The wartime roles of Suffolk’s historic and stately homes
PUBLISHED: 09:18 12 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:26 12 May 2020
Invitation to View tours reveal the surprising wartime roles of East Anglia’s historic town and country properties | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
It’s a crisp autumn morning and down the long driveway, the sharp Georgian façade of Hintlesham Hall, near Hadleigh, looks white-frosted around the edges by its cornerstones. It’s an elegant spot to find oneself. A place to stay, relax, recharge or recover.
But this top Suffolk country house hotel has plenty of history hidden behind its walls and regularly delights in sharing it through the Invitation to View private house tours scheme.
Upstairs, the long gallery is all low dado rails and vast panel-shuttered windows, gentle Georgian colours and glorious views across the parkland. Here, as in so much of the Grade I listed property, it’s hard to imagine how it all looked in its original incarnation as part of a red brick Elizabethan mansion.
But the revelations and bombshells keep coming.
“This was a recuperation ward for convalescing servicemen during the war,” explains the hotel’s Jessica Nevard. “Anthony Stokes, the technical director of the Suffolk family-run engineering firm, Ransomes & Rapier, bought the hall with his brother, Dick, in 1938, but they moved out almost immediately to Rose Cottage when the Red Cross took it over as a hospital.”
There’s a picture to hand of neatly made up, steel-framed beds lining the long gallery wall during the time of Matron Hunter and her Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses. “The chap who had the bed opposite the central windows had a stunning view,” suggests Jessica.
Surely an extra, most welcome tonic, but how bitter-sweet the sight back then of convalescing soldiers wandering the grounds in their light blue suits and red ties. The elegant public lounges enjoyed today were wards, surgeries and stores, day rooms and games rooms, and the fine dining Grand Salon was used for ENSA concerts, dances and meetings.
The owners of that Suffolk stately pile were only doing their bit. In 1939 many families were given their marching orders as properties were widely requisitioned on behalf of the Crown under emergency powers, destined to be signed away to the Air Ministry, Board of Education or Ministry of Health.
At that time, no matter how old, beautiful or architecturally precious, buildings enjoyed no official cultural protection. Across England some great houses like Chatsworth and Longleat got ahead of the game, offering their premises as art stores or girls’ school.
Many paid the price for being home to more boisterous types with other things on their mind and little time for being careful with or maintaining big, old, out-dated houses. In Suffolk, Hintlesham Hall didn’t come away a casualty, but others like Drinkstone Park, Holton and Thorington halls and Ufford Place were not so lucky. Left in dreadful states, they were good only for demolition and the families never returned.
Hop briefly across the Cambridgeshire border to Godmanchester though and Island Hall has all the wartime high drama - and an unexpected happy ending. Christopher Vane Percy’s great aunt, Violet Bevan, was given just 48 hours to vacate the 1740s early Palladian mansion with its three acres of riverside gardens where she had spent nearly five decades of her life.
Taken over by the Women’s Auxillary Airforce, then RAF Pathfinder Squadron, the home graced with English Baroque interiors and which National Trust co-founder Octavia Hill had once described as ‘the loveliest, dearest house’, soon saw its stone-flagged entrance hall used as an airmen’s mess and Nissen huts covering its gardens.
After the war, the Emergency Housing Act handed it on to Huntingdonshire District Council to be carved up into flats and put to use along with the Nissen huts. Around 1957, without knowing that it had originally been in his family for many generations, Christopher came across the house and dreamt of owning it.
When it suffered fire damage in the 1970s and was on the verge of dereliction, he was delighted to see it sympathetically restored. In 1983, by this time a self-made man, he was able to take on what he had discovered to be his ancestral home. Today his family loves sharing his story, house and charming river-island gardens.
Coming up roses
But even when ‘doing the right thing’ in hard times deals the severest blow, things can still come up roses. Ousden Hall just outside Newmarket was one of the unlucky ones.
The late Tudor hall with 18th century extensions which boasted ‘superior stabling’ in Edwardian times, was requisitioned for wartime use by the army and subsequently occupied by German and Italian Prisoners of War. Its owner returned there, but on his death, the hall was deemed beyond economic repair and demolished in 1955.
Enough of the stable buildings survived to be later extended and remodelled into Ousden House - a substantial country property, complete with clocktower, views of the original brick dovecote and neighbouring St Peter’s Church and wonderfully inspired grounds.
Similar to a succession of rooms (perhaps for obvious reasons), the gardens were beautifully created by Alistair and Lavinia Robinson who have for many years enjoyed sharing the fruits of their labours from the formal planting and rose garden to the yew tree walk, lawns, woodland and lake.
Writing on the wall
It’s all too easy perhaps to dwell on the past and mourn physical damage done. In his diaries, Suffolk Summer, wartime serviceman from Arkansas, John T. Appleby, expresses the joy he found discovering the county’s heritage in 1945 - once he had won back his confidence of riding a bike.
“My first trip was a short one, to Lavenham church whose tower was visible from the station and whose bells might be heard across the fields.” The station in question was Lavenham (Alpheton) Airfield Station 137, home of USAAF’s 487th Bomb Group and although today the Guildhall on Market Place is no longer a Red Cross British restaurant serving Woolton Pie, and Little Hall now welcomes museum visitors rather than evacuees from Bethnal Green, in many ways the town is little changed.
If the thirsty cyclist had popped into The Swan for refreshment, he’d have probably come across landlord ‘Robbie’ Robbins and his faithful hound, maybe enjoyed watching the locals competitively ‘draining’ the 3½ pint boot of beer, admired a military badge or two pinned for good measure to the rafters, and looked on at the signatures of brave airmen comrades who wrote their names on the wall of the bar before their missions took them out beyond Suffolk’s vast skies.
The people behind the names have all passed away now. Appleby would have surely known that some had already passed away then. Now protected by glass, the names survive today and live on, accompanied by many hundreds more in the place now officially and affectionately known as The Airmen’s Bar.
Involved in forming the Friends of Lavenham Airfield in 2017, Jane Larcombe from The Swan runs a very touching and heart-felt Invitation to View tour, sharing tales of the Bomb Group’s First Commander Colonel Beirne Lay Jr, billeted at The Swan and who in later life went on to be a Hollywood screenwriter, and the moving story of Frederick Castle, Commander of the 4th Combat Wing who, when duty called, gave his own life for others and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.
2018 & 2019 information and tickets: invitationtoview.co.uk,
T: 01206 573948.
Prices from £12 - £40.
All tours include light refreshments as a minimum.