The wonderful thing about Suffolk is that it is full of hidden nooks and crannies, winding lanes, pubs in hamlets, woodland that feels unchartered and above all, amazing people with a real commitment to the environment, to their customers and their businesses. Mark and Marie who own and run the White Horse pub in Sweffling, the Alde Gardens campsite and its adjacent hideaway holiday cottage called ‘Badgers Cottage’ are two such people, originally from Southend in next door Essex and now honorary Suffolk folk. Having started the campsite back in June 2010, inspired by their own love of camping and thoughts about how to do it better based upon the sites they visited and love of the environment, they used the revenue from early guests to renovate the White Horse pub, keeping its original character intact and saving yet another one of our country pubs from closure.
Set in the tiny little village of Sweffling a mere few miles away from Saxmundham, Framlingham and the glorious Suffolk Heritage Coastline, conveniently close to the A12 and on the National Cycle Route (National Cycle Network route 1, and the Suffolk Coastal Cycle route – Regional Route 41), the cottage, pub and campsite made for a wonderful and relaxing stay with our every need both anticipated and catered for. Forests (Rendlesham), nature reserves (Minsmere), great food (Farm Cafe at Marlesford) and many places to eat in the various villages and towns, the beach (Dunwich, Orford, Walberswick, Covehithe and Southwold) plus the location in the Alde Valley, a stunningly attractive and fertile farming region, punctuated by wonderful footpaths and views make this region a prime holiday destination whilst retaining its sense of self. People live and work here and this is not obscured by the very necessary tourism that brings in much revenue- there is no tourist ‘Disneyland’ feel about this part of the county.
Alde Garden, as they named the campsite, is set in what was once a larger beer garden belonging to the pub and cleverly gives no hint as to its size and shape, tucked away as it is behind an existing perimeter of hedges and mature trees, criss crossed with pathways following the contours of this sloping site. Each accommodation option-Yurt, Tipi, Bell Tent, Romany caravan, shepherds hut, Hideaway among others, is discreetly placed so as to benefit from the privacy provided by shrubs and trees, wildflowers and woven partitions made from the branches from coppiced trees- willow and hazel…Clusters of indigenous plants have grown and self seeded or been transplanted, but don’t make the mistake of thinking this happens totally naturally. A wild garden requires great discipline and knowledge to ensure it remains balanced and manageable: Mark and Marie work very hard to achieve this and its seemingly effortless beauty is deceptive.
Communal facilities can be found grouped near the rear of the pub where a back door off licence serves ice creams and drinks and a nearby fire pit is bordered by log seats and tree stump tables which bore chalk drawings by children staying there (lovely). The jungle shower, ‘Treebog’, shower and bathroom block plus fridge freezer offer discreet, modern and eco friendly facilities whilst the Antipodean style open kitchen is extensively stocked with cooking and eating equipment plus eggs from the ducks, a goose and flock of chickens that roam free in the daytime. The honesty shop sells local products such as sausages, bread and milk, cans of tomatoes, pulses and bags of pasta- and yes these are locally sourced wherever possible too (although it isn’t always possible), this being a guiding principle behind everything Mark and Marie do. This kind of pride in, and loyalty to their home region is incredibly inspiring; even though they live in one of the most bountiful regions of Britain, it still takes considerable time and effort to source goods and services locally, ensure they are of high standard and maintain the continuity of supply for their guests.
Two nights in Badger Cottage
We stayed at Badger Cottage adjacent to the pub and campsite for two nights and spent our last night sleeping under the canvas of the Dragonfly Yurt inside the camping garden proper- two different types of accommodation with wide appeal for those who want the full camping experience or those wanting to engage with nature but retreat to a bedroom with a ‘proper’ roof at night.
A converted redbrick stable, adjacent to the pub yet perfectly soundproofed, (the only sounds we heard were of the owls at night and the clatter of the hooves of the Welsh Cobb that offered trips in a trap around the local area each evening), Badger Cottage has been beautifully restored by Mark and Marie, avoiding twee pastiches of country cottage decor and offering a surprising amount of space for a home so small. Is the ultimate convenient location for local ale lovers being next to the CAMRA recommended White Horse Inn. A low-impact place to stay, renovations were carried out using environmentally friendly paints and other natural building materials such as lime, and re-using reclaimed materials whenever possible. Most of the furniture and fittings are either recycled, beautifully hand-made from reclaimed materials or sourced locally. Solar panels heat the water for the bath, and all lights have low energy light bulbs. The cast iron woodburner is a very efficient way of heating the living room alongside a central heating system for deepest winter and water is collected via a system of water butts for the garden and livestock needs.
