Stay in the UK’s glamorous House of the Year 2020 in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 14:56 16 November 2020 | UPDATED: 14:56 16 November 2020
Historic Ringshall Grange, formerly the wartime East Anglian HQ of the US airforce, has been magnificently redesigned by its owners and is available for breaks.
Laura Ormerod uses the word ‘magical’ a lot when talking about her lifetime project, Ringshall Grange. And why not? If ever there was a place with a beguiling ability to restore a sense of fun and wellbeing to lives tested to their limits by lockdown it’s Ringshall Grange.
The mellow former country rectory, wartime abode of American airforce officers, and latterly a much-loved family home was bought by Laura and husband Stephen Moody in 2016 who immediately embarked on restoring the house and grounds to their former glory.
Awarded House of the Year 2020 by the prestigious Landed Houses organisation, it is a triumph of their vision to create an enchanting family holiday retreat, deep in the peaceful Suffolk countryside that both respects the legacy of the past and embraces the practicalities of the present.
Their story is, perhaps, a familiar one. Both working long hours at busy jobs in London, Laura in landscape architecture and Stephen in finance – fantastic careers but with little time and space to start a family.
“We dreamed of a lifestyle change where we could create a business that was both magical for guests but also a big lifestyle shift for us. We craved the open countryside and a way of life where we could start a family and have our children grow up surrounded by nature and the outdoors.”
They already had some experience of property renovation, having bought, renovated and rented properties together in east London. “We had grown a real passion for careful restoration of Victorian and Georgian period features and dreamed of doing something on a bigger scale.”
Laura found Ringshall Grange on the internet and persuaded Stephen to view it with her one dreary Saturday. The plan to own a holiday home in the country was more a pipe dream than reality. “We hadn’t even got down the driveway before we both started to grin,” says Laura. “We knew, without a doubt, that this magical place would be perfect for our rather crazy dream.”
Laura left her job at a leading architecture firm and the couple put their life savings, plus a lot of blood sweat and tears into turning Ringshall Grange into a self-catered holiday home for large groups.
At its heart, Grade II listed Ringshall Grange is an Elizabethan manor dating from 1560, sturdily built around a heavy Tudor timber frame. A substantial Georgian extension was added in the early 18th century, and another Victorian wing in the 19th century. The house is encircled by a wide, ancient moat and has 13 acres of private parkland with 500-year-old oak trees, hedgerows and woodland, and views of open Suffolk countryside.
The manor has seen time as a rectory and, with RAF Wattisham not far away, during World War II it was requisitioned as the East Anglian headquarters of the United States Air Force, whose officers, along with many troops, were stationed at the house. It went back into private ownership and then along came Laura and Stephen.
“We couldn’t believe it when we first viewed it – it really is jaw-dropping. Unique,” says Laura. “When you enter the house it gets even better as the house has been built in three distinct wings. There’s the Tudor wing with timber frame, exposed beams, low ceilings, wonky floors and charming character.
“Then there’s a grand, red brick Georgian wing with huge rooms, grand windows with shutters, high ceilings and beautiful wooden floors. Plus a Victorian wing with beautifully ornate doors, windows and picture rails.
“Each wing is on a slightly different level which means lots of staircases, split levels and contrasts between the different historic chapters – totally unlike any property we had ever seen.” It was this quirky, period fusion that charmed Laura and Stephen. “The house had been a very much loved family home for many years but not updated since the 1960s, so there were some wild interiors, including bright orange carpets, avocado coloured sinks and a full pink bathroom suite. All of which we kind of loved in their own way – but sadly they did need replacing.”
The house had never been used for holiday rental so Laura and Stephen had a huge task in front of them to sensitively update the eight-bedroom manor house as a beautiful, yet practical and resiliant occasional home. They retained the existing structure and layout of the house, partly because of its Grade II listing and also because they were perfectly at home with big rooms for entertaining, cosy nooks for retreating and the wonderful character of the place.
“The first thing we did was invite the heritage team at Mid Suffolk council to meet us at the property and advise us on what we could do to preserve the heritage of the house.” They were, says Laura, overwhelmingly positive about their plans, supporting them with advice as they embarked on the restoration works.
They needed listed building consent to install a fire safety sprinkler system, to upgrade heating and water systems, refresh bathrooms and kitchen and to completely redecorate.
