Norfolk Adventures: Felbrigg Hall.

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Quite often when I visit an historic home I admire the grandeur on display, ponder how much it costs to heat in the winter and perhaps imagine myself flouncing up a sweeping staircase in a long silk dress but very rarely do I ever think “Yes, I could live here”.

I’m not sure what it is about Felbrigg Hall because it’s as opulent and impressive as the others but as soon as I entered I just felt…welcome.

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It possibly had something to do with the volunteers, who were all so friendly, and the fact that there’s a lovely treasure hunt-style activity for children involving a magnifying glass and a photo book but I think it’s more to do with the feel of the place.

It’s just homely. I felt like I could sit in the library and read a book in my PJs (not when it’s open to the public) or happily enjoy a family Christmas dinner in the dining room (hopefully cooked by someone else).

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The 17th century house and the estate were left to the National Trust following the death of the ‘last squire’, biographer and historian Robert Ketton-Cremer, in 1969.

A descendent of the Wyndham/Windham family, who owned Felbrigg for some 500 years, he inherited the house on the death of his father in 1933. There’s a well written history of the hall and some of its fascinating past inhabitants here.

I was quite taken by the tales of William ‘Mad’ Windham (1840 – 1866) who apparently had a bit of a thing for uniforms. Not only did he dress up as a train guard at local stations, which caused a few problems, he also presented himself as a policeman and ‘patrolled’ in London. He seems to have remained quite the character – in later life even buying himself a coach and pinching customers from established routes by offering free lifts between Norwich and Cromer.

He was far from the only intriguing person attached to the house and it was fascinating to discover more as we explored.

There was some controversy (link to a story in The Guardian) surrounding Felbrigg earlier this year but when we visited last month, on a day that started slightly damp, all seemed well.

What can you do there?

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Everywhere you look there is something interesting to see at Felbrigg and Freya loved trying to match the photographs to the various rooms. You can tour downstairs and upstairs rooms, including the great hall, with its stunning stained glass, dining room, lovely library and several bedrooms, including the Chinese Room with wallpaper hand painted in China (which required a costly specialist to put up).

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We stopped for a bite to eat in the cafe before heading outside to the wonderful walled garden. Because our party had a variety of different ages we only got to see a small section of the garden but what I did see was stunning (my camera was very happy).

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There is a fabulous play area for smaller visitors, which includes sandpits to dig in, miniature wheel barrows, forks and what I think might be a willow house with a tree stump table and small wooden benches (here’s Mark enjoying it).

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Should you want to go a bit further afield, the estate also has 520 acres of woods, with rolling parkland, a lake and buggy-friendly paths.

What did we think?

Our trip included four generations and they all loved it. Freya was the one I was most worried about but almost as soon as we arrived (and she found some hobby horses to trot around on) she was happy. She loved exploring inside and outside too (as we all did). A great family adventure.

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How much does it cost?

A standard charge for an adult (without gift aid) for the whole property is £10.40 and £5.50 for a child. You can also just pay for the gardens and there is a family ticket available. Full details here. Don’t forget to check opening times before you go.

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Norfolk Adventures – Binham Priory.

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Even though we live in Norfolk and love exploring, last week I realised just how much more of the county we have left to discover.

To celebrate a special birthday, my mother-in-law brought three members of her family from the West Midlands to stay in a fantastic converted barn she rented in the village of Bale, which is about nine miles from the town of Fakenham.

There was even room for Mark, Freya and I and so we used the barn as our base and set about showing them some of the county’s highlights – and, my goodness, did we pack a lot in.

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Our bit was behind the hedge on the left.

With four generations to cater for I didn’t expect everyone to be happy all of the time but, actually, everything we did had elements that we all enjoyed.

We visited two stately homes, a wildlife sanctuary, the beach, a zoo and, the piece de resistance, my MIL walked alpacas along the coast as her birthday present from Mark and I. IMG_2428

However, it was as we were driving to and from the different places that I realised how much there is still to explore – especially when Mark decided to take little detours off the beaten track (yes, we were lost).

There were some proper “wow” moments, including driving through a picture-perfect village, turning a corner and coming across Binham Priory, looking glorious against the blue sky. Even Freya was impressed (although she thought it was an enchanted castle).

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I had heard of the ruined Benedictine priory before but I didn’t know exactly where it was. While we didn’t have time to stop then, I knew we would be back – and in fact we went back three different times.

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A potted history.

The priory was founded in the late 11th century – a massive undertaking by a nephew of William the Conqueror, Peter de Valognes and his wife Albreda. It took about 150 years to build so obviously they never got to see it finished. I imagine it must have been an impressive sight, rising up out of the countryside, once it was completed.

While it’s a tranquil place now, it has experienced its fair share of drama, including a siege in 1212 (see the links at the end of this post for a detailed history). It also suffered from:

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It was closed in 1539 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was sold to Thomas Paston who started demolishing it. Stone from the monastery was reused in many local houses. Apparently, Thomas Paston’s nephew, Edward, started building a new house on the site but a workman was killed by falling masonry and the rest of the men refused to continue.

Today the nave of the much larger priory church has become the Church of St. Mary and the Holy Cross and is still used as a place of worship.

Missing Fiddler.

According to myth there is a tunnel running from the priory to Little Walsingham, which is said to have been the site of a strange disappearance. Apparently, one day a fiddler decided to explore the tunnel with his dog, as you do. Villagers could apparently hear his music as he ventured forth…until it suddenly stopped. His little dog came running out but no one dared enter the tunnel to look for him. He was never seen again. The place where the music stopped is now known as Fiddler’s Hill.

