Inside two of Suffolk's most stunning stately homes
- Credit: National Trust Images/John Millar
Thanks to one of Netflix’s biggest ever shows, the popularity of stately homes has gone through the roof.
Dubbed ‘the Bridgerton effect’ by many, the streaming service’s hit series has seen more people than ever before take an interest in period dramas.
And it’s not hard to see why. The architecture, the art, the fashion – it's a nice bit of escapism from the drudgery of modern life, isn’t it?
Luckily for us here in Suffolk, a number of stately homes are open to the public, chock full of history and heritage galore.
“Melford Hall is small, but perfectly formed”
With a history going back five centuries, Melford Hall and its surrounding grounds provide a fascinating slice of Suffolk history. Constructed in the mid-16th century, this turreted Tudor manor house was built by lawyer Sir William Cordell, and incorporated parts of an earlier abbot.
Cordell, who spent his early days at nearby Kentwell Hall, was granted the estate of Melford in 1554 by Queen Mary I after he helped her accede to the throne.
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Over the following years however, Melford Hall has changed ownership a number of times. Previous tenants have included 17th century lawyer Thomas Savage who inherited it in 1602; Sir Robert Cordell who purchased it in 1651; the Firebrace family in 1727; and the Hyde Parkers who have owned it since the late 18th century. Currently, Melford Hall is under the care of the National Trust.
Architecturally, it’s undoubtedly one of south Suffolk’s most iconic halls. Both the exterior and interior retain many of their original features from eras gone by, including a magnificent two-storey Renaissance porch with Doric and Ionic fluted pilasters on the east front of the house, an ornate classical Regency library, and Greek revival staircase within.
“Melford Hall is small, but perfectly formed,” explains National Trust’s East of England senior marketing and communications officer Lucy Barnard.
“Its petite stature means visitors can imagine the lives that the owners had – the house feels lived-in and loved, something which often is missing from larger stately homes. The hall is a patchwork quilt of the taste of its different owners, and each room presents a new style, from the dark, panelled entrance hall with suits of armour and Tudor portraits, to the opulent surroundings of Lady Ulla’s boudoir - an elegant, chandeliered space upstairs.”
With interiors that wouldn’t look out of place on Bridgerton itself, visitors can lose themselves in a number of rooms that certainly have some stories to tell.
“A visit to a stately home is a glimpse into history, into a life of luxury and decadence lived many years ago,” says Lucy.
The Great Hall, for instance, is a neo-classical hall and library that was designed by Thomas Hopper at the request of Sir William, the 7th Baronet. Within it, guests can see The Cordell Charter proudly on display, which records the grant given to Sir William Cordell by King Philip and Queen Mary on November 26, 1554. Also inside the Great Hall is a large vellum map depicting the estate which was painted by Israel Amyce in 1580.
A total contrast to the darker, wooden-panelled Great Hall is the Blue Drawing Room. Refurbished by the Cordell family, this light and airy space houses what the National Trust regards as one of the most significant clocks in its collection. Designed by Richard Street in 1700, the longcase clock is kept in the corner of the room, and is the trust’s only year-going clock. Inside it, labels show when the clock was wound and serviced, with the earliest dates going all the way back to the 19th century.
However, some of Melford Hall’s most beloved treasures have to be a series of paintings by famed children’s author Beatrix Potter, who was once a regular visitor to the estate.
“A cousin of the Hyde Parkers (who still reside in the South Wing of the hall today), she visited on many occasions and painted a series of watercolours of the house, which are on display today. The visitors’ book contains numerous signatures and sketches, which mark her visits to the house. The collections at Melford Hall include several of her soft toys, which served as models for her illustrations, including a Jemima Puddleduck toy, given to the Hyde Parker children by Beatrix.
“In 2016, a set of pencil drawings of the hall and gardens by Potter were found hidden inside a library book by the house team. These drawings had not been seen or recorded anywhere before, so were a fascinating discovery and can be seen in the Courtyard Room today.”
As you make your way through the heavy oak doors and back outside, you’ll be equally amazed at the sprawling greenery that surrounds the hall.
