One Suffolk family’s phone-free weekend in a medieval manor house
PUBLISHED: 11:49 31 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:49 31 March 2020
A weekend in a medieval Suffolk manor house, with no electronic life support, might be a 21st century family’s idea of hell. The Gingers depart for a digital detox | Words & photos: Richard Ginger
Switch off Snapchat. Say a fond farewell to Declan McKenna (. . . who?).
Forget about ‘celebrities’ chomping through the chewy reproductive organs of unfortunate animals down under, or baking/burning things beneath the watchful eye of Prue and Paul, and arrhythmically stomping about in sequins. Ignore the iPhone.
With, I confess, a certain sadistic pleasure, I watched as the colour drained from my 17-year-old daughter Lily’s face.
The weekend of her worst nightmare had arrived. We were off for a ‘digital detox’ in the wilds of west Suffolk, an unplugged escape in a rare historic jewel owned by British building conservation charity The Landmark Trust.
Purton Green, a few miles south-west of Bury St Edmunds, is a magnificently thatched and timbered building comprising a central hall that dates back to the mid-13th century.
When the trust acquired the property in 1969 it was little more than a wreck, quietly accepting its fate rotting away half lost in a tangle of brambles and overgrown trees. However, a pain-staking programme of considered and sympathetic restoration returned the medieval hall-house to its former glory.
So, with the odd grumble and plaintive enquiry of ‘how long are we staying there?’ (guess who?), I, my wife Jac, and daughter (well guessed) packed up the car (not forgetting the dog) and set off.
Prompted by both Satnav and directions from the Landmark Trust, an hour or so later we crossed a babbling ford (a tributary of the River Glem) at the foot of Purton Green track, found the spot to park our car and left the trappings of the modern world behind. Time for the two wheelbarrows.
Purton Green is not accessible by car. Surrounded by private farmland, the landowners get, to put it politely, somewhat narked if anyone attempts to reach the property behind the wheel of the family run-around.
Indeed, one guest, way back in 1972, commented in the visitors’ book, ‘Don’t attempt to drive your car near to the house or you will have an angry farmer under your window at seven in the morning.’
Wheelbarrows it is, then. We loaded up bags and boxes of food, an extra duvet and a variety of board games into the barrows and set off. “I bet these would come in handy for the Kardashians when they’re at The Savoy!”
A classic slice of Dad humour. No response. We continued slipping and skidding up the sloping quarter-mile track, the daughter’s beloved Fila trainers now entirely caked in mud (The Landmark Trust advises: ‘We recommend Wellington boots be worn, especially during the winter months’ – oops).
Soon, however, the combination of fresh air, sunlit, rolling countryside, a dog whose tail was a blur and the awareness of what a faintly ridiculous group we looked wheelbarrowing our way up a hill in west Suffolk soon had the desired effect.
By the time we reached the property things had definitely taken a turn for the better.
Unlock and push open the heavy, five-planked door of Purton Green and it reveals an interior of subdued light that’s heavy on the historic wow-factor.
The eyes wander up to the vaulted roof space of the central hall, braced with huge scissor-shaped oak trusses, then down to the ornately carved arcades and over the great supporting columns.
John Smith, the philanthropist and founder of The Landmark Trust with his wife, Christian, captured the essence of this unique atmosphere in a 1971 handbook during its renovation.
He wrote, ‘The people of the Middle Ages have vanished in every way; we do not think or act in the least as they did, which is in some respects a pity. The atmosphere of their world is elusive indeed, but compelling and binding for those who find it.
‘It is present in full measure here and we hope that through the hall at Purton Green, blackened by smoke and time, many will enter a world for which they have been looking.’
“It’s full-on Hogwarts,” commented the teenager on the interior design scheme.
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Following in the footsteps of its ancient occupants some 750 years ago, we made our way to the property’s ‘high end’, originally rebuilt in about 1600 and now converted into guest accommodation by The Landmark Trust in the early `70s.
A self-contained and cosy nook over two delightfully sagging floors, the only concessions to modern convenience are a trendy and shiny Dualit toaster and Le Creuset cookware in the fully-equipped kitchenette, plump pillows and an electric log-burner-effect fire (shame it’s not a real one, but that would be a little risky with Purton’s impressively thatched headwear).
Surround-sound (or any) TV, full coverage Wi-fi or Alexa there is none (although there’s good 4G coverage, which someone omitted to tell the daughter about).
Instead, a well-stocked bookshelf and collection of puzzles including John Constable’s The Hay Wain (Yay!) is Purton Green’s entertainment system. Surely, hours of amusement for any teen, no?
Fortunately, aware that we’d have nothing to do all weekend and all weekend to do it, we’d come prepared. So, with kettle boiled and teapot filled to the brim, we were all soon nose-deep in our books of choice while the dog snored contentedly in front of the fire.
Time passed quietly and slowly. Then it did it some more. Tentatively, I peered over the page at Lil. No sweats or shakes – she seemed to be coping well.
Then, by now beginning to feel a little restless, we ventured outdoors to take the dog for his late-afternoon ambulation and sniff around.
It was also the opportunity to have a chat, peppered with questions like ‘how’s school?’, ‘how are the driving lessons?’ ‘can I get my tragus pierced?’ (No, Dad!).
As evening settled, the quiet only interrupted by the occasional cawing crow and susurration of the breeze through the trees, we headed back across the fields with thoughts of dinner. A three-course feast, no less.
Rather than the usual working week-day scramble of defrosting leftovers or desperate rummaging inside the fridge for ingredients to throw together before dashing out to netball/part-time hotel job/gym session, time was on our side.
Instead, we nonchalantly chopped, whisked, fried and stirred, with each preparing one of the three courses. We were the perfect kitchen crew. No stressy strops or swear words. Gordon Ramsay would have hated it.
Food prepared, we laid the table (again, slightly embarrassing to admit, but a rarity in our everyday life) and kicked back for an entirely convivial supper.
The highpoint? Lily’s lovingly prepared chocolate brownies with the salted caramel centre – undisputed, deliciously gooey gold medallists.
That evening, as with the next, a mix of chatting, reading a few chapters, a spot of star-gazing and playing cards proved a relaxing routine to easily slot into.
We challenged each other to Victorian tongue-twisters discovered in a book of family games, and found out that ‘horripilation’ is when the hairs stand up on your skin (courtesy of bluffing board game Balderdash).
All too soon the weekend came to an end and we were once again piling up the wheelbarrows and readying ourselves for our return to the modern world by closing Purton Green’s door to the past.
Our two days together away from the constant onslaught and addictive distractions of gadgets, social media and TV had been a fully refreshing experience.
Car loaded and homeward bound, passing back over the ford with the hall-house receding in the distance, from the back of the car a teenage voice excitedly piped up: “Ooh, my Amazon Fire TV stick should arrive today!”
It took all of my self-control to stop myself performing a screeching U-turn.