Alde things bright and beautiful
PUBLISHED: 10:25 15 September 2015 | UPDATED: 10:59 22 September 2015
Marie Smith and Mark Sealey fell in love with a neglected Suffolk spot near the Alde in Sweffling. Seven years on, their unique Alde Garden campsite and award-winning alehouse couldn't be greener, more pleasant or more welcoming. Lindsay Want shares a story of Suffolk restored
It’s a chirpy sort of day, bright with blossom, blue skies and bullfinches. In the Alde Garden, hidden away behind Sweffling’s 200-year-old White Horse pub, Mother Nature is certainly smiling in the summer sunshine and owner Marie Smith is beaming too.
“I just love every moment here,” she says as we sit on logs alongside last night’s campfire. The excitement in the former nanny’s voice is genuine. This is the place of her dreams – the result of a long-term love affair with life, nature and good company, with woodland weekends away under canvas and the occasional drop of real ale.
We’d met up to talk pubs, to explore how the little Farrow-and-Ball-free place on Low Road, recently named Ipswich & East Suffolk’s CAMRA Pub of the Year, became such a high flyer. Marie, however, has other expeditions in mind.
There’s an invitation for a quick gander round the garden to suss out the campsite’s tipi, tents and hideaways. As we duck and dive through narrow gaps in the greenery, an apology follows for the circuitous route.
“Our lady goose has gone and pitched up her nest by one of the carefully trodden tracks,” explains Marie, “so her hubby’s at the ready to honk and hiss away any harm. It’s just the way it is – they live here too. Things here may look unordered, but everything finds its own place.”
Up at the top of the almost-an-acre site, there are similar live-and-let-live tales going on in the ‘give nature a home’ patch by the bell tent, with old tin troughs transformed into tiny wildlife ponds and tree stumps left for bugs to burrow in. Marie points out the home-crafted Barn Owl and Dragonfly yurts (Mongolian dome-tents) below, and the bricks and mortar of Badger Cottage, set deep down next to the pub. Each comes with its own stories of recycled finds and sustainable systems and each night spent here brings another donation to a local wildlife trust. It’s clear that the Alde Garden campsite is a caring and cared for sort of place.
Marie Smith and Mark Sealey never intended to buy a pub.
“We fell in love with the garden,” sighs Marie, ”and the estate agent failed to mention it was a pub before we visited. The place had been closed for five years, so I guess people had just come to think of it as a house.” As real ale fans, having a hostelry had a certain appeal, but with rotting floorboards, aging artex, tacky mock beams and no fixtures, furniture or fittings, the White Horse potentially had more in common with a white elephant. It was clear that even for dedicated recycling minds like Marie and Mark, it was going to need some hard cash to make it happen. That’s where the campsite and its creative accommodation came in.
“It’s never been a venture to us, just an ongoing adventure really.” Marie talks of honing bushcraft skills, learning how to coppice wood, shape poles using traditional hand tools, then steam-bend them to create yurt frames and unique furniture. In the robust family-sized Dragonfly Yurt, she proudly points out how they created the structure on site using locally coppiced ash and hazel. Its warming wood-burner includes recycled materials by design and its colourful lampshade centre piece is one of Marie’s best found items ever.
Or perhaps the unique roofing solution on the wooden Hideout For Two wins that prize? Inspired by the huts on stilts he’d seen on his New Zealand travels, Mark’s little ‘look out to the stars’ hidden amidst the mature lilacs was originally destined to wear wooden tiles. On completion of a course in crafting them though, he found Marie had tapped into a totally free and much groovier tiling solution thanks to the local Freecycle Network – old vinyl records.
Back down by the communal campfire, the tour takes in the kids’ cosy willow corner, the handmade pizza oven, magnificent tree bog – yep, you guessed it, a composting loo with a view – and jungle shower. Hidden away, there are the creature comforts of spotless modern conveniences, a microwave and washing machine too if you really want them. And so, by the field kitchen where the cockerel struts his stuff on the straw bales and triangular tea-towels masquerade as bunting, the moment comes to ask, do the Alde Garden guests really get what’s going on here?
“We’re on hand to show people what to do,” reassures Marie, “and very much enjoy camping out here ourselves from time to time, but on the whole they just get on with it. Whether they bring their own tent or stay in our on-site accommodation, we hope people leave with a new mind-set, or maybe a different level of understanding.”
This little Sweffling spot is all about alternative paths and finds itself simply flourishing as a result.