“Our family were all amazing and excited, helping us with endless months of painting and decorating, cleaning and scrubbing, sewing and upholstering. Mums and aunts were drafted in to recover dining chairs and polish furniture, and brothers and dads and cousins came and helped us pull up old carpets to reveal original floorboards. We couldn’t have done it without them.
“We enlisted the help of various local craftsmen, including the amazing Rob (Garner) from Suffolk Landscaping and Masonry, who has continued to work on the house pretty much every week since 2016.” They paid particular attention to heritage materials. Traditional lime mortar was used for repointing the red brick Georgian facades, and natural chalk based painted was used throughout the interiors to allow the original lathe and plaster, and wattle and daub walls to breathe.
“We also had an incredible plumber, Kevin Brand, who specialises in plumbing in heritage houses,” says Laura. “He helped us get the old system up and running to modern standards while still preserving all the old pipework and huge cast iron radiators.”
The initial restoration took six months but Laura and Stephen never stop working on the property, constantly refreshing and changing interiors, redecorating rooms and improving facilities. “It’s a real passion for us,” says Laura. In fact, it’s now her full time job, while Steve continues to work in the City. The couple have a three-year-old son and a new baby on the way, but Laura is hands-on with the gardening, decorating and maintenance of the Grange.
“Guests always comment on how much of a warm, family-run feeling the house has and I think our real passion and hands-on involvement on a daily basis come across in the quality of the experience we offer.
“Our vision was to create magical, memorable family holidays in the gorgeous, peaceful Suffolk countryside. The Grange is perfect for families who appreciate beautiful interior design and a secluded setting close to London and the home counties, but who also want somewhere they can bring the kids and the family dog for a rural escape.”
The Grange offers people the chance to rent the entire manor house and 13.5 acre estate and play lord and lady of the manor for the weekend. Yet it’s also carefully designed to feel like a comfortable home from home that’s truly welcoming to children.
“It’s a wonderful space where you can escape the hustle and bustle of city living and really experience country living without needing to go off site during your stay to be entertained. There are lots of lovely things to do locally – visiting historic towns, zoos, horse riding, museums, pubs and restaurants, beaches not far away, and craft courses, but we’ve also put a lot of thought into creating a magical private estate where you can get back to nature and play with the kids.”
Indeed, everything seems to have been thought of from hot tub, barbecue area, pizza oven, two play areas with swings, Wendy huts and build-your-own woodland den areas. There’s giant chess, boules, croquet, badminton, yoga matts, walled vegetable gardens and herb gardens, mature trees, wildflower meadows and fruit orchards. Inside there’s a games room with pool table, darts, a pub style bar, board games and children’s toys, a children’s library of books, Playststation and games, karaoke and fancy dress.
And when exhaustion sets in there are open log fires to snooze beside, roll top baths to soak in, and sumptuous, luxurious interiors to caress you. While the property spans several centuries, Laura and Stephen have deliberately picked up a distinct 1920s/Art Deco theme.
“We found lots of fascinating and tantalising snippets of wallpaper or paint colours hidden layer upon layer in the bedrooms – some really wonderful wild Georgian and Victorian prints, and flower-power 1960s wallpapers – even a Grecian themed wallpaper in the main lounge.
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“We left these in place for future generations to find, but it occured to us that the interiors might have been quite wild and bold over the years. So we had the idea of theming each of the bedrooms around a design style, decade or place. Each room has it own distinct style and guests absolutely adore this. It’s such fun to hear the squeals of excitement as they look around the rooms when they first arrive. It’s that experiential, playful delight that we wanted to create.”
Take the grand tour
A grand tour of the Grange reveals the Rococo Room, the Pineapple Suite, the Art Deco Room, the Palm Room, the Woodland Room, the French Room and more. Plans include renovating a bedroom next spring to create an Under the Sea theme. Meanwhile a group of religious figurines on the mantlepiece in the salon are a nod to the Grange’s former life as a rectory.
“The house spent many years as a rectory and even has a cellar that could have been a priest hole so we make subtle nods to this in the decor,” says Laura. “The lounge and dining room were once one big room which served as a school room for the surrounding villages.” Indeed, the house has a long and varied history which played a big part in decisions about furnishing and decoration.
“New furniture just doesn’t look right in the Grange so almost every item has been hand-picked for its unique antique or design style. We never stop looking for wonderful, hand crafted items. We even have a full size Cleopatra lamp in the front hallway.”