“The gardens provide a tranquil space where visitors can stroll, enjoying bright herbaceous borders, mirror pond, countryside views, and the statuesque red bricks walls that surround the hall,” adds Lucy.
Divided into two distinct sections on the north and west sides of the hall itself, Melford Hall’s gardens are filled with wildflowers and daffodils galore at this time of year. When it reaches May, expect to see century’s old wisteria blooming, followed by the west wall’s herbaceous borders which are at their peak between June and August.
The grounds are also home to a handful of specimen trees including an Oriental plane, and a Judas trees which is covered in pink blossoms in late April and May.
In terms of wildlife, Lady Ulla’s reflecting pond is home to amphibians such as great-crested newts, while a deer park created by Sir John Savage in 1613 surrounds the hall’s grounds.
“The appeal of a stately home is different for each visitor. Some enjoy the historical story of a place, others the art and collections, and some just to appreciate the grandeur of a magnificent home,” adds Lucy.
“Otley Hall really is Suffolk’s historic hidden gem”
Just north of Ipswich is Otley Hall – a Grade I-listed 15th and 16th century moated Tudor hall steeped in charm and history.
“It’s a very authentic, well-preserved Tudor manor house set within 10 acres of beautiful gardens,” explains Otley Hall’s general manager Luisa Robert.
“It has long been regarded as the oldest house in Suffolk to have survived largely intact, with many rooms remaining unchanged for 500 years.”
There has been a country residence at Otley Hall since the 12th century when the Otteleys were the lords of the manor (back when it was known as Netherhall Manor) - but the home is perhaps best known for the Gosnold family, who lived there for two centuries from 1440.
Well-educated and prestigious, the Gosnolds were closely linked with a number of prominent figures at the time including Sir Cardinal Wolsey, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Essex, and 17th Earl of Oxford Edward de Vere – the latter of whom has been regarded by some as the real author of some of Shakespeare’s works.
The most famous former resident of Otley Hall has to be Bartholomew Gosnold, a barrister, explorer, and privateer who in 1607 was instrumental in founding Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. He also founded the Virginia Company of London, and led the first recorded European expedition to Cape Cod – and it has long been believed that Gosnold planned his transatlantic voyages from within Otley Hall’s Great Hall.
“The hall is full of hidden gems - from the elegant wood panelling in the Linenfold Parlour, believed to have come from Hampton Court Palace when Sir Cardinal Wolsey came to Ipswich, to the wonderful original wall paintings of the Gosnold coat of arms in one of the bedrooms in the Playhouse wing, which was previously a Banqueting Hall,” adds Luisa.
The 1588, Robert Gosnold III built the Playhouse Wing of the hall thanks to his cousin Edward de Vere’s success in the world of theatre – and would regularly host nobility and Globe Theatre productions who would rehearse at the hall. It has been suggested by many historians who believe that Shakespeare had help writing his works that de Vere completed Hamlet and Othello while staying at Otley Hall.
Fast forward to present day, and the hall is still privately owned and remains a cherished family home.
“I believe this is one of the reasons that people are drawn to visit - because the family are opening up their private home for others to experience its remarkable history. Our visitors feel privileged to be invited exclusively into this private home,” explains Luisa.
Its gardens, which span across 10 acres, were inspired by famous Edwardian landscape gardener Francis Inigo Thomas. Visitors can marvel at a number of beautiful elements including the H-shaped canal and moat, an Elizabethan-style knot garden, an orchard, and a labyrinth which was inspired by the one in Chantres Cathedral.
In terms of wildlife, Otley Hall is home to 75 species of birds including peacocks, ducks, moorhens, green woodpeckers, and herons. Keep your eyes peeled and you might just spot an otter, too.
“I think that a lot of people like to imagine what it is like living in a stately home and experience something that they cannot usually in ordinary life. Others are particularly interested in connecting with the history, architecture and artefacts that stately homes offer in abundance. I think that the grandeur and extravagance of them is quite fascinating to people,” says Luisa.
What’s your favourite stately home in Suffolk, and what are some of its most interesting features? Get in touch with email@example.com to share yours.