Blessed to be a borderlands girl, we talk to Helen Johnston of Hales Hall
PUBLISHED: 11:25 25 November 2017 | UPDATED: 11:25 25 November 2017
There’s no place like home. No matter where life leads Helen Johnston, the Norfolk-Suffolk borderlands girl can’t resist returning to her roots. She spoke about stepping off the treadmill of modern life and running Hales Hall and The Great Barn.
Helen’s family may now be scattered, but the call of their East Anglian origins is strong. Her father, Richard, grew up in Walsham-le-Willows on the family farm and her mother, Wendy, in nearby Bury St Edmunds. He was a grain merchant in the region for many years and diversified into storage in the late 1970s. They now own a large warehousing, distribution and logistics company in Snetterton as well as a farm in nearby Illington.
Helen grew up in Garboldisham, where her parents still live. “I feel very rooted to the area and feel blessed to be a borderlands girl. I’ve got lots of sisters and cousins and we went round in a pack... we all went to school together and spent summers in harvest fields, riding on the combine and building houses out of hay bales,” says Helen, who has two sisters, one living with her young family in Antwerp and another who lives with her family in Hampshire.
Despite their geography, weekends often find one or all of the sisters back at home in Norfolk - usually cooking up a storm and throwing the house open to friends and family.
It’s this spirit of belonging and camaraderie that called her home and led to the family’s latest venture - Hales Hall and The Great Barn, a 15th Century architectural masterpiece that hosts everything from weddings, yoga retreats and film shoots to product launches, opera nights or Christmas get-aways. It recenty won a 5star Gold award from Visit England.
She and husband Gary Leigh, a real estate investor, manage the business with the help of the rest of the family while a dedicated, award-winning team of professionals run it day to day.
“We wanted to create a space where people could come together to celebrate all kinds of occasion. We were looking for ways to combine our love of the region with our love of good food and a great party. We fell in love with Hales at first sight - and its location in the foodie heartland of the county. It’s so great to be able to introduce the area and all it has to offer to our guests.”
Just a few miles along the Waveney Valley from the family home in Garboldisham and 10 miles from the East coast, Hales is surrounded by some of the best growers and producers in the country, from Longhorn beef and prize venison to world-class cheese makers and vineyards. Not to mention the fresh fish from the nearby seaside resorts.
“One of the most exciting things about our work at Hales is being able to champion local farmers and suppliers by serving their wonderful produce at our events. Our special position right on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk means we have easy access to the very best that both counties have to offer.”
Helen has always lived her life at 100mph but returning to Hales has an instant calming effect.
“There is something about Hales that bathes you in tranquillity. You can lose yourself in time and nature. It’s such a wonderful contrast to the hurly burly life most of us lead,” says Helen, who splits her time between Hampstead and East Anglia.
She returns most weeks to Hales, which was built in 1478 by the Attorney General to Henry VII, Sir James Hobart, whose descendants used the layout as the model when they built nearby Blickling Hall, one of the crown jewels of the National Trust.
She and Gary love London but wanted a greater connection to Norfolk. While it felt like a homecoming, she was apprehensive taking the hall on.
“My husband is a proud Londoner. I tease him about being a townie and he’ll say the reverse to me, but Hales particularly is a place where we both feel completely at home.”
Helen loves seeing everything through the eyes of friends and guests who don’t know the area so well. “Part of the charm of our region is that we’re not a cut through on the way to somewhere else. Being able to share the delights of the area is so fantastic.’
Her family’s time is split between having adventures with their young children including Tudor re-enacting at Kentwell Hall and crabbing in Walberswick.
Helen also loves visiting Marsh Pig Charcuterie, Fen Farm Dairy and Flint Vineyard plus shopping at Earsham Street Deli and Giddens and Thompson greengrocers in Bungay. She can’t resist the call of a good garden centre either. “There’s a really great one near us called Green Farm Pastures. It’s fantastic! Darsham Nurseries in Suffolk is also magnificent.”
She feels lucky to be running the business as a family. Everybody brings different things to the table. “Mum is a wonderful gardener and plantswoman so she works with our landscaping team on the herbaceous borders and floral avenues. As a businessman and farmer in the region for many decades, dad always knows who to contact to make things happen. My husband’s background as an asset manager is very handy and I bring the foodie knowledge and the marketing experience,” says the former journalist and glossy magazine editor, who has worked all over the world and now creates food photography and films for big UK brands.
“We definitely haven’t any regrets. It’s such an exciting project and the potential is enormous. It’s a slightly bigger challenge than we thought. Just when you think everything is running smoothly we discover we need to replace a chimney because jackdaws have built a nest in it and the bricks have come loose. It’s never ending.
“We also feel a great weight of responsibility because this magnificent medieval masterpiece has stood for over 500 years. We see ourselves as the current stewards for future generations. But above all what’s been great about this project is that it’s brought our already close family together in a different way.”
Home-wrecking jackdaws aside, the thing Helen really doesn’t like about East Anglia is the soil at Hales.
“I’m having to work really hard to bring the kitchen gardens back to their former glory, the soil is poor quality clay and it’s difficult to work. But we do produce a lot of amazing apples, plums, pears and figs.
“And we grow our own vegetables so we’ve got artichokes, tomatoes, courgettes, you name it; but it’s hard work. We’re right on the edge of the common so the pesky rabbits have free rein too.”