Suffolk's prettiest homes: A Christmassy farmhouse near Knodishall
PUBLISHED: 09:24 12 November 2019 | UPDATED: 12:02 12 November 2019
Mark and Jan Haines can't wait for Christmas to arrive at their home, Billeaford Hall, a restored farmhouse near Knodishall | Words & Photos: Tony Hall
On a wintery day just before Christmas, I went to visit to visit Jan Packard and Mark Haines at their beautiful Suffolk farmhouse, Billeaford Hall between Knodishall and Aldeburgh. Temperatures were falling rapidly and snow seemed imminent. Once inside, however, there was a warm welcome, rooms decorated for Christmas, glowing log burners and the Aga making everything warm and cosy.
"The lead up to Christmas starts with putting up lots of greenery. I love foliage," says Jan. "Then the preparatory cooking, mince pies, cranberry jam, marmalade and the Christmas cake." Jan is a qualified cook and spent many years working on luxury yachts chartered around the Caribbean.
She is highly organised on the catering front, which is an added bonus as throughout the year as she and Mark operate Billeaford Hall as an upmarket B&B.
"With those jobs done, it's off to Redhouse Barn, near Friston, to choose the tree - possibly to get a few more decorations to add to the collection over the years - and then home to dress them, and put on the lights.
"I so love the build up to Christmas. The first carol concert, normally at Knodishall church, really is a moment that heralds joy and the start of this festive season. I've always enjoyed carols and Mark and I try to fit in two or three concerts, plus a visit to the theatre for a pantomime or the Christmas Spectacular by the Co-op Juniors at Snape Maltings."
The farmhouse was built in the 16th/17th centuries with later additions and takes its name - probably Saxon - from the small hamlet in which it lies. It belonged to the Blackheath Estate and, when the last tenanted farmer left, was privately bought from the estate, together with the barn, in the 1980s.
The soil was not good for crops, so the farmer moved to the other end of the village and started a market garden on better soil. Horses worked the land until the 1960s when 10 of then were replaced by a tractor.
Keen sailors, Jan and Mark chose Billeaford Hall because of its relative proximity to the county's coast and waterways. Sailing still features large in their lives, of course, and Mark is doing an RYA Skipper's course so they can trade up from a dingy to a Moody 27'. They also liked the barns which are a good base for families seeking holiday accommodation.
"I was immediately taken with the conservatory," recalls Mark, "light and airy with nice views over the garden and a great place to watch the big skies. That, and the opportunity the barns afforded, sold the property to us immediately." They began work on the barn immediately, which enabled them to start generating income early on.
"When it came to this house, it was a challenge, as we had come from different homes. Mine was a Georgian house, but with contemporary furniture, and Jan's a heavily beamed barn." They consider themselves fortunate to have good local shops. "Several pieces of furniture and artefacts I have found at Snape Maltings, always different and inspirational," says Jan.
Soon after they had revamped the house they were visited by a family of Americans who had rented the property many years before. "They had been on the American airbase," explains Mark, "and recalled that the farmhouse was the coldest place they had ever been in - ice and snow on the windows that winter and just one fire in an upstairs bedroom. I was pleased to show them that we had put in wood burners and how warm the house was." It's certainly cosy and warm for the festive season.
"This house so lends itself to Christmas - lots of festive lights, wood burners lit and the smells of Jan's wonderful cooking," says Mark. "There's so much to do - great walks and games, and even tennis even, snow permitting. We sometimes gather the Friday before, with friends and family, for what we call the company dinner, at the White Lion in Aldeburgh.
"On Christmas Eve, the family arrive and Jan does a supper of beef bourguignon, with dauphinoise potatoes. On the main day, it's bacon sandwiches for everyone for breakfast, a dip in the hot tub, then a walk, maybe a drink at The Dolphin, Thorpeness, followed by the traditional turkey lunch at home, with all meat from Nichols in Leiston.
Normally it's board games in the evening, such as Monopoly. We also have a big jigsaw puzzle, which people can add pieces to - this year The Haywain.
"On Boxing Day and New Year's Day, we often go for a swim at Dunwich, or walk to our local beach between Aldebugh and Thorpeness, followed by a good slug of sloe gin - home made from our own fruits. Or it's a clay pigeon shoot in our gravel pit. No gin of course! If the family are staying it's a lazy day, with maybe ham and mashed potato later on."
Once the guests have gone, the couple go back to walking the Sailors Path between Snape and Aldeburgh, or across to Orford Ness for the wildness and bird watching. "Here at home we watch for our resident barn owl. In fact a most magical thing is watching the skies during the day and at night, preferably with a big moon.
"It's such a quiet spot, very rural and so enjoyed by our guests. Suffolk is special."
B&B at Billeaford Hall billeafordhall.com
Holiday lettings of East and West Barns suffolk-secrets.co.uk
Room: The conservatory - south facing, with views of beautiful skies.
Item: The Aga, and the dining table made by Mark's dad
interiors shops: Snape Maltings Home & Garden, Elmwood Nurseries, Knodishall
Part of the county: Orford Ness and the coast
Day out: On a boat on the rivers
Waste of time: Watching the resident barn owl
Walk: Sailors' Path
Pub: Parrot & Punchbowl at Aldringham, owned and run by The Dolphin Inn, Thorpeness.
Cafe or restaurant: The Lighthouse Aldeburgh.