Having spent the first leg of my Suffolk staycation exploring the county’s Heritage Coast, I was leaving the stark estuaries and solitary backwaters and heading through Dedham Vale – better-known as Constable Country.
Bypassing the Area of Outstanding National Beauty’s pastel-painted Tudor towns and riverside hamlets, is like venturing into the eponymous artist’s paintings – you only need to visit Flatford Mill, today a National Trust property, to see just how little has changed in this neck of the woods.
However, Suffolk has an uncanny knack of toying with one’s expectations, injecting ancient façades with surreptitiously modern interiors. The county’s historic towns may look like they are still run by velvet gowned Tudors eager for a front row seat at the next public hanging, but its chocolate box cottages are now luring in a young, trendy set, who favour their ancient abodes with a side of cutting-edge design and hi-tech gadgetry to boot. This juxtaposition was certainly true of my next home from home, The Old Barn in Chelsworth.
Chelsworth itself dates back to 962 and boasts a 14th century half-timbred inn, a tiny wood-clad village hall and a peppering of quaint wattle and daub thatched cottages, each painted a varying shade of butterscotch, burnt orange and of course, ‘Suffolk pink’. Despite its modest size, the bijou village has attracted countless admirers over the years, including Tennyson’s grandson, who declared it the ‘perfect village’. At Chelsworth’s heart is a castellated church, hidden down a local house’s driveway – masquerading as concrete, it is in fact a glorious flint construction. As I said, buildings here are never quite as they seem.
Maintaining a civilised distance from its neighbours, The Old Barn is hidden away at the end of an inconspicuous farm track. Despite being surrounded by miles of empty fields this spectacular 6-bedroom barn conversion has an enviable plot, just a short stumble from the award-winning local pub.
Part of the extensive Suffolk Cottage Holidays’ portfolio, the secluded 17th century barn turns its back on the quaint inglenook fireplaces and oak mezzanines one expects from English barn conversions. Instead, cathedral-like vaulted ceilings, polished concrete floors and an indoor firepit greet you, all overseen by the statement stainless steel horseshoe kitchen island.
Surrounded by 17-th century beams and seemingly unchanging farmland, this contemporary invasion is wonderfully perplexing, demanding your full attention at all times. The modern minimalist interiors have a raw, industrial edge, which seems totally alien in such an historic property. Such a bold design move will always divide guests – our group ranged from 2-years to 72-years and despite each guest’s differing feelings on the design, every single one entered in awe. Over the years, this property has played many roles, including a munitions store during the Napoleonic War.
An inconspicuous white door led to the sleeping quarters, which spanned four floors. In the basement, the futuristic master bedroom resided within a high-tech inflatable pod-like extension, with a glass wall providing verdant views from the space age jacuzzi – an enormous circular soaking tub, surrounded by lime green foam. If a visit to Flatford Mill had transported me back two centuries, a stay at The Old Barn had catapulted me forward. I felt like I was on a futuristic farm stay, on Mars perhaps. And I liked it.
Surrounded by empty fields, etched with remote footpaths, this cutting-edge property, filled with modern tech is, ironically, the perfect place to escape the 21st century’s demands. Somewhere one can simply exist, swallowed up by the sights and sounds of nature – the circling buzzards, the prancing muntjac and those famous skies. However, for those keen to dip into local life, The Old Barn is within easy reach of some of the area’s finest wool towns. Long Melford, one of England’s most attractive villages, is well worth a visit. With two Elizabethan manors and countless antiques shops and galleries it attracts a steady stream of tourists seeking a taste of yesteryear.
Our stay coincided with Remembrance Sunday. Having pondered our options on a windswept walk, the destination for this special day seemed obvious: Lavenham. Regarded as one England’s best-preserved medieval towns, its streets are a fiery collage of over 300 listed half-timbred Tudor buildings. At its heart is limewashed Guildhall, once the meeting place for bear baiting and public executions, today the main square is home to sweet tearooms, museums and restaurants. It is here that a lone trumpeter marked the start of the town’s Remembrance Day parade, which marched its way around the ancient streets to the sound of church bells, ringing across the county.
Airmen’s Bar, which resides within The Swan at Lavenham, one of Suffolk’s most highly-regarded hotels, seemed like the most fitting place to toast a the fallen. Displaying military memorabilia, the bar is dedicated to the heroes of the Second World War. Its walls bare 850 signatures belonging to members of the 487th Bombardment Group (part of the US Army Air Force), who were stationed at RAF Lavenham.
Today, the hotel also boasts a bijou spa, which houses heat experience rooms, an outdoor vitality pool, a relaxation area and treatment rooms. Weavers’ House Spa has an extensive range of massages, facials and beauty treatments – I can thoroughly recommend the Repose Aromatherapy Facial. As an infamous insomniac, I suspected some sort of sorcery had taken place when my therapist awoke me – or maybe it was the heavenly heated water bed. Either way, it left my visage hydrated, dewy and ready for the night ahead.
At the heart of the Tudor property, parts of which date back to 1425, is The Gallery restaurant. Displaying 400-tons of elaborate oak beams, the theatrical dining room sets the scene for Head Chef Justin Kett to execute a proudly British menu, sprinkled with great Suffolk produce; think halibut with razor clams and pickled strawberries, followed by marinated rump of beef with stilton bread & butter cake. The flickering candlelight and the dapper white jacketed pianist tinkling away on the mezzanine set the tone for the evening: this was the closest that we had come to a true medieval feast. As we remarked on the extraordinary historic surrounds, the charming rosy-cheeked sommelier let out a chuckle as he informed us that it had in fact been built in the sixties. Oh Suffolk, you’ve done it again.
The Old Barn in Chelsworth is part of the Suffolk Cottage Holidays portfolio. It can sleep up to 11 guests and welcomes up to 2 dogs. Prices for 3-night stays start from £1,324 during low season. Longer stays start at £1,765 per week in low season. For more information, or to book, please call Suffolk Cottage Holidays on 01394 389189 or visit www.suffolkcottageholidays.com.