Take a look through this converted mill in Saxmundham
PUBLISHED: 12:43 27 March 2018 | UPDATED: 12:43 27 March 2018
Mary and Patrick Skinner experience the joys of living in Suffolk at their converted mill at Saxmundham. Words and images: Tony Hall
People who have quirky or unusual homes often seem to lead interesting lives, like Mary and Patrick Skinner, who live in a converted mill at Saxmundham, but once shared their Cyprus home with about 150 rescued donkeys. Let’s rewind . . .
Patrick hails from Essex. Born in Westcliff-on-Sea, he moved with his family several times in the war years, settling in Paignton, Devon, where he went to art school in the evenings. After National Service, his first job was in public relations at Imperial Tobacco in Bristol, where he recalls they actively promoted the dubious ‘benefits’ of smoking.
He worked for the Rank Organisation for 11 years, before starting his own PR company in London, PAR Skinner & Co Ltd, with clients such as the Economist newspaper, Beecham Foods, and Reckitt & Colman.
In 1990, aged 58, he and Mary sold the company, then called European Public Relations, to semi-retire to Cyprus. “We had always enjoyed holidays there,” he says, “and there was an added attraction, that I had several Middle Eastern clients, such as Royal Jordanian Airlines, the Jordanian Royal Family and others in the Arabian Gulf.
“However, just as we moved there, the first Gulf War broke out and put a stop to those projects. But we loved Cyprus and had a reason for staying there for 20 years.”
Mary, was born and brought up in Hurst Green, Sussex. After secretarial training at Eastbourne, her first job was on the staff of Lord Woolton at the war time Ministry of Food, before moving on to an American buying agency, involved in women’s clothing.
In 1968, she went to work for Patrick’s company, and the rest, as they say, is history, including the move to Cyprus.
“We found a lovely house, inland from Limassol, called Vouni in the Troodos mountains,” she explains. “In 1992 Patrick and I started The Cyprus Donkey Sanctuary, totally by accident, after a kind person tied a donkey to our gate. In the next 17 years, about 400 more, all unwanted and often old, were taken in.
“We had to use all our public relations skills to raise the funds needed to run the sanctuary. At any one time, we had an average of about 150 resident. Luckily we built up over 70 volunteers, mainly ex-pats, that we could rely on totally for the day to day grooming, feeding and walking them.”
It was a visit to The UK Donkey Sanctuary, at Sidmouth in Devon, that provided Patrick and Mary with an opportunity to move back to England. The sanctuary was willing to help them with their endeavour, and eventually took it over.
“Most years, living in Cyprus, Patrick and I returned to see his sister, who lived in Woodbridge. We would rent various holiday cottages and, that year, had intended to go to one on a horse stud near Newmarket. But things changed and we booked this mill.
“I remember our arrival so well. It was late in the evening and we were tired, having done the flight to Stansted, then the car journey, plus having trouble finding the location. To make matters worse, we had trouble with the key code box and had to call the representative out.
“So, by the time we put the luggage in, we were shattered. But I remember coming into the hall, and going left into the kitchen-dining area, which occupies the ground floor of the mill, and thinking this is something special.
“During our stay, Patrick said, ‘Could you see yourself living here?’ and we both agreed we could. Before leaving we spoke to the owner asking if she would be prepared to sell. She was but wanted a year, because of existing bookings, which suited us well as the buyer of our Cyprus home also wanted a year to arrange his affairs.
“So as you can see it’s all worked out well.”
Albion Mill was built in 1824, at a time when there were more than 500 working windmills in Suffolk.
It was a post mill, the earliest type – a very similar mill is still in place at nearby Friston – and the miller lived in a cottage at the bottom of the hill. Lightening struck the mill in 1907, damaging the buck – the part that enabled the mill to turn – so badly that it never ground corn again.
It was used for storage and, after the Second World War, became Windmill Garage. By the mid 1990s it was derelict, but English Heritage came to the rescue with a stout new roof.
In 2003, it was sold and the new owners submitted plans for residential use – a modern simple eco new build at the side, with two bedrooms, a bathroom and shower room, and a glazed hall overlooking the garden.
Now it belongs to Patrick and Mary.
Do they miss life in Cyprus? Only the good weather, they say.
“Plus the good local wine, excellent local food and the easy life style,” says Patrick. “The village was very interesting. It was very conservative, Greek Orthodox. For example, when we wanted to build a swimming pool, there was total shock about all the bare flesh.
“But when it was built everyone wanted to use it! I also enjoyed writing for over 21 years in Cyprus, America, Britain and the Middle East – features on food and wine. It was wonderful as so many taverna owners would welcome us hoping for publicity.” But, says Mary, the couple have really settled into Suffolk life.
“We find people so friendly and welcoming. Patrick, who is an excellent cook, mainly of Eastern Mediterranean food, loves having a Waitrose so close. In fact he is in there most days, buying items for his next dish, a speciality being lamb with tomatoes, red wine, garlic, and peas added at the end.
“We spend a lot of time in this kitchen, at the dining table, as the room has an amazing atmosphere and presence. I enjoy doing the Telegraph crossword every day and sending it in.
“However, I am yet to win. We love playing croquet with friends at Thorpeness, trips to Minsmere, as we’re keen bird watchers, concerts at Snape Maltings and walks from there to Iken. However, as we’re now in our eighties, bungalow land is beckoning and we may put the mill on the market.
“But we love this part of Suffolk and intend to stay around.”