Inside and outside Laura’s background in art and landscape architecture really came to the fore as the couple undertook all of the landscape and interior design themselves. Laura is the daughter of famous children’s book illustrator and artist Jan Ormerod. “I grew up drawing, colouring and designing before I could walk,” she says.
She went on to gain a drawing degree at Camberwell College of Arts and a masters degree in landscape architecture, before spending several years as a senior member of the design team at high profile design firm BDP (Building Design Partnership), specialising in playground and park design, and sustainable landscape architecture.
“The landscape scheme at the Grange has been completely influenced by a passion for sustainability. From day one, we made a commitment to run a 100 per cent organic estate. We’ve achieved that and to date have not used a single drop of weedkiller or any chemicals on site, and never will.
“This means foraging for wild plums, blackberries and crab apples is a joy, and wildlife on the estate can enjoy a real safe haven. We’ve added wildflower meadows and vast numbers of spring bulbs and flowers, which we add to each year.”
Laura has sensitively restored and redesigned the grounds, adding an orchard, flowers beds and a restoring the former derelict walled garden to create fully organic vegetable gardens. Guests are welcomed with a basket of fresh grown seasonal produce and cut flowers each week, and eggs from the neighbours’ chickens.
In 2016, a grant from the Woodland Trust helped them plant over 1,300 new native English woodland trees and hedgerows, which will help secure sustainable firewood and provide significant ecological benefits for the estate for hundreds of years to come. Indeed Laura says they have already seen an increase in wildlife with rare birds, a resident barn owl, deer, hares, badgers, woodpeckers.
“We source all wood for the open log fires and pizza oven from the estate or the neighbouring farm, and provide unlimited free wood to guests so they can really enjoy the winter months.” Some wood piles are left strategically in the woodland for wildlife.
In the future they will add a garden to provide fresh cut flowers for the house, and more play equipment. They’re also exploring how they could incorporate glamping on site with shepherds’ huts in the woods, so they can host smaller groups. Once Covid is over they plan to offer performance, yoga and wellness retreats, and have a dream to add a swimming pool at some point.
“We don’t ever plan to stop improving. Covid hit us very hard as a business – we were completely closed for five months. As a venue which traditionally welcomed big, multi-generational groups of 23 or more we’ve had to quickly adapt – fortunately that has been a success.
With so much love and care poured into the Grange wouldn’t Laura and Stephen one day want to make it their own home?
“It would be a dream to live somewhere like the Grange but really it’s too large for a family home,” she says. “It has a magical ability to make groups of people come together and have the most amazing time, so I can see us running it as a holiday rental long into our old age.” So, after its eclectic history, perhaps the grand old building has finally found its real purpose.
“It’s a house with an enchanting, warm, happy feeling and we want to continue to share that with people. I think this will be especially important post Covid, when people will be really thrilled to be back together in large groups again to celebrate friendships and family.”
Our favourite things
Laura and Stephen know all the furnishings and items in the Grange intimately, so what are their favourites?
“Gosh, that’s hard! We particularly love the walnut beds we found for the Palm Room with ornate, inlaid mother of pearl in the headboards. We also inherited a few wonderful key pieces from the previous owners, our favourite being an ancient 1800s gentleman’s lounge chair that had been left in the attic since well before the previous owners even bought the house in the 1960s.
“We brought it down, through clouds of dust and had it restored by our neighbour in the village, Lucy, who is a talented upholsterer. She removed an amazing ten layers of upholstery, which told a fascinating tale of design styles through the years, and we reupholstered it in a rather wild fabric from Witch and Watchman covered in barn owls and woodland and jungle creatures.
“It now sits in pride of place in the Woodland Room and embodies so much of what we did with the renovation – respecting history but breathing a fun, new layer of style into the house.
“We also really love and respect lots of the original features such as the original Georgian shutters and huge picture windows looking out over the parkland. The exposed beams in the Tudor wing and wood panelled Whisky Room are so special, and the grand staircase in unique and wonderful. It’s hard to imagine how many thousands of hours have gone into handcrafting all of the fittings and furniture in the house.
Two-night weekend stays and seven-night stays, based on a group of six, or extended family bubble, include exclusive use of the house and grounds. Dogs are welcome.