PUBLISHED: 13:17 21 April 2015
When Brian and Frannie Alabaster came to name their holiday home, Skimming Stones was a natural contender.
“For countless generations,” says Frannie, “children and adults have had great pleasure from skimming stones across the water of a pond, or – more challenging – the sea.
“Only today, walking along the promenade here in Southwold, there were two young boys and their father on the beach doing just that.”
Frannie, originally from north London, fell in love with Suffolk as a child – summer holidays at Dunwich, then later at her parents’ holiday home at Orford. After teacher training she taught cookery at Claydon High School. Brian, from Hertfordshire, trained in agriculture at Cirencester, before going on to design and build poultry projects in the Middle East, mainly the mountains of North Yemen.
“I loved my time there,” he says. “It is a tribal country, with the government having little control outside the main cities, so I was dealing with local sheiks on a day to day basis, with probably the most heavily armed population in the word.
“One of the most alarming situations on internal flights was the fact that passengers were not disarmed, but merely had their ammunition checked in as luggage, and then kept in carrier bags hung on the door of the cockpit.
“After six years of travelling and with a young family, I stopped my overseas work and went on to manage a large cut flower nursery in Kent.”
Brian, who had always been interested in art, was very influenced by the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, who described in great detail his casting of Perseus. So, with three children and a mortgage, he decided to become a sculptor.
Working in the evenings, with his children as reluctant models, he started teaching himself to sculpt and cast figures. Early attempts to use the Rayburn to bake the moulds for small lost-wax figures were often disastrous so Brian was relegated to the shed, where he eventually succeeded in creating several life-size sculptures of his children. Heartened by a successful first exhibition at Cranbrook in Kent the family moved to Suffolk in 1994, buying a small farm to use as a studio and foundry.
At present Brian is making a sculpture for a new memorial in Middlesbrough of Stan Hollis, the only man awarded a VC on D Day. Brian’s sculptures have become sought-after and he is recognised as a significant artist in his genre. Frannie, after teaching, started a vintage tea party business with her friend, Jane Andrews. This really took off but now, after four years, they are cutting back and only do a few special events a year. (www.nipsandcrumpets.co.uk)
Alex, 30, is the eldest of their three children, a geologist in Western Australia, while Sam, 28, is a talented artist and Thomas, 26, is building shepherds’ huts and small-space living units in Metfield. Sam has Downs syndrome, and although he now lives independently his parents >> >> are alert to the problems of finding suitable holiday accommodation. So when renovating their Southwold house they felt it paramount to make it fully suitable for disabled use.
“There was so little suitable property, with a high standard throughout,” says Frannie. “So we have designed the ground-floor without thresholds on one level, with wide doors from the dedicated bedroom/sitting room and adjacent wet room, right through the entrance hall to the magnificent new edition, a spacious family living/dining/kitchen with bifold sliding doors right on to the terrace, where there is a dining table and chairs.”
Brian and Frannie have created a light, modern contemporary home, with great views and garden. They have done a lot of the work themselves – no mean feat – and Frannie has done all the decoration. Her favourite shop is Room with a View at Diss. The process took 15 months, as they lived in the original house for nine months to get the feel, before starting.
For the more able-bodied, the terrace leads to a second dining area under a green roofed gazebo, reached by crossing a wooden bridge over a landscaped dry river bed.
“As it’s higher up,” explains Brian, “it’s orientated to provide shade from the midday sun, but allow the fantastic sunsets to flood the interior. As food and its preparation is most important to us both, this is very much a focal point for gatherings and adds to the seaside holiday feel.
“Besides designing and building both the gazebo and raised garden, I’ve built a wood-fired pizza oven for family or guests’ use to dine al fresco.”
The garden design was much influenced by Derek Jarman’s garden on the shingle at Dungeness, as well as help from Brian’s friend, local garden designer, Timothy Carless.
“Skimming Stones position allows us to walk the dogs easily, along north beach and Easton Bavents and back across the marshes or even to Covehithe,” says Frannie. “Nature in your face, with few people, which I know sounds unbelievable with busy Southwold, but there really are some very quiet spots close by, where you can escape the crowds.
“I also like popping into town early to the wonderful bakery to pick up sourdough. Naturally, Brian, myself and our family are delighted with the results and how much our guests enjoy their holidays. It’s a fantastic family home by the sea.”