Two days in, we were still noticing all kinds of handmade features for the first time: stone corbels with Acanthus carvings holding up sitting room beams and doorways, beautiful wall art made from reclaimed items and the detail on the stairs which themselves are stunning although families with very adventurous babies and toddlers will need to keep a close eye on them. The stairs are partially open to the mezzanine bedroom over the main sitting room so little hands needing to hold onto a rail will have to take extra care here. Mark and Marie have made atmospheric and decorative tableaux everywhere you look- a hand forged cast iron candelabra on the kitchen table, dark red wax dripping down the cups in front of the dramatic Ecclesiastical arched window, cushion covered chair pulled up in front; a stack of wonderfully scented wood built in under the stairs with fruit crate filled with bottles of beer in front and cast iron wood burner to the side, metal flue shining brightly and contrasting with the oldness of the walls; white cast iron bath with metal bath rack, space for a book and little vases with posies of Honeysuckle; rustic stacks of wooden coasters on a side table in front of the dramatic cast iron and wood stairs….
There is WiFi in the cottage, the grounds and some of the camping accommodation, a TV, a DVD player and stack of films in the cupboard plus plenty of books, games and magazines to borrow, two comfy sofas to sit on and french doors to throw open, allowing the room to catch the late afternoon rays as you wind down after a day exploring Suffolk. The little sitting space outside the cottage has a woven hazel hurdle fence, a small table and chair set plus that glorious Virginia Creeper covering the cottage which was just beginning to turn flame red during our stay.
Both bedrooms, although mezzanine, offer a good level of privacy and noise proofing and they are accessed via different rooms- the front bedroom from the sitting room and the back room from the kitchen/dining area. The tiny front bedroom window with its attached bird feeders and thick curtains keeping out the early morning light was particularly attractive and as we lay in bed listening to the calls of a lonesome owl (He was shouting his head off, in search of a mate!) feeling sheltered and warm under the rafters of this cosy room, we could see how lovely a stay here in winter would be. The bedroom has the feel of a treetop hideaway surrounded as we were by beams and the furniture made of reclaimed wood and the guest bedroom balustrade has been made from sumptuous Vietnamese teak that was destined for the dump- a criminal waste that would have been! Lush throws and cushions, good quality squishy duvets and pillows and a deep deep mattress made the bedrooms feel super luxe-the draperies in the master room have been skillfully handmade by Marie’s mum. I had an impulse to bounce and leap up and down on the bed like a gleeful child when I first saw it but (1) that would have been very disrespectful to the mattress and (2) those cross beams up high would have knocked me out. Travel cots are available and need to be reserved at time of booking.
The second bedroom is on a private little mezzanine over the kitchen with wooden staircase and banisters, two wooden single beds and a little sofa overlooking wall art, high above the kitchen which is itself well equipped with a dishwasher, all the equipment you will need and a supply of tea and coffee. Warm rugs cover the quarry tiled floors. The bathroom is particularly lovely- a Victorian free standing cast iron bath, beautiful wash stand and simple, fuss free decor; the heated towel rail and toiletries from a local company will lure you into spending plenty of time soaking here. There is enough space to bath more than one child at a time (saves water!) whilst a parent can sit nearby with a book or glass of wine, keeping an eye on them. There is an over the bath shower, solar panels heat the water and electricity is also from a renewable source –the 100% renewable energy tariff from Ecotricity,
Reading the Saturday papers is one of my must do weekly rituals and sitting at the wooden kitchen table next to the arched window that overlooks the lane beside the cottage, cheese sandwich made from Suffolk Gold cheese and Pump Street Bakery bread bought from Snape Maltings farmers market, late afternoon sun streaming in, I felt peaceful and grounded, not something that is always guaranteed when staying in a rental home or hotel. Newspapers are available from the nearby small towns of Framlingham or Saxmundham and the Farmcafe at Marlesford on the A12 has free papers to read as you eat too.
We waved to the tourists out on their pony and trap ride courtesy of Alde Driving (for bookings call 01728 746226) as they passed the kitchen window each evening and ended up going for a ride around the villages of Sweffling and Rendham as a result, enjoying a chat with the driver about local history and laughing at his very nosy pony. Guests can book both short and long routes (from £25 per ride), rides are often available summer evenings and can be pre-booked for day time. Staying at Alde Garden and Badger Cottage offered plenty of opportunities to meet local people, other guests and the owners who encouraged us to mingle and get to know each other through spending time in the communal areas (fire pit, outdoor kitchen) and walking around the gardens. Yet we never felt either obliged to socialise (there are plenty of people who honeymoon here so clearly there is privacy to be had) nor did we feel that it was hard to find a private space. Guests here seemed sensitive if they saw you with your head bent over a book or sitting on a log staring dreamily into space.