I wandered about on my own as the sun set and I have to say I felt perfectly content. It wasn’t eerie at all, just rather inspiring.

More info.

I did a short video of our approach to Binham Priory. It doesn’t really do it justice but you’ll get the idea (I’m sat in the back with Freya to get the best view).

There are some great sites with more info about the priory, including opening times.

Binham Priory.

Norfolk Archaeological Trust.

English Heritage.

Myths and Legends.

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The One Where Freya And I Share The Honeymoon Suite (A Weekend Adventure In Felixstowe).

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“And when I turned to look, Freya was trying to wash her hands in the bidet,” I laughed, as I explained what happened to my mum on the phone. 

That wasn’t even the worst part.

My goodness, what a weekend. My brother, sister-in-law and nephew came over from America (on a ship) and were staying with my parents in Ipswich, which was absolutely wonderful. I haven’t seen my sister-in-law (in person) for probably 10 years because she doesn’t like flying (completely understandable) and I was last able to hug my nephew and brother three years ago. It was a lovely, happy reunion – especially for Freya, who was delighted to see her only cousin.

As the house was full up, I booked me, Mark and Freya into a hotel in nearby Felixstowe, a seaside town we used to visit all the time as children, so we could be close and spend as much time as possible with them.

I used my birthday money to treat us to a night at The Orwell Hotel, one of Suffolk’s oldest and best known seaside hotels, so it felt like a little holiday for us too. 

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The hotel was designed by the influential architect John Shewell Corder and built in 1898 to cater for the influx of visitors who came by train to the fashionable resort.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel fairly extensively, staying in every sort of hotel you could imagine – from the five star St Regis Grand in Rome to a no star hostel near Gare de Nord in Paris.

The Orwell reminded me of a much-loved stately home; one that had seen generations of the same family happily grow up within its walls. Somewhere along the line, the family fortune was lost – probably gambled away by a drunken heir – and now the present generation has to overlook that it’s all a bit, well, frayed around the edges.

I was completely charmed by it. 

The communal areas had an almost otherworldly elegance. I felt like I should be dressed in period costume (certainly not jeans) to step into the library, let alone sit on one of the chairs and read.

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Our room was huge and had the added bonus that all the fixtures looked like they were older than me (or certainly Mark who was born in the ’80s). It was great. Like stepping back in time.

 

So often these days, hotel rooms are boringly uniform. Not so at The Orwell (although it was sold earlier this year and I believe it is being gradually refurbished).

While the furniture was “traditional”, shall we say, the sheets, towels, carpets etc were spotlessly clean (as was the room itself) and the toiletries rather lovely.

 

But, just as I was happily soaking in the atmosphere… (ok, using the free wifi) the music started.

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I can’t even claim ignorance. Not only are you warned when you book that the hotel hosts functions and some guests might be disturbed by the entertainment but there are multiple signs up when you arrive at reception too.

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How bad could it be? That was my thought at the time of booking. 

As it turns out, pretty bad.

Our family room was on the second floor and I can only assume above the wedding reception. All we could hear was thumping base. When 9pm came and Freya was still wide awake, I rang down to reception to ask when it might go off.

Maybe 11.30pm but probably nearer midnight, the very nice lady said (in fact, all the staff were polite and as helpful as can be).

I’m not sure if I groaned but she must have sensed my displeasure because she said: “We are almost fully booked but we do have the honeymoon suite available.” She assured me this would be quieter so, dressed in our PJs, with Freya wrapped in a blanket, we all trotted along the corridor to the new room. The alternative was going to be leave and sleep on the living room floor at my parents house, which I would have been so sad about (not least because I would have wasted all my money).

 

Thankfully, it was blissfully quiet… but only had a double bed. As Mark goes to bed later than Freya and I, he volunteered to stay in the old (party) room while we took the new one, which was bathed in a glorious orange light from the setting sun.

The nice lady said there was no extra charge, which was a relief.

While Mark and I were talking about what bags needed to be transferred to the new room, Freya had put herself to bed and was already nearly asleep.

Knowing she gets up at 5am no matter what, I tried to get off to sleep myself – even though I really wanted to explore the suite. It was set across two main rooms plus a bathroom and separate toilet with the same faded glory apparent in the first room.

As it happened, I found it hard getting used to the new noises (including the lift next door going up and down). I’m the same in every hotel. The strange thing about this one was that I didn’t hear another person. No voices in the corridor, no doors closing. I’m not sure whether the walls are just thicker or the guests more considerate.

Freya woke up with a tummy ache at 1am and then she needed to use the bathroom a little while later before, as predicted, waking for the day just after 5am.

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You can see me (fully-clothed) reflected in the tap *wave*

It was as I was attempting to work the shower (“turn on the cold water first and then gradually add in some hot” sounds simple enough but turned out to be a fine art) that she said she was going to wash her hands…and I turned just in time to see her turning the taps on the bidet.

“Noooooo!” I screeched, before trying to explain what a bidet is. She looked really confused, as well she might.

Once we had finally showered I took her to a very nice play area by the sea before returning to meet Mark for the buffet breakfast in the decadent restaurant at 8am. IMG_2736

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Would I stay there again? If there wasn’t an event on, sure. I guess if Freya was older and we stayed out later it wouldn’t have been as much of a problem – although it really was loud.

Was it worth the £128? For the two rooms we had, definitely. For one on its own, especially with the noise, I would say no.

As I only seem to pick noisy hotels, I’m going to let Mark do the booking from now on.

Still, all was well in the end – and it’s probably the only time I’ll ever stay in a honeymoon suite!

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