A Grand Day Out:Long Melford
If you've ever seen Lovejoy you'll know Long Melford - one of East Anglia's prettiest villages. Imagine a mile long high street, both sides broadly separated, created by slotting together all sorts of not quite identical buildings. Georgian townhouses, irregular cottages, half-timbered plasterwork, chimney-stacked homesteads, and the odd agricultural leftover thrown in. Many of the frontages are painted in typically Suffolk shades - yellow, pink, occasionally orange - and the overall effect is highly pleasing [photo]. It'd be prettier if there weren't cars parked all the way along, on both sides, but not even the by-pass can keep these out.
I was expecting more antiques shops. I remember dozens, but on this visit I didn't count even five. The largestsurvivor is a warren of stairs and backchambers in a converted maltings, where various dealers sit waiting for someone, anyone, to be interested in their wares. If there's a corner of your home in need of a Regency cabinet, or if you're hunting for some porcelain to trade on, best bring plenty of cash. A Spar and a Co-Op are about as chainstore as the High Street gets, with shops more likely to sell trinkets and stationery than anything you might genuinely need. Ladies stop off for reiki and facials, or perhaps a new saddle from the magnolia-covered Lady Jane department store. Men are more drawn to the pubs, or to Long Melford's Ex-Service & Social Club, whose clientèle confirms that living in the country isn't all dressage and affluence. Past The Bull, across a small stream, lies Melford Green - a triangular sward of grass, bisected by the main road, with a gorgeous row of painted cottages rising up one side [photo]. The village church looms at the top end, far larger than any parish church has the right to be, but that's the power of the 15th century wool trade for you. If you ever needed to take an American to somewhere quintessentially English, Long Melford would do very nicely.
A Suffolk jewel:Melford Hall
Long Melford boasts not one but two Tudor mansions regularly open to the public. One of these is Melford Hall, a turreted mansion off Melford Green fronted by a walled garden. Queen Elizabeth I came visiting back in 1578, bringing her entire courtly entourage with her. A Banqueting House had to be built in the corner of the garden, and even then the Queen was displeased and had to send to London for better crockery [photo]. The Hall became the family home of the Hyde Parkers, indeed still is to this day. They made their fortune as naval captains, in one case liberating a Spanish galleon of its treasure in an act of legalised piracy, and the raid's bounty still litters the house. A wartime fire caused the entire North Wing to be rebuilt, then the expense of upkeep forced the family to sell up to the National Trust. They still get to live in one of the wings, and grey-haired day trippers get to tread the boards in the remainder of the house. The wood-panelled Great Hall is particularly impressive, with its grand staircase ideal for making an entrance the equal of any Hollywood superstar. But the true celebrity here is Beatrix Potter, who as one of the Hyde Parkers' cousins was a regular visitor to the house. She always stayed in the West Bedroom, where a small turret room provided the ideal place to keep her live animal companions (mice, rabbits, even a porcupine!). On one visit she brought a stuffed toy of a duck dressed in bonnet and shawl, who you'll now know better as Jemima, and this original Ms Puddleduck is on display in the Nursery. She may not be the only original, the room guide told me with a gleam in her eye, but the family still treasure their literary first edition.
A Suffolk treat:Kentwell Hall
Another Tudor mansion, but an entirely different visitor attraction. This one's renowned for its historical re-creations, where costumed actors wander the estate living life as it was then, and members of the public come along and watch [set of photos]. This weekend sees the first re-enactment of the year, the May Day Celebrations, and I braved the grey skies and chill wind to mingle within. Admission is pretty steep at almost £14, with a couple of quid knocked off if you arrive 'late' after half past two in the afternoon. I passed lots of cars on my long (long) walk up the drive, and assumed the place must be packed. But it turned out that most of the vehicles belonged to the participants, and only a few dozen paying customers had turned up. [photo]
"Good day," said the lady in the felt hat beside the moat, deep in character. "Good day," I replied, quickly realising that the entire visit would be an acting challenge for those of us on both sides. She proceeded to try to sell her wares, laid out in bowls across the grass, although I had no need of lavender pockets nor Nine Men's Morris and managed to avoid a sale. Every conversation around the site kicked off with a "Good day", then launched into faux-historical exposition. The carpenter in the farmyard told me about the spoon he was carving, from still-damp chestnut. The lady in the kitchen explained she'd finished cooking already because the only big meal in Tudor times was at lunchtime. The alchemist in the cottage in the woods told wild stories of sheep's skulls and gold. Being one of the few visitors on site, it was hard to escape from regular vocal interaction. Indeed when I inadvertently stepped into an upper barn I was unexpectedly sucked into ten minutes of chat about how wool gets combed and spun ready for weaving, escaping only when another actor arrived bearing refreshments. But it's easy enough to talk Tudor, just chuck in plenty of "yonder"s and "mayhap"s, and it'll all sound authentic enough.
The participants are all volunteers, here for the entire weekend, camping out on site and throwing themselves into their new lives with gusto. It's not every day you're allowed to pretend to be someone else, let loose in a smithy (or wherever) and allowed to make things the very old-fashioned way. They'd all come dressed in period costumes, not-obviously home-made, many wearing entirely unflattering pointy headgear. A few looked as if they might have regretted coming, what with the weather being more March than May, and a lot of sitting around campfires required to pass the time. Others were keeping busy with their crafts, or playing tunes and juggling down by the alehouse [photo]. I couldn't help wondering whether the children were here only because their parents loved this sort of thing, or whether they genuinely enjoyed the opportunity to run around in breeches and gossip in tents.
Which left the mansion still to explore. There are no guides, you just wander inside, past the courtyard maze, and look round as your fancy takes you. A single sheet of information in each room tells you what to look for, and relates how owners Patrick and Judith Phillips have made changes since they bought the place in 1971. They're not conservationists, more experimentalists, not ashamed to shoehorn a classical bathroom into the attic or add a Waring & Gillow table to the Chinese Bedroom. It struck me halfway round that there were no attendants watching my every move because there were few historical objects worth stealing, just a feeling of history brought about by selective redecoration.
You gain more of an insight into Patrick and Judith's world in the gardens outside. The back hedge has been shaped into a long thin topiary representing the Pied Piper. A sign beside the stocks bemoans the fact they had to remove the pillory for health and safety reasons, and blames the EU. The signposts around the site are all handwritten in marker pen. The walled garden looks loved rather than pristine, right down to the tumbledown shed at the far end [photo, plus peacock]. It's an extraordinary labour of love, the entire estate, and brought to life several times a year by those who come to play at living in the past.