Although the cottage is a little separate from the campsite- we had to go through a gate or set of steps past the rear of the pub (taking us on a wander through a romantic tangle of flower and leaf edged pathway) to access it, all guests of the cottage can use the campsite facilities. At night we wandered into the pub which was a whole twenty or so steps away and ended up retiring to the campfire afterwards, fairylights and solar path lights guiding our way in a part of Suffolk with very little light pollution, to talk to other guests, roast a few sausages, drink more local ale and just be. It is possible of course, to be completely private as guests while staying in the cottage if this is what you wish and it provides enough separateness to do this without leaving you feeling awkward and guilty about not ‘mingling’ enough.
A night in Dragonfly Yurt
Our last night was spent in Dragonfly Yurt which has been designed and furnished with family and group visits in mind- it is camping but with a luxury edge to it, ideal for the first time camper in fact. Built on the site by Mark and Marie from locally coppiced ash and hazel, tucked away in a corner to the front right of the open kitchen, in sight of the fire pit and sheltered by a windbreak of hedgerow and within easy reach of the loo in the darkest of nights, the yurt is bright, spacious and airy. The intricately trellised structure, lit by fairy lights and casting shadows across the floor which is thickly protected by rugs and rustic matting is magical at night when the woodburner is lit (handmade again from recycled materials and featuring a delicate engraving of a Dragonfly), swiftly warming an evening which had turned unseasonally cold. The private outdoor area faces west so as to catch the afternoon sun and has a seating area carved from fallen trees and a little barbecue although the handbuilt pizza oven, fire pit and open kitchen also offer ample scope for cooking.
Peeping through the trees can be seen other accommodation options, each set in its own little area to satisfy the human need for personal territory. The Romany caravan has a history unknown although it is believed to be at least 100 years old. With the help of a carpenter it has been restored it in traditional gypsy caravan style & design, using lots of recycled materials and provides a double bed plus under the bed child’s sleeping area. I was smitten by the roof of the ‘The Hideout’ – a cosy little retreat tucked away in a small clearing amid the trees and shrubs, almost totally hidden from view of everyone else and accessed by dipping your head to walk under a woven bower of branches and plants. Two glass panels in the roof allow a wonderful view of the nature around you – whether it be dragonflies, birds & butterflies during the daytime or bats and stars at night and most wonderfully of all, this roof is tiled with old ’45 vinyl records rescued from landfill.
Waking in the morning to see the shadows of the Indian Running Ducks that roam the site freely, cast against the canvas of our yurt, slowly moving closer until they peered one by one round our open door was the quirkiest (and best) memory. The most intrepid (and nosy) of the ducks had spent the previous afternoon engrossed in watching a young couple erect their own tent near to the pond, ducking its head into the canvas flap opening from time to time, shaking itself free of stray guy ropes and investigating their bags strewn over the grass.
Upright in shape, as opposed to the more traditional forms ducks take, these ducks provided hours of entertainment alongside the other breeds of chickens, fluffy of foot, tiny and swift moving and also prone to the occasional squabble as all chickens are wont to be. A rather mardy Gander lives in its own pen adjacent to the pub and it is advisable NOT to try to befriend him but the rest of the livestock is friendly although of course, children are discouraged from chasing. And dogs are not allowed on site. The children we met were content to sit and watch and scatter the floor with bird food supplied for this purpose and kept on the shelves of the communal kitchen. Watching chickens come flying over from all corners of the site after hearing the faintest of sounds as we picked up the container was hilarious, If they’d have been human sized, we’d have been knocked flat in the crush.
Scattered all over the site, there for you (and pint sized guests) to find are little bowers, nooks and hideaways. Whippy young stems are encouraged to grow or are tied into shape, log seats placed inside and all that is needed then is a child (or adult) with untrammelled imagination. The fact that these hideaways frequently house dust bathing chickens was a source of huge joy to the little kids we met there- Five year old bi-lingual Emily was certain that “Hadas y dragones viven aquí!” (Fairies and dragons live here) as she tucked herself inside one of them, shooing away the Bantam chicken inside and firing up her already very active imagination. We won’t give away the location of these- the fun is in finding them for yourselves. Mark and Marie have provided packs of chalk, pots of crayons and drawing paper by the shelter kitchen table with haybales pulled up to sit on, many children have decorated the pages of the guest books and written expansive accounts of their stay, whilst other children have decorated the outdoor seats and tree trunks with rainbows of chalk and happy messages. Emily took it one step further and draw elaborate designs all over our knees with both the chalk and the charcoal laying around the fire pit. She thus learned where artists charcoal came from.
