I was in a state of discombobulation as I approached my Suffolk staycation. One minute I was on the A12, flying through East Anglia’s glorious flatlands; all breezy reed beds and freshly harvested fields and wot not – so far, so normal. Yet, just minutes later, I was seriously questioning my sat nav (and my sanity) as I jiggled my way past a totem pole and on to a drawbridge (well, I had to cross the moat somehow)… and all under the watchful eye of the resident 20ft dragon. I sat for a while, strumming my fingertips on my dashboard, pondering how to direct my friend Lizzie without worrying her that I had finally lost my marbles.
No, this was not Suffolk as I knew it. This was another beast all together. Arbuturians, let me introduce you to Belle Grove: the award-winning converted barns which inject the East in to East Anglia and guarantee to draw out the unashamed fantasist which lurks within us all.
If the main house looks familiar, you may have clocked it on television or in the press. Dragon House, as it is lovingly referred to (thanks to the enormous steel dragon which perches on its roof), is no stranger to the spotlight, featuring on various television shows and winning the odd design award to boot.
Dragon House may be reserved for its owners’ pleasure, but Belle Grove also boasts five luxury holiday cottages, each with their own walled garden fringed with deliciously unexpected kiwi, olive and fig trees. Inside, the vibrant rooms are filled with ethnic curiosities, collected by the owners on their travels around Africa and Asia; think deep green Indian marble, intricate Balinese fabrics and intriguing African sculptures. No, there is no Ikea flatpack malarkey or two-a-penny art in this holiday rental.
My friend Lizzie and I were staying in the smallest cottage, The Stable – intriguingly described as a ‘Mughal Jewel Box’. I only had to step foot in the lounge to understand why. The moody green walls had been lavished with a wash of gold for added splendour. An ornate Rajasthani wall hanging choreographed beams of sunlight around the room as it twerked in the breeze.
Deeper insider, past the vase of humble sweet peas, which stood illuminated beneath the ritzy chandelier, the palate switched to a ruby red in the bathroom and again, to a captivating cobalt blue in the bedroom – which was dominated by a seven-foot-tall four poster bed… crowned with gold, naturally. These historic barns, once destroyed by a stray world war two bomb, may be fiercely British, but it’s the confident palate and carefully chosen exotic curiosities which brings them to life.
Early mornings were spent exploring the grounds. The longer you stand still and stare here, the more weird and wonderful things you discover (admittedly, they are of varying degrees of normality). The lakeside camera obscura kept us entertained for a while, as did a hidden path set around the water’s edge which led to an idyllic Rajasthani lovers’ swing, buried within leggy cow parsley and swaying reeds. Surrounded by wild roses and rambling sweet peas it made the perfect spot for coffee, watching the lone coot survey its empire, adored by the local dragonflies.
Further afield we discovered an endearing wood panelled shepherd’s hut, complete with a log fire. Inside hid cricket paraphernalia, a croquet set and a telescope for star gazing… we also found an outdoor bath with a mannequin’s arm in it, a fairy garden and an enormous Bernard Matthews turkey feed silo carefully placed on its side to look like a rocket…as I said, varying degrees of normality.
Despite feeling worlds away from civilisation, the Belle Grove is well located for exploring some of the county’s best towns and beaches. This summer, with England bathed in a blanket of never ending sunshine, Lizzie and I couldn’t resist hiring the owners’ Southwold beach hut, Kingfisher. It wasn’t hard to spot: it was the one that everyone stopped to photograph. Slathered in a zingy turquoise and scattered with fairy lights and lanterns it made the perfect base for a day on Suffolk’s shores. The town’s boutiques gave us a welcome spot of retail therapy and the pub gardens were filled with merry holidaymakers loyally sipping the local brew, Adnams. Before leaving we couldn’t resist cooking up a cuppa on the gas stove for a taste of a true British staycation.
Further along the coast, Aldeburgh welcomed us with its pastel-painted houses and plentiful galleries. Its pebbled shores, fringed with weather beaten fishing boats and fresh seafood stalls, attracts a steady hum of plummy arty types and weathered yachties.
Leaving Belle Grove was a sombre affair. I would miss the skylark’s early morning trill, summoning us to get up, and the darting muntjacs fleeing at our very sight. Back home my wake-up coffee would be slurped stone cold throughout the morning, whilst attempting to feed a toddler with one hand, load the dishwasher with the other and juggle a slice of toast for good measure. Here, surrounded by empty fields and wide skies, Lizzie and I savoured them together on a Rajasthani swing, reminiscing about old times and watching the sun crawl across the pond, already awake with peacock blue damselflies and clumsy footed skimmers. Our sunset croquet sessions, enjoyed with a chilled vino and endless country views, would leave a hole too.
All packed up, but not quite ready to leave the deafening silence of my pastoral surrounds for reality back home, I took a detour to Snape Maltings. Founded by local legend Benjamin Britten, the beautifully renovated former malt factories are now home to an impressive concert hall, independent shops and eateries. I was easily lured by the sweet hand painted pottery, local watercolours and what was sure to be the most scenic coffee that I would enjoy all summer (and my last hot one for a good few years I imagine).
As a child my family would sail to Snape. Drifting peacefully along the River Alde felt as though you were slicing through endless reed beds, magically floating through the land. Truth be told it was all a little boring as a ten-year-old that was more interested in Power Rangers and PlayStation than paintings and pastures. But two decades on, with a child of my own, I was back. Sitting perfectly still with my steaming coffee, nestled in the dappled shade next to a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, listening to the reeds rustle in the salty sea breeze as a lone cloud teased overhead, it felt almost meditative.
Eventually of course I succumbed to the A12’s beacon, arriving home only to be greeted by a crazed 1-year old singing Kumbaya My Lord in nothing but her father’s size 10 trainers, motorbike gloves and a sunhat. Maybe a 20ft dragon wasn’t so mad after all.
Rated 5* Gold by Visit England, Belle Grove is a uniquely quirky luxury holiday retreat in the heart of Suffolk. Located 20 minutes from Southwold and 2 hours from London it’s comprised of 5 self-catering barn conversions, each sleeping between 2 – 6+. Prices start from £465. For more information, including details of seasonal offers, visit www.bellegrovebarns.com.