There be dragons . . .
PUBLISHED: 13:58 14 August 2015 | UPDATED: 13:58 14 August 2015
The imaginative and fantastical Westhall house of Nick Fisher and Jo Jordan-Fisher personifies these two adventurous free spirits. Words and pictures: Tony Hall
If you take the train from Lowestoft to Ipswich, sit on the right hand side of the carriage and keep your eyes on the countryside between Brampton and Halesworth stations. You’ll see something rather extraordinary, a building that I can only describe as a cross between a hobbit house, a fairytale castle and an English folly.
“Interesting you say that,” remarks Jo Jordan. “People who spot it from the train do sometimes seek us out.”
Behind every unusual building is a fascinating story, not only of the property, but even more importantly, of its owners.
“It all started in the early ‘70s,” explains Nick Fisher, “when I took a one-way overland bus journey to India. An enterprising fellow was taking an old coach to sell there and needed passengers to cover the diesel. It was pretty rough and ready, but I was hooked by overlanding and tackled Africa the very next year. I thought, ‘I could do this – taking passengers would subsidise my travels!’ So a friend and I bought an old truck and started running Trans Africa Expeditions.” His steep learning curve started when the engine blew up.
Luckily Nick is the son of a farmer and had learnt the art of fixing things. Originally from Banham, his family moved to Westhall in the ‘60s, taking over the farm at Belle Grove.
By contrast, Jo was already used to life overseas, her father having served in the RAF. On leaving school in Bath she had been keen to volunteer abroad with VSO.
“Although I thought I’d stayed well below her radar, the headmistress declined to give me a reference. To the surprise of us both, I ended up qualifying as a solicitor, my desire for travel suppressed until I fell for a small ad. ‘Trans Africa. Five months. Tents all the way. £325.’ This was when I met Nick, his first venture”.
Their meeting turned into a long term partnership, the next three decades spent organising African overland trips, taking advantage of what, with hindsight, was a unique ‘window’ of accessibility.
“Yes,” says Jo, “there were many dicey moments, but it would be significantly more difficult now.” They built a house in Tanzania and Jo’s book, African Approaches: Roads to a Far off Place, is all about this exciting phase of their lives.
Nick inherited the farm at about the time of their last full-scale trip. It had a useful range of outbuildings and, needing to diversify, they obtained permission to convert these into holiday lets with a difference.
They also turned their attention to replacing the old farmhouse. Nick modestly mentions that he had “dabbled in building between farming commitments and bouts of travelling”. What he means is that over the years he found time to convert barns, chapels, cowsheds and a pair of Victorian warehouses, the award-winning Wellington Court in Halesworth.
“I’d built up a collection of old materials and artefacts,” he explains, “and was looking forward to using them for a new project.” But what to build? Some time before, they’d happened on a fantastical sketch of a building destined for St Petersburg in Russia, but never built. The image stuck in their minds, so they adapted the design to make it work to modern building codes – a slightly elliptical circle with three stories and several roofs, one dramatically swooping downward from the second floor like a ski run – now covered with a sedum blanket. A tower provides visual balance.
“Because the design was so complex and would have required numerous elevation plans,” says Jo, “we commissioned a professional model maker – Nigel Purdy of Halesworth – to make a 1:20 scale model and worked out the details with him as he went along. With a frame of green oak and straw bale infill, it was made in sections that could be lifted apart, clearly demonstrating our intentions to the planners. Happily, our application was successful”.
Many reclaimed materials were incorporated, including an elm tree trunk retrieved from a ditch around which the main staircase spirals. The 40 foot Douglas Fir poles for the tower are from Dunwich Forest, the straw bales that form the north wall are from Nick’s field “out the back”, and the mahogany floorboards salvaged from a shipwreck. All this and much more is recounted in Jo’s next book, yet to be published, Beyond Dragons.
The couple are hard pushed to say which are their favourite spaces, but Jo loves the rounded study with its ‘cabinets of curiosities’ and is particularly satisfied with the kitchen.
“It overlooks a swathe of green punctuated by clumps of trees so I was keen to create a visual link between the inside and out. Hence the choice of green worktop to merge with the garden, on the same principle as an infinity pool.”
The resulting exterior – complete with dragon climbing over the chimney – and interior is like nothing I have ever seen over years of photographing homes – fascinating, interesting and quirky. Jo meets me at the front door, its sizeable iron knocker acquired in Turkey, and I enter an Aladdin’s Cave, eyes taking a second to adjust to the rich, joyful colours.
Off the circular hallway are the cloakroom, study, a living/dining room under that sloping roof and the kitchen/breakfast room. Doors and surrounds brought back from Rajasthan mix it up with those from Bali further up the house.
The bedrooms are equally exotic – a guest room enjoying panoramic views over the grounds has a black and silver theme, and the master bedroom, four poster made by Nick, opens into a relaxing area with art deco style furniture.
Every room has a different feel, reflecting Jo and Nick’s creativity and collection of objets from around the world. No wonder the house was Overall Winner of the Daily Telegraph Building Awards and is mentioned in the new edition of Pevsner’s Houses of Suffolk (Buildings of England series), no mean accolade.
Before leaving, I ask Nick a final question. Does he see himself as an adventurer, a house designer/builder, or a farmer. With a big smile he replies: “A Suffolk farmer.”
Belle Grove Barns Westhall holiday accommodation
Contact Jo Jordan 01986-873124
African Approaches: Roads To A Far Off Place by Jo Jordan available from Amazon
OWNERS: Nick Fisher and Jo Jordan-Fisher
PROPERTY: new build quirky house
LOCATION: Westhall, Suffolk.
MOVED IN: Completely in 2014, but partially before.
PROFESSIONS: Nick is a farmer and Jo a recently retired solicitor.
PREVIOUS HOME: Halesworth.
FAVOURITE ROOM: Jo loves the rounded study with its ‘cabinets of curiosities’, and is particularly satisfied with the kitchen.
FAVOURITE ITEM: Sideboard in the sitting room, explains Jo, as it belonged to her parents.
FAVOURITE PART OF THE COUNTY: The countryside around Westhall and the coast at Dunwich.
FAVOURITE DAY OUT: Visiting period buildings for the architecture.
FAVOURITE WASTE OF TIME: Sitting in the summer house watching the sun set.
FAVOURITE WALK: The coast and beach from Walberswick to Dunwich.
FAVOURITE PUB/CAFE/PICNIC: The Racehorse in Westhall, St Peter’s Brewery, and The Angel in Halesworth.