Columbine Hall

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Things to do


Columbine Hall

Date of travel

April, 2016

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Some houses to visit are like paintings: they only come to life if you invest your own interest and knowledge. National Trust properties were like that until they began the process of becoming almost theme parks. Others immediately reveal what a family has made, and is making, of them. They become like the homes of friends you visit.

None of my friends has a moat, like the Stevensons of Columbine, but once inside it is easy to feel something like a friend’s presence. The kitchen, for example, butler sink and hand-built units with dish rack above but no lack of mixers, coffee and tea makers alongside, is what many would like. There is a formal dining room, but the place where the family eat would not seem to be there, but here.

We were part of a large group, so were left free to wander rather than be conducted, as when the house is open for “Invitation to View” and the garden is listed in the Suffolk “yellow guide” in aid of charity. While glad of the freedom we had to be careful of the interests of others, and of course had to use our own knowledge, such as it is. The brief guide Hew Stevenson had given us all was an enjoyable appetiser but we soon found reasons for returning to take the 90-minute tour.

On the staircase is a huge estate map of the eighteenth century, with Columbine at its centre and the village of Stowupland nowhere to be seen. Combs Wood on the outskirts of Stowmarket was one recognisable feature, demonstrating that all maps of the kind ignored the “north to the top” principle. Approaching Columbine by the road shown would have been from the west, with a bridge across the moat. We had arrived from somewhere between east and north. The old map was vague about that; if there was a road it was hard to make out.

Upstairs is a range of rooms, some obviously much loved and used, others perhaps to pass through. These latter certainly had interest, whether architecturally or from the objects and art displayed. Some family portraits are very interesting.

Clear signs of use are the log fires where, as we do also, the ashes are left to assist igniting the next fire. Above one is a delightful slipware dish and in a corner an arch that had served in the Middle Ages as a door. Some of its painted decoration remains. The timbers of the house are decorative as well as structural features. One blocked window shows the origins of the present building as gatehouse to a larger hall: it would have given a view in that direction, perhaps into a courtyard so that the preparations for a journey or a visitor’s arrival could be overseen.

As Hew Stevenson explained, purists may find some of the introductions made by his restorer, Melvyn Smith, not to their taste. We all have to live with what makes us comfortable, however, and a fourteenth century house takes some comfort input. The bookshelves and panelling, for example, look as though they came from a library of the the eighteenth century but were constructed on site. The gardens, by George Carter, follow seventeenth century design and when spring really arrives will look lovelier than when we saw them in an April buffeted by showers of hail.

We came away after some fascinating lectures in the restored West Barn, also available for weddings, concerts and similar gatherings, through the walled garden replacing a concrete farmyard, for the drive home with leaflets to read on the people had had lived at Columbine, from the Norman Columber family who gave their name but not their time, letting it to others who included (later) Sir James Tyrrell, linked to the princes in the Tower.

As the area has numerous splendid houses to visit, and is not far from Bury St Edmunds – full of interest – or, in the opposite direction, the Suffolk Heritage Coast, visitors may like to know there is a cottage to rent. The Gig House sleeps six.


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