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Artist's childhood haunt is restored to former glory

PUBLISHED: 13:36 06 May 2014 | UPDATED: 13:47 06 May 2014

Sheppards Barn, Tunstall

Sheppards Barn, Tunstall

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Saved by the award-winning work of local craftsmen, situated on the old Tunstall farm where artist, Maggi Hambling, spent childhood holidays, Sheppard’s Barn is one hugely inspiring Suffolk holiday space to share with family and friends. Lindsay Want investigates

Sheppards Barn, TunstallSheppards Barn, Tunstall

Sheppard’s Barn stands to attention by the Woodbridge Road, smart, steadfast and just a short distance down from the Tunstall Green Man. But if you go looking for its clean lines and gorgeous grey timber-clad form on Google Earth today, you’re sure of a big surprise.

Taken in 2009, the online footage shows a sorry sight – collapsed stable roofs bearing down on crumbling brickwork, all clad in its own thick green disguise of overgrowth, a mish-mash of topsy-turvy, tar-black sheds by the old threshing aisle doors and the main, massive stretch of barn somehow soldiering on under the heavy burden of concrete roof tiles.

Sheppard’s Barn was in the wars even in its heyday – for although some of its main post and arched brace beams may have more historic origins, its knee joints give it away as part of a farmstead which flourished during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. The expanded navy and the visiting troops who were busy building Martello towers nearby and defending the entire coast needed feeding and Suffolk farmers welcomed the opportunity to oblige. Sheppard’s Farm was ‘gentrified’ through its new wealth and a granary, shelters, stabling and courtyards were created alongside the great barn itself.

Coast and countryside, land and sea – in this Sandlings stretch of Suffolk there’s an undeniable and timeless mutual dependency, a respectful recognition of coexistence. Just down the road in Blaxhall, some have it that the name of the local pub, The Ship, refers to smuggling days gone by, while others say it is the historic haunt of shepherds and sheepshearers.

Sheppards Barn, TunstallSheppards Barn, Tunstall

Meanwhile Maggi Hambling remembers an abandoned shepherd’s hut at her grandfather’s place – Sheppard’s Farm, Tunstall. The renowned seascape artist and creator of Aldeburgh’s famous scallop sculpture modelled her studio on it. She still talks about the dried seaweed collage she found there as one of the first works of art she ever experienced.

Today’s guardians of Sheppard’s Farm and saviours of the Napoleonic barn are a captain’s daughter and the current Vice Commodore of Aldeburgh Yacht Club. Who else?

Shared vision

Suffolk born and bred Caroline Martin and her surveyor husband, Keith, bought the Tunstall farmstead buildings back in 2004. After years of moving in and out from building to building as the restoration projects ebbed and flowed, the couple find themselves firmly settled in the farmhouse and loving every opportunity to share their passion for Suffolk’s coast and countryside as well as their expertly converted granary and Sheppard’s Barn with small ‘flocks’ of self-catering visitors.

“Of course, one day our own children or grandchildren might want to come back to the fold,” smiles Caroline. “Sheppard’s Barn is such a fantastic building and it seems to wow everyone who stays here. Replacing the threshing aisle doors with big windows to let the light flood through and adding the glass balconied mezzanine in the bay really opens up so many vistas both inside and outside the property. I just love the fact that you can always see out in Suffolk, if you know what I mean. That feeling of breathing space is so special and Sheppard’s Barn has captured that too.”

You could certainly always see out during the early months of the restoration project, when the highly skilled team at Framlingham firm, Robert Norman Construction, had the place filled with scaffolding and peeled away all of its external boarding.

With an on-site cart lodge and store conversion by the team already in the bag and beautifully on budget, Keith and Caroline were confident that the project – albeit on a massively bigger scale – would be in safe hands.

“A restoration of this size, of a building of this nature is not an everyday undertaking,” muses Keith. “We’ve done up a lot of properties, but Sheppard’s Barn is special – it’s not a listed property, but that brings challenges as well as opportunities. There are different types of engineering going on here and an awful lot of precious history around it all too. It’s vital to find someone who has the right skills and empathy for the building, but above all, who you can get on with too. We knew from our experience with the Granary Barn conversion that Robert’s timing and pricing were spot on, so we were delighted when he was able to give us both a build programme and pricing for the Sheppard’s Barn project which were precise and fixed. That’s certainly not an easy job with a building like this.”

Reduced to a skeleton like some upturned, stripped back, historic ship, but supported by the scaffolding, the main timber-framed barn had, ironically, never been more stable. There was extensive underpinning to carry out and although the onerous, but generally water-tight concrete roof tiles had proved the saving grace for most of the property’s timber frame, down at brickwork level, centuries of damp had destroyed the soleplate.

Around 15% of the timbers needed replacing and green oak was carefully selected and crafted to complement the collection of existing posts and beams. Barns dating from the Napoleonic War years often reveal the use of elm – oak being more scarce back then as it was required by the Navy for its ships.

The alternative was the time-honoured make-do-and-mend approach, reusing reclaimed timbers purloined from other places. Perhaps this offers an explanation for the presence of more ‘old-fashioned’, jointed cruck beams in two of the bays at Sheppard’s Barn? Some of the older timbers could well have been once at home in a local hall house and this was something for Robert Norman Construction’s modern day craftsmen to take into consideration.

From reinstating the Victorian brick stables which had collapsed at each end of the five bay barn, to giving the place a proper Suffolk pantile roof and installing underfloor heating – including first taking up the barn’s original York stone threshing floor, cleaning it up and relaying it of course – the first class restoration of Sheppard’s Barn has given one of Suffolk’s Napoleonic farm buildings the chance to offer the warmest of welcomes to all who sail in her.

Its galley kitchen is long and impressive. Its seven bedrooms, stashed away fore and aft, are just right for a couple of good-sized crews or a family get-together. It even has its own rigging to support the flue of the superb central woodburner. Sheppard’s Barn is light, contemporary, yet buoyantly proud of its Suffolk history – perfectly shipshape in fact and definitely here to stay.

Sheppard’s Barn has scooped awards from the Suffolk Association of Architects and Federation of Master Builders for the quality of the work and craftsmanship displayed in its renovation. More details about the transformation of Sheppard’s Barn are available at robertnormanltd.co.uk

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