun giving it a go. Two of our favourites are husband and wife team Ed and Jane Mitchell Finch, who live about twenty minutes away in Brampton (check them out at www.mitchell-finch.online).
Ed is a master of the letter press – working with old metal and wood type to product his bold, witty designs on a vintage printing press. Ed runs letterpress printing experience days, so that you can go along for a day to learn about printing.
Jane produces exquisitely embroidered brooches and pictures. Although I don’t really need brooches other than as presents, I find them mesmerising- so detailed, delicate and capturing the likeness of her subject.
I was so fascinated I went on one of Jane’s machine embroidery one day workshops. Unfortunately I didn’t get very far as my sewing machine decided to play up. Jane’s very quick diagnosis was a lack of housekeeping on my part (it was full of lint from months of upholstery and curtain making). So whilst I had to throw in the towel on that occasion, I am definitely up for a rematch! Doubly keen having seen the amazing efforts of the other people on the course.
We have also just come across a ‘new kid on the block’ – a recently established studio in the glorious, tranquil Sudbourne Park Estate. Having lived in Suffolk for many years, Chris has set up the Bluebird Pottery Shed (www.bluebirdpotteryshed.co.uk) in one of the out buildings in the estate (complete with beautiful brick floors) with three professional potting wheels. The shed offers scheduled courses for all levels of ability each month with a maximum class size of four. You can also arrange bespoke courses if you contact Chris. We have yet to go on a course – watch this space – but couldn’t thing of a better place to learn.
Out on the prairie
We have some grand ambitions for the garden bordering by the guest sundecks – which will eventually become a deep sea of ornamental grasses. Inspired by the prairie planting of Piet Oudolf, we want the grasses to provide both gentle movement, a relaxing rustle and of course beauty – with their delicate seed heads offering winter interest after everything else has faded (the video shows the curly head of Miscanthus Nepalensis in case you are wondering). On a more practical note they should provide screening for the sundecks – from each other and the rest of the garden.
Much as I enjoy gardening I can’t pretend that I know a great deal about grasses so I am learning a new grass lexicon – eragrostis, briza, caerula, molinia, miscanthus, calamagrostis, pennisetum, panicum, deschampsia, stipa – they don’t exactly roll off the tongue do they? The variety is incredible – from delicate annuals to graceful arching masses to impenetrable almost bamboo like clumps and everything in between. If only I could remember which one was which (especially when the guests ask).
We will also use perennials and bulbs to provide a pop of colour – fennel, gaura, echninops, verbena bonariensis, aliums daffodils, artichokes etc. None of them are wild flowers as such but they give that vibe. They also have to be pretty tough sitting in sandy soil in full sunshine.
It’s fair to say that we have a way to go. We planted a few grasses in 2016 but until the sundecks were built (earlier this year) we couldn’t really finish the job. Funnily enough in early photos the weeds were so prolific and healthy it looked incredibly sophisticated from a distance. Only a closer inspection revealed that it was mostly comprised of thistle, ragwort, fat hen and couch grass! The guests didn’t mind as long as there were birds and butterflies – and there were. A few more months of abandonment the weeds were replaced by something a bit more substantial – a five foot hedge of tree lupins. From seed to bush in six months is quite an achievement though a few hours with a pickaxe and they were gone……
With the decks in place and some recent planting it is beginning to come together – which I hope the above photos show. In the interests of full disclosure there is a menacing ocean of nettles only 20ft from the decks. Over the autumn it will be dug over and mulched ready for spring planting. I have made a start and in fact right now my hands are throbbing from those pesky nettle stings.
We are taking it slowly though just to make sure none of our resident slow worms come to any harm….
Stage and Screen
Aldeburgh really punches above it’s weight in so many ways. Two great illustrations of this are High Tide (11-16 September) and the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival (2-4 November).
High Tide has been called the theatre world’s Sundance Film Festival (apparently!), providing a platform for new, innovative and challenging work. This year it includes five new pieces from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Productions take place in a number of places across Aldeburgh including the Jubilee Hall, Pumphouse, Aldeburgh Cinema, Aldeburgh Beach Lookout and even a pub – Ye Old Cross Keys.
We love High Tide and try and see a couple of things each year. This is absolutely not Am Dram and the standard is consistently high – as anything as good as you would see in London, Glasgow or Leeds. We have seen comedy as well as top notch drama covering some pretty tough areas – the tragedies of immigration in Lampadusa and the desperation of a group of friends abducted by Boko Haram.
This year we are keeping it light with a couple of nights of comedy – we are particularly looking forward to Dr Adam Kay, author of the hilarious (and at the same time rather depressing) ‘This is going to hurt’.
The 22nd Aldeburgh Documentary Festival is a distinctive combination of world-class documentaries, discussion and debates, that has grown significantly over the last few years. The 2018 programme is varied – from US politics to Jazz to Joanna Lumley. We have to confess that we have yet to go (as it’s not brilliantly signposted) but guests staying last year that highly recommended it. The programme is best viewed at the moment through The Suffolk Coast website (a great place for information on the area) which can be found here.
Now we don’t pretend that the North Sea Coast owes much to the Mediterranean of Ibiza or the Greek Islands …. but that’s not to say that it isn’t a great place to hang out and with the Suffolk Coast’s Area of Outstanding Beauty as a backdrop – it can be staggeringly beautiful. Here are some of our favourites:
- Aldeburgh – a long expanse of shingle and take the obligatory photo by Maggi Hambling’s fabulous Scallop. No access for dogs in the summer months
- Sizewell – yes it’s next to a nuclear power station but it’s beautiful and dog friendly all year round. Here’s Bruce with Ruby and next door’s border terrier Seve (yes as in the golfer).
- Shingle Street – remote like Dungeness but with huge pebble dunes. Beautiful and desolate!
- Southwold – a gentile seaside town. Apparently some of the candy coloured seaside beach huts can sell for up to £100k. Crazy!
- Walberswick – shallow and shandy and they like dogs! You can also go crab fishing in the inland shallows – probably not enough for a sandwich these are just tiddlers after a piece of bacon.
- Covehithe – a bit off the beaten track and no tourist facilities but the Times rated this amongst its top 30 secret beaches – a quiet, sandy beach running alongside a bird reserve.
Most people wouldn’t associate our neck of the woods with contemporary music – for most its all about the classical music of the Aldeburgh Festival. For four days – Suffolk 13th – 15th July 2018 – of the year Suffolk brings in the talent. This year the headliners range from The Killers, Solange and Alt J – with everything in between. There is a lot more than music though – poetry, stand up and even spa treatments (no wonder it also has the reputation of being one of the most ‘middle class’ of festivals). Set in the grounds of Henham Park, part of the attraction must be that it is just such a beautiful place – grassy open areas and shady woodland. No Glastonbury quagmires here.
Although it’s a bit late this year – tickets sell out pretty quickly – if you do want to check out Latitude next year but don’t fancy a tent then stay at Five Acre Barn. We are only 20 mins away and can help get you there and away.
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!