Trea­sured is­lands

Lind­say Want vis­its South Elmham Hall in the Waveney Val­ley, where con­ser­va­tion award-win­ning farm­ers, John and Ni­cole San­der­son, call a bishop’s palace home

EADT Suffolk - - Places -

“With you in a mo­ment,” calls a cheery voice from far across the court­yard and some­where up a lad­der. “Feel free to have a wan­der. Won’t be long!” Out by the great moat on four-acre South Elmham is­land, hid­den away in The Saints not far from Bun­gay, the big bluesky day has no clouds to stop the sun from play­ing on the wide wa­ters. Just the gen­tlest in­ter­mit­tent breeze sends in­sects scud­ding across the sur­face to­wards emer­ald lily-pads and makes the broad leaves of tow­er­ing beeches dance and dap­ple the grassy path­way below. In the dis­tance, white flecks and flinty greys of ru­ined walls peep be­tween the tree-trunks. Sounds of a low­ing herd drift across the an­cient is­land acres, and by the lit­tle bridge, the tini­est king­fisher flash of bright am­ber and iri­des­cent turquoise colours the world even more time­lessly beau­ti­ful.

“That’s got the bunting sorted,” beams Ni­cole, bump­ing the world back to a dif­fer­ent sort of 21st cen­tury re­al­ity. “Ex­cuse the clothes, will you – I’ve been mow­ing lawns, herd­ing hens and who knows what this morn­ing. We’re mid-har­vest, so there are lots of ex­tra things to keep an eye on. We’ve a wed­ding in the me­dieval barn and court­yard to­mor­row.” She ex­plains how they’ll also be shar­ing their mel­low farm­house home - the Grade I listed, for­mer bishop’s palace - with the happy cou­ple and hand­ful of en­tourage. “Just to make their life sim­pler.”

LONG-STAND­ING LEGA­CIES

The of­fer of a quick cuppa leads us past a ‘primeval’ fire pit and an­cient grove, de­tour­ing briefly to sneak a peek at the se­cret gar­den and Bishop Henry De­spenser’s ru­ined 14th cen­tury gate­house with its home­made St Cross bricks, be­fore fi­nally en­ter­ing the big blue door to South Elmham Hall. In the huge space that is the farm­house kitchen, John – the third gen­er­a­tion of San­der­sons to love, care for and farm South Elmham’s his­toric lands - has al­ready got the ket­tle on. He beams a heart­felt wel­come, ex­cuses him­self while he climbs out of the morn­ing’s blue over­alls, then with words bal­anc­ing great knowl­edge with gen­uine en­thu­si­asm, leads the way un­der smooth stone arches, past hewn fire­places to share del­i­cate traces of me­dieval wall-paint­ings.

South Elmham slowly re­veals its true colours as its sto­ries un­ravel, just like the green, mus­tard and deep ochres of the in­ter­twin­ing branches of the wall dec­o­ra­tions painted here more than seven cen­turies ago. An an­cient epis­co­pal es­tate, the 7th cen­tury Bishop’s ‘See’ or court of Elmham was favoured by Her­bert de Losinga, the Nor­man Bishop of East Anglia who founded Nor­wich Cathe­dral in 1100 and had a soft spot for hunt­ing.

“South Elmham be­came a ‘des-res’ at the heart of a deer park,” ex­plains John. “A great hall, in which to hold court, was built, with cham­bers and a pri­vate chapel for the bishop. Maybe as the palace took shape in the 13th cen­tury, painters and dec­o­ra­tors work­ing on Nor­wich Cathe­dral had a bus­man’s hol­i­day here. There are cer­tainly strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in the dec­o­ra­tive style. Ex­perts date them to 1270 – that’s prob­a­bly the ear­li­est do­mes­tic wall-paint­ings in th­ese parts.”

For­ti­fied by tea over tales of crenu­la­tions granted to Bishop De­spenser for quash­ing the lo­cal Peas­ant’s Re­volt, it’s time to head out over wa­ter-mead­ows, past pock­ets of wood pas­ture, across swathes which have some­how dodged the ploughs of ‘progress’.

“Here, the hedge-lines show where the deer

‘All wed­dings at Bate­man’s Barn are green, not just be­cause this is a work­ing or­ganic farm where di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion is key. It’s not us be­ing pre­scrip­tive, but just the way we op­er­ate, be­cause it’s what we be­lieve in’

park was di­vided,“ex­plains John. “Some of the old park­land was dug over in 1940, but much has never seen the plough. It’s been the farm it is to­day since the 1920s when the Adair fam­ily sold up the es­tate, but my fam­ily were ten­ant farm­ers here be­fore that, from 1906.” His or­ganic Bri­tish white cat­tle, once a favourite with re­li­gious or­ders, are un­doubt­edly at home here, just like the flocks of goldfinches, the roe deer, Ragged Robin and King Cups, hares and hawks. Per­haps the nat­u­ral world has changed lit­tle since Ed­ward II vis­ited in 1326, or the Abbess of Flix­ton chas­tised the res­i­dent bishop of 1350 for his hunt­ing par­ties which tram­pled her pre­cious gar­dens.

CARE­FUL CON­SER­VA­TION

John talks about the farm’s re­cent in­volve­ment in a pi­lot scheme for Re­sults-based Bio­di­ver­sity Achieve­ments in Agri­cul­ture run by Nat­u­ral Eng­land. He had to buy a suit to share his ex­pe­ri­ences at a con­fer­ence in Brus­sels, but tiny South Elmham was some­how at ease play­ing a role in the big­ger pic­ture. By the col­lec­tion of an­cient cop­piced horn­beams, there’s talk of new wood­lands and hedges, barn owl and bat boxes, ponds re­stored and wild­flow­ers planted to nur­ture birds, bees and but­ter­flies. “Part of our in­come from wed­dings al­ways goes to­wards our con­ser­va­tion projects. That’s so im­por­tant to us,“ex­plains Ni­cole. The sen­si­tive restora­tion of the 1270 barn over a decade ago, not only keeps the beau­ti­ful building in use, but al­lows the site as a whole to share and be shared in so many ways.

“All wed­dings at Bate­man’s Barn are green, not just be­cause this is a work­ing or­ganic farm where di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion is key. It’s just the way we op­er­ate, be­cause it’s what we be­lieve in. We love lo­cal and source every­thing we can from as close to home as pos­si­ble, en­cour­ag­ing low food miles, en­gag­ing with lo­cal busi­nesses and de­vel­op­ing a pro­duc­tive, collb­o­ra­tive net­work of cross-pro­mo­tion through our Waveney Wed­dings Col­lec­tive. ”

A few steps fur­ther, the trees part to re­veal a sec­ond trea­sured isle, a strange for­ti­fied en­clo­sure at whose heart rests the enig­matic ru­ins known as South Elmham Min­ster. It’s a mys­te­ri­ous place which has pulled in count­less gen­er­a­tions of pil­grims from far and wide, the leg­endary home per­haps of East Anglia’s orig­i­nal Saxon cathe­dral. The walls are 11th cen­tury, but this is a place where his­tory is a feel­ing, a place which puts tiny South Elmham in the big­gest pic­ture.

It’s the first and last piece of the puz­zle in a won­der­fully unique Waveney Val­ley spot where past and sus­tain­able fu­ture go hand in hand.

John shows the home­made bricks in the 14th cen­tury gate­house. Photo: Lind­say Want

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