Inside Shrubland Hall: The James Bond mansion with no licence to wed
- Credit: Archant/ @amirhaq
For more than a decade, what exactly goes on inside the towering sandy walls of Suffolk stately home Shrubland Hall has been a source of intense speculation.
Villagers have looked on with concern as the grounds have grown unkempt and the manor's impressive garden features decayed, but they've not given up hope there's a future for it yet.
From the hall's owner Dr Muhammad Farmer, locals concede there has been no shortage of ideas to try and bring the estate at Barham, near Ipswich, back to life.
When he bought the Grade II* listed building — famous for its starring role in James Bond film Thunderball — for £6m in 2009, it was used as student accommodation.
Then, between 2014-15, it was "Shrubland Royale", a luxury hotel and spa clinic, which was compared to "Fawlty Towers" by some disgruntled guests.
Turning his sights to wedding ceremonies and social occasions, Dr Farmer asked Mid Suffolk Council for "mixed use" planning permission in 2015.
But while council officers decided in principle there was nothing problematic about the plans to hold ceremonies at the hall, they remained suspicious he hadn't specified which other "uses" he had in mind, and rejected the bid.
However, since 2019, the building has been marketed as a luxurious wedding venue "Shrubland Palace", without planning permission or a wedding ceremony licence, and has allegedly hosted at least two spectacular-looking weddings there in the summer of 2019 and the summer of 2021.
Planning permission for a change of use is only needed if it is used as a wedding venue for more than 28 days a year, but to hold a wedding ceremony a licence is needed from Suffolk County Council and Shrubland is not on the council's list of licenced wedding venues, the council confirmed.
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Shrubland Hall was at the time of writing this article being advertised as a "Weddings and Social Occasions" venue on its Instagram page @shrublandpalace.
Videos and pictures which appear on the Instagram page show regal-looking rooms with plush carpets, chandelier and furniture.
Filled with portraits and lavish adornments, they appear to be in pristine condition.
The conservatory, meanwhile, is something of an indoor jungle: the rafters are lined with beautiful hanging flowers of all different colours, and branch tendrils wrap around pillars.
On October 3 this year, a post appeared on the page suggesting Shrubland Palace was "the perfect setting for your special day".
There is an email address, website and contact number featured on Instagram for bookings, but the website is no longer active, the number goes straight to voicemail and when we emailed to request a brochure and further details about booking a ceremony, there was no response.
However, at the time of writing, "Shrubland Palace" was listed on UK Bride and SquareMeal as a wedding venue.
It was also previously advertised on the website Hitched, and in February last year it featured on another website called Asian Bridal Gallery, with the headline: "Make History With A Wedding At Shrubland Palace".
The article appears to have approval from Shrubland Hall itself, which posted a picture of the article on the Shrubland Palace Instagram page.
It states the house "encompasses a picture-perfect backdrop for both your ceremony and reception, holding up to 300 guests", and suggests that for larger celebrations the "Glass Pavilion" can accommodate up to 1500.
There is a catch, though.
While anyone can hold a private party in their private residence, venues need to apply for and pay £1,700 for a three-year licence from the local authority if they intend to hold wedding ceremonies — otherwise the marriage is effectively non-legally binding.
Dr Farmer has not responded to our requests for comment.
'We're monitoring the situation carefully'
Both Historic England and Mid Suffolk District Council said they were working with Dr Farmer to assist him with restoring the stately home it to its former glory.
But it is also the council's job to make sure planning laws are adhered to.
A Mid Suffolk spokeswoman said: "We have made sure the owner is aware use of Shrubland Hall as a commercial wedding venue would require a planning application for change of use, and continue to monitor the situation carefully.
"If a breach of planning occurs, we then have to decide whether formal action is in the public interest, based on the likelihood of success and the significant cost to the taxpayer.
"In the meantime, we continue to make every effort to work with the owner and estate, together with the support of Historic England, to safeguard this historic treasure within our district for future generations to enjoy."
'A bizarre experience'
Kris Ford, 70, has lived in a house in the Old Hall Estate of Shrubland Hall, which is under separate ownership, for six years after moving there from Southend.
Separated from Dr Farmer's mansion by a fence, the former landscaper and gardener remembers finding out about the apparent wedding in the summer of last year after hearing an "absolute racket" coming from what he calls "the big house".
He recalls joking with his dozen-or-so neighbours that they were offended they hadn't been invited to the party.
"It was very strange indeed", he said. "We could just hear this blaring music. That was the giveaway."
He claims the coach bringing the wedding guests had parked outside the wrought-iron gate on Sandy Lane which he and his neighbours use for access, and guests had walked up to Dr Farmer's mansion from there.
"It's a private lane, and in theory the exit and entrance into the estate is strictly for people living on the Old Hall Estate, or people serving our community", Mr Ford said. "But here there was this huge coach just completely blocking our route.
"It was a bizarre experience."
But Mr Ford said he relished the hall being used in some way — and would support Dr Farmer turning it into a wedding venue if that would mean the hall being maintained and its "beautiful" landscape preserved.
One of the wedding photographers to have attended the site said it was the "most unique location" he'd ever pictured.
According to 68-year-old Thomas O’Brien, who lives nearby, however, most people feel the hall should be opened to the public.
“We lost Heveningham Hall when that was sold off by English Heritage, and now we’ve lost Shrubland too. It’s a huge shame.”
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