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Juliet, up in Suffolk giving a talk to the Suffolk Preservation Society on rural studies, spotted “this gorgeous man”. Being, as we will see, something of a dynamo, she went home and told friends she had met the man she was going to marry. “He plants trees and walks mountains (Himalayas at the time). He’s made for me.” They have, together, created a remarkable and beautiful place – to stay, to learn, to get married, and just to be. Christopher carries the burden and privilege of being a Hawkins farmer, with 500 acres and over 300 years of family history. It is rare to find such continuity on the land, and even rarer to find such commitment to using it with sensitivity and environmental awareness. Some of the farm is of unimproved and improved hay meadows and wetland, but they grow wheat, winter barley, sugar beet, field beans and oilseed rape. Pigs and bantams, too, play their part. Christopher, Juliet and their daughters - Holly, Ruby Tiger and Daisy - have all created ponds, planted trees, restored barns, planted hedges and carried out bird, moth and butterfly surveys. Good news pours forth from the farm: they now have over one hundred species of moth, seven of bats, and seven ponds of which six have great crested newts. After the great storm of 1987, when the country lost trees in prodigious numbers, the Hawkinses collected seeds and replanted thousands.

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So they deserve the increase in wildlife and they are keen to share their enthusiasms and experience with farmers and others around them. As an independent farm conservation adviser, Juliet has spent twenty-five years working with local farmers and advising them on green issues and she works closely with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust. There is still lots to do but she feels the tide has turned – hundreds of miles of hedgerow have been planted and traditionally coppiced, parish boundaries restored, ponds de-silted and wildflower meadows brought back into sensitive management after a post-war era of very intensive farming. Juliet also teaches natural history. School parties come and go and they run a summer wildlife camp for local children. She provides copious suggestions to visitors on how to enjoy the farm: pond-dipping, leaf-sewing, lantern-making, even tree-hugging. There are tutor-led sessions on environmental themes such as ‘water’, and a fleet of bikes for people to borrow. If you are staying for a while, you will be encouraged to abandon your car and enjoy the peace. You can borrow maps, helmets with your bikes, follow nature trails or planned walks taking in churches, nature reserves, villages and pubs. Juliet and Christopher have devised several carfree days: in and around the gloriously medieval Lavenham; biking around Boxford; a day in Bury St Edmunds; a boat trip down the River Stour. You can walk the Milden-Lavenham-Milden walk, along 163

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generous footpaths through meadows and past poplar plantations, dropping in on church and pub on the way. This is a fine county. Flat it may be, but by no means featureless. It is, rather, ‘gently rolling at a low level’, with some of England’s loveliest villages – such as Kersey, which is little more than one street dipping down to a duck-strutting ford and up again, between houses of pink and plaster, timber and wattle-anddaub, soft red brick and thatch. How have these Suffolk villages escaped the ravages of our age? Perhaps because Suffolk was a backwater for so long, only recently the victim of cosmopolitan interest. Of all the pleasures that the Hall can bring, the most immediately impressive and magnificent is the great barn. Almost cathedral-like in its Tudor splendour, it is an aisled barn built in the 1500s probably by the famous Spring family, rich clothiers from Lavenham. There are two Tudor-style four-posters at one end, two truckle beds under these and eight boxed beds along the sides of the barn. Down the centre is an oak banqueting table seating up to fifty people plus room for up to eighty more, and there is still room for dancing. Most of the beds are of Suffolk oak, like the barn itself, so you have a ravishing oaken display reaching from the ground to a methodically tangled web of oaken trusses and beams soaring and arching overhead. One’s first sight of it all is heart-stopping. “We saved the barn to save the farm. Keeping the integrity of the building seems to have helped turn the farm around too. People fall in love with it - it’s very popular for family gatherings, gangs of friends, young and old, retreats and weddings.” The opportunities for keeping everyone happy at Milden seem limitless, with the three B&B rooms (you can breakfast in the barn if you are part of a larger group), the self-catering barn, in all sleeping 28+ and, even, a camping meadow for extras of the same group. The house is down a long farm drive yet only three miles from Lavenham. It is, unsurprisingly, beautiful – the front ‘Georgianised’ in typical Suffolk style. But there are exposed beams elsewhere on the outside walls and linen-fold panelling within. The delight of this book is that you can stay in such places. The bedrooms, ranging from big to vast, have spectacular views across ancient wildflower meadows and the 164


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walled garden. One is called the Adams Room, remodelled in the Adam style in 1770 as an upstairs ladies’ sitting room and with an elegant fireplace and early woodwork. A fine staircase leads up to the room; a tapestry adds to the sense of history. The room was used in the 1800s by eight spinsters who spent their leisure time sewing and spinning. This was a county grown rich on wool, much helped by the Flemish weavers who came over to take part and whose architectural influence can be seen in the gabled Dutch roofs scattered throughout the county. The Gallery Room has walls festooned with antique maps and prints. The bookcases reach between the walls, laden with books. The smaller Becker Room is named after Harry Becker, the Suffolk painter of rural scenes at the turn of the 20th century. The scenes through the windows lend authority to his pencil drawings, etchings and watercolours on the walls. The rooms share a big bathroom and there’s an extra loo, lined with family photographs, downstairs. You eat your breakfast in a vast room surrounded by tapestries, paintings and family pictures. Breakfast is delicious: bacon from their own Tamworths and Gloucester Old Spots; eggs from their wandering, tatterdemalion collection of farmyard chickens; wild blewits, parasols and inkcaps from mushroom-foraging in the fields; jams from garden and hedge fruits, marmalade from a neighbour, bread from Lavenham. The Hall is heated by a wood-burner using wood coppiced from the hedgerows. Guests are encouraged to be intelligent about energy use, perhaps by pulling on a sweater rather than turning the heating up. After hundreds of years of the Hawkins family’s care, Milden Hall is taking on a new life of its own and setting standards for all of us to follow.

Juliet & Christopher Hawkins Milden Hall, Milden, Lavenham, CO10 9NY • 3 rooms. S/C for 22+. Celebrations for up to 130. • £60–£80. Singles from £40. Ask about the barn. • 01787 247235 • hawkins@thehall-milden.co.uk • www.thehall-milden.co.uk 165

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Milden Hall