A Weekend in the Essex-Suffolk Borders

Bell Hotel

One warm Friday evening in July we left home for a weekend at the Bell Hotel at Clare, an old market town just over the north-eastern border of Essex into Suffolk.

The Bell is an old coaching inn whose stable buildings around the courtyard have been converted into guest accommodation.

Clare has a wealth of old buildings, ranging from thatched lath and plaster cottages through red-brick Victorian artisans' dwellings to fine Georgian houses. There is also a superb wool church of ample proportions. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at The Bell and are happy to recommend it as a base for touring the surrounding countryside. For more information telephone 01787 277741 or fax 01787 278474.

On Saturday morning we wandered around the town, taking in the sights, then strolled in Clare Castle Country Park. This recreational open space has been created around the ruins of Clare Castle and the buildings of the old railway station. The old track-bed is now used by walkers, cyclists and horse-riders as a "linear park".

Clare - The Old Station

Bell Hotel - Tudor Restaurant

Boyton - Vineyard and Garden

Our next visit was to Boyton Vineyard in the hamlet of Boyton End, near Stoke-by-Clare. There we met Roy Williams, the owner, and discussed the prospects for the vintage while sampling his excellent wines. An added bonus is the rose garden, tended by Roy's wife. For details of the vineyard and the wines currently on offer call 01440 61893.

From the pleasures of the grape we turned to a quest. Our friend Wendy in Kendallville, Indiana has traced her family's ancestry to the nearby village of Gestingthorpe so off we went to help her investigations. She is particularly interested in Gestingthorpe church, where a large number of her forbears were buried. We found the church with its tower clad in scaffolding, undergoing major restoration.

Gestingthorpe - Church - Exterior

Gestingthorpe Church - Interior

Though we could find no trace of the Coe family, Wendy's ancestors, the visit was well worthwhile, being the quintessence of the English country church. There is also an interesting memorial to Captain Lawrence Oates, Inniskilling Dragoons, whose heroic gesture of self-sacrifice failed to save his colleagues in Captain Robert Scott's Antarctic Expedition of 1912. The double hammerbeam roof is one of the finest in England.

As it was lunch-time, we sought refreshment at The Pheasant pub nearby. This excellent free house typifies the welcome change that has overtaken the English pub in recent years, where the quality and variety of food on offer equals that of the drink.


Gestingthorpe - The Pheasant

Suitably fortified, we set out to find Cavendish Vineyard in the village of the same name. After much to-ing and fro-ing, due to inadequate sign-posting, we found the village and then the vineyard - deserted. A sign directed enquirers to the cottage of an elderly lady, with whom the keys had been left. No bad reflection on this poor old soul but we thought it odd that the owners should leave the place in her charge on a Saturday in high summer. Perhaps they don't really care about selling their wines.

We then struck east to Long Melford, a country town justly famous for its antique shops. We passed on their charms and visited Melford Hall, a National Trust property and the home of Sir Richard Hyde-Parker and his family.

This Elizabethan red-brick house has associations with Beatrix Potter, the author and illustrator of many famous books for children and a cousin of a previous Lady Hyde-Parker.

At the northern end of Long Melford is Kentwell Hall (see the Travel Article menu).

Melford Hall

Gifford's Hall

We ended our visits for the day at Gifford's Hall, Hartest, the home of John and Jeanie Kemp and their family and described by them as "a small country living". Gifford's Hall is a fine Georgian house, surrounded by a vineyard, a rose garden, a poly-tunnel for growing sweet peas and numerous farm animals. John and Jeanie are a pair of mad-caps who provide a welcome antidote to late-20th century life. They've been fending off foreclosure for a couple of years and deserve your support. They also offer bed-and-breakfast accommodation throughout the year. Call them on 01284 830464 (fax 01284 830229).

On the Sunday morning we took another walk around Clare and the Country Park before bidding farewell to the Bell Hotel. We then headed west to Saffron Walden and Audley End. This grand house and estate, once the home of the Braybrooke family, is now in the care of English Heritage.

In the 18th century Robert Adam applied his neo-classical architecture to the house and Lancelot "Capability" Brown transformed the parkland, re-routing a river in the process. Though what the visitor sees is largely the result of the 3rd Lord Braybrooke's efforts in the mid 19th century Audley End is perhaps the most significant Jacobean house remaining in England.

Audley End

As is to be expected from a property in the care of the Nation the standards of upkeep and facilities are very high. Among the latter are a restaurant, an interpretative display, a souvenir shop and an excellent garden centre selling edible produce as well as plants. Throughout the year there are numerous events, among them the series of open-air concerts from summer to early autumn. For details call 01799 522399.

Regrettably, the weather deteriorated as the afternoon wore on. We walked around the recently-restored Victorian gardens and parterre but, while at the garden centre, the rain started. Grasping some fruit, vegetables and plants we ran to the car just before the heavens opened. A little earlier than expected we made our way home to the inevitable household chores that await us, weekend away or no!

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