Suffolk’s historic houses: Exploring Bressingham Hall in the Waveney Valley
PUBLISHED: 12:44 05 May 2020 | UPDATED: 12:44 05 May 2020
Bressingham Hall, an elegant, Georgian mansion in the Waveney Valley, is blooming beautiful – in every aspect | Words & photos: Lindsay Want
Concealing its white bricks and square edges with a mask of dark creeper, Bressingham Hall seems a little unusual for an East Anglian country mansion.
It doesn’t stand aloof or even at a distance. It seems not at all bothered about drawing itself up to its full height or asserting any particular pride of place.
Instead, it’s tucked under a shallow cap of grey pantiles with a central pediment peak, humbly blending in with the leafy backdrop designed to extol the colourful virtues of exuberant seasonal borders.
From the outside at least, Bressingham Hall, the former home of the late eminent plantsman Alan Bloom, seems to have much in common with the world-famous gardens’ tiny thatched summer house, arched flint bridge or fine architectural planting.
Rather than ruling the roost, it seems to have stepped back to play the part of a garden feature or focal point.
But appearances can be deceptive and there are always two sides to a story, as a tour of the house reveals.
It’s both odd, yet strangely appropriate that an early 19th century mansion should have a Boulton & Paul of Norwich conservatory bolted on to its fine façade as a practical sort of porch.
The crawling creeper has crept in, of course, and is reaching for the entrance door, but fortunately it has not yet dared to put a feeler out onto the original spider-web fanlight.
Through the wide green, split front-doors, the white and warm-beige, high-ceilinged hallway is not just divinely elegant, but as “noble” as a Victorian auctioneer’s bill of sale once described it.
Clearly enjoying the admiring eyes running up and down her childhood home’s handsome cantilever staircase, Bridget Bloom, Alan’s daughter and the artistic family mastermind behind loving the place back to life, adds an extra smile to the occasion.
A glimmer from the past lightens the formality of a room already bright from candelabras and the sunshine gushing through a corridor arch from the rear of the house.
“The boys used to speed down that bannister,” she shares. “There are a lot of stairs between here and where we’d play in the attic.”
More fondly remembered family tales and little insights follow as she leads the procession gently round reception rooms, up and over the mezzanine landing and beyond, pushing open doors to permit a nifty nose at every Georgian niche and every glorious aspect of the upstairs bedrooms.
There was the day when her young brothers climbed out of their attic window – “it was boys one side, girls the other up there” – to walk along the roofline, calling out “Hello, Dad” to their father working in the grounds below.
“His heart must have been in his mouth when he saw his two sons walking the parapet. But he was so calm. He must’ve just said something like “Hello, boys – think it’s about time you went back in”, because that’s what they did. There was no fuss about it.”
In a house surrounded by beautiful borders it’s perhaps especially easy to look at things through rose-tinted spectacles. The kitchen, remembered by Bridget as a scullery with a sloping brick floor, still has its original old water-pump sitting in the corner.
But Alan’s muddy wellies would never have graced today’s chic boot room, unless he’d been bringing into the old dairy larder the flat, steel pan of milk from the two ‘house cows’ by the back High Barn. It would be skimmed for cream later and the kids would be expected to work the handle of the butter churn.
There was a walled garden for fruit and vegetables, an orchard, and grape vines in the greenhouse. Bacon from home-reared pigs was smoked on site.
Apples had their own special store, and eggs swimming in crocks full of gloopy isinglass liquid were edible right up to when the hens started to lay again. It sounds like a self-sufficient good life and rather incongruous with the refined elegance of the Grade II listed mansion on show today.
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But when Alan, son of a fenland market gardener, bought Bressingham Hall and its farm and fenny acres in 1946, the new owner was a hard-worker who never stopped, a man who always found himself a new ‘hobby’ and like to look after things, including his family.
In the drawing room, Bridget and interior design partner-in-crime Jo Hodgeson admit to having some of Alan’s DIY masterpieces dismantled in favour of restoring finer lines and low dado-rails.
The property, they think, was probably built around 1817-20, so why the predominantly Regency features?
The explanation seems reassuringly practical and has further parallels with Alan’s lifetime of looking after things like his steam bygones, still in situ just across the driveway.
Robert Martin, son of a Palgrave antiquarian, was believed to have built the place, a man who drained and used some of the local land. “My father was the same,” says Bridget.
Martin most likely bought himself a slightly out-of-date ‘pattern’ book. Whether that meant he could also buy some of the fixtures and fittings at an old-fashioned price remains to be seen, but he no doubt had to keep an eye on his purse strings. Bridget and Jo recognise the familiar territory.
“The house got shabby as my father got older. It was used as a B&B for a number of years. We sold some land to be able to sort the house and High Barn out, do the heating, the plumbing, but the budget was tight.”
There was little left over for furnishings and the finer points of interior design, just room for ample amounts of initiative.
In the drawing room a new ceiling rose was sourced to sit alongside original cornicing. Curtains, cleaned and shrunk, were ‘restored’ with a slightly longer fringe.
Alan’s trademark shoulder-high shelves stacked with ornaments “had to go”, replaced by a matching pair of Pekinese on a thin mantlepiece and glass-fronted, daisy-design cabinet to keep books out of dust’s way – all fruits of the friends’ regular outings to the local auction house.
“We went every week for two years, working out what items would suit which room. It was like Christmas.”
Upstairs, the light, bright bedrooms have all been given names and colour schemes of floral favourites – Geranium and Peony, Iris, Aster, and Crocosmia, of course, a plant which Alan brought back into fashion.
Each is beautifully finished and furnished with any DIY décor tricks or up-cycled items going totally unnoticed until the friends can bare to remain silent no longer.
In the Lavender Room, Jo can’t help sharing her clever choice of wallpaper, a gently elegant, Chinese-style pattern that’s absolutely at home here in the Regency surroundings. How much a roll? The dream design was off-the-peg, a bargain find at a DIY supermarket.
Somehow it all ties in with Robert Martin’s catalogue shopping approach two centuries ago. Attention to detail and thrifty little moments matter. They have been responsible for restoring pride and beauty, but above all they keep a place like Bressingham Hall real.
What’s unreal of course is the awesome garden views from those great sash windows.
The hall is also available for self-catering holiday stays. The recently restored High Barn is an events venue.
For more information: historichouses.org