This part of Suffolk, although not as flat as many believe the county to be, is easily walked or cycled. Hills are gently undulating, slope gradually and offer plenty of stopping -off -to -catch-breathe-points. Hence, Alde Garden offers plenty of push bikes, some fitted with child seats (or one baby seat) and accompanying safety helmets for guests to use free of charge. Local bike hire companies can provide two seat cycle trailers, delivered to the site and Mark or Marie can suggest some great local bike routes that are suited to your energy levels or fitness. To be honest, we didn’t use these, nor did we explore the local region much by foot because the campsite is such a restful place and for us, the need to restore energy levels and be still was pretty important. We did notice plenty of families with car boots stuffed with scooters, trikes and various pieces of water sport equipment so clearly Alde Garden appeals to people who want more activity from their break than we did.
We had already heard great things about the White Horse pub as one of our friends is both owner and head brewer at Shortts Farm Brewery near Thorndon and he supplies Mark and Marie with his ales, Skiffle, Indie and Blondie. In fact, our first acquaintance with the pub came when Matt took us there last July and so we were very happy to have the chance to return and get very settled and comfortable in one of the deep sofas in the lounge bar. Having to drive great distances, therefore being unable to enjoy more than a pint (some of these real ales are, real strong!) means country pubs can struggle to attract a regular clientele outside of the locals living close by so being able to stay next door (and it really is next door!) was something we intended (especially my husband) to make the most of.
The White Horse has had the life breathed back into it after being closed for 8 years, until Mark and Marie took it on. Over 200 years old, the pub shares the same values as the campsite and cottage with reclaimed and locally made fixtures and fittings.. A wood burning stove in the lounge bar and an old Esse range cooker (with back boiler to heat various radiators) in the public bar keep things snug too whilst eco bulbs and candlelight keep lighting low- you will not be assaulted by bright electric lights and the pub is reminiscent of how it must have been two centuries ago whilst not sacrificing modern comforts too. Rows of pewter mugs belonging to locals are lined up on hooks by the front door, a piano piled high with boxed board games; Othello and Scrabble among them, newspapers and local tourist info, Bar Billiards and a dart board are all the traditional markings of a village pub that is a hub. It would have been a tragedy for Sweffling had it been been sold and turned into a private house.
Don’t look for the bar when you walk in as it has an old-style tap room where locally brewed real ales are served straight from the barrel, proper ploughmans are made and dished up alongside a range of local ice creams- the lemon and ginger? So delicious I had two pots of it. In winter the owners make hot pies, using the wood oven and when we were there, several locals were eagerly anticipating the colder weather that would herald The Season of the Pie. Scotch eggs the size of a small planet, freshly made, locally baked Huffer bread made in a wood fire and served with local rapeseed dipping oil were the last items on the small but perfect menu. The pub also stocks some local spirits, a selection of local or fairtrade organic wines, soft drinks & a small array of speciality spirits. Don’t expect Coca Cola and Fanta or similarly branded soft drinks: the cola is by Fentiman made with proper Kola nuts and many drinks are sourced locally, from East Anglia and where possible, Suffolk. Any varieties of drink not available locally are sourced from Fairtrade or other similarly ethical or groovy suppliers. My favourite was Marie’s hot spiced apple drink with spice and raisin-y undertones whilst husband tucked into a range of local ales, Absinthe from Adnams and Papagaya rum (not all on the same night, thank goodness!).
Staying here was the perfect recuperation after our wedding: a frenetically busy year at work and a recent burglary all conspired to leave us a tad ragged round the edges. The yurt and cottage offer two slightly different experiences and most of all, flexibility with guests able to choose how much they want to participate in campsite life, all in a glorious location.
A great marriage between eco awareness and the expectation of guests regarding their holidays means that newbies to the concept of low impact living aren’t put off (there is no proselytising) or made to feel inadequate. Rather they will go away with some ideas about how to make often very simple changes that benefit them, their purse and the world. In addition, Alde Garden is a great example of how holidays, not traditionally known for moderation and low consumption, whether this be in travel or fuel costs, buying unnecessary crap and over consuming generally, can be incorporated into a lower impact, more thoughtful way of living. Attracting families with young children is key to instilling these kind of values in a gentle, enjoyable way and Alde Garden does this cleverly with its little signs, activities and information showing kids why certain plants and environments are important (one example) and making water awareness fun- the Treebog and Jungle Shower are perfect fun for kids and adults too.
For us, the chance to meet Marie, Mark and many locals alongside the other guests was what made this short break even more special and we will definitely be returning.