My week in the great outdoors

TONY Butler is director of the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket. Today the 32-year-old describes a week where life in the great outdoors includes interesting visitors, walks on the beach, and a visit from an old friend.

TONY Butler is director of the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket.

Today the 32-year-old describes a week where life in the great outdoors includes interesting visitors, walks on the beach, and a visit from an old friend.


Following a minor disagreement between my car and a hedge last week I travel into work by train.

I live with my girlfriend Rachel in a small village near Saxmundham and the journey to Stowmarket takes just over an hour. It's relaxing but £20 a week more expensive than making the same journey by car - if we must cut carbon emissions I think public transport should be more affordable.

Although the museum is closed, at this time of year we apply for grants for projects and maintain the 15 historic buildings.

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Today we're putting the finishing touches to the restoration of the museum's 18th century water mill, which was moved here during the construction of Alton Water reservoir in 1973.

I find dynamic Angus, our estate manager clearing rank vegetation out of the mill pond. The mill turned for the first time in three years last week, and drained the pond of hundreds of litres of stagnant water. The smell was horrendous but it was a treat to see the glorious old building at work again.

Angus and I then check on the progress of our new 'boy' pig. We've two very well fed Large Black sows and we are hoping he'll help them produce piglets later in the year.


Good news - we've received two small grants, one to complete new accommodation for the museum's animals, the other to develop an education project based on our splendid collection of gypsy traveller material.

The museum has ambitious plans for development, centred on the restoration of the nearby Abbot's Hall which dates back to 1709, and its two historic gardens. We also want to modernise our displays, create a nature reserve and a working crafts centre. We're waiting on tenterhooks, for a decision on an initial application from the Heritage Lottery Fund which will help us develop these plans.

This afternoon I meet Bill, a local teacher who is developing a guide to the museum for young people. They will be able to download the guide as an MP3 format onto a G3 mobile phone. Who says museums are stuck in the past!

In the evening I play in a match for my badminton team (YMCA) in the dizzy heights of Ipswich and District mixed doubles league division four. We manage a creditable draw against East Bergholt.


Today is a beautiful crisp winter's day, ducks are skating across our pond and the frost glistens in the sunlight. We are playing host to a group of experts from National Heritage Training Group. They are a fascinating range of people dedicated to conservation and preserving traditional skills such as thatching and hurdle making. They see plenty of examples of traditional building techniques within our historic houses. We are also treated to a demonstration of pargetting and old East Anglian craft of decorative plastering from Anna Kettle from nearby Pakenham.

Today is also bittersweet as we say goodbye to Anthony. He is one of a group of inmates from Hollesley Bay prison who have been working at the museum since last spring. He is a tree surgeon by trade and has worked tirelessly to bring order to the trees on the estate. A very decent man, he's been released on licence, back to his family and is picking up his business where he left off.

To round the day off Rachel and I go to see the enchanting documentary 'March of the Penguins' at Aldeburgh cinema. It's certainly feeling like Antarctica in Suffolk this week!


This morning I have a governors meeting at the nearby Abbot's Hall Primary School. I've only recently joined the board and am really keen that the museum plays a role in bringing history to life for children. It's a lovely school with very dedicated staff and extremely pleasant children.

Thursday is the day when many of our volunteers come on site. The museum wouldn't really function without them. Their work covers a wide variety of areas from front of house to caring for the animals, and from maintaining our steam engines to caring fro our collections of over 40,000 historic objects. A group of adults with learning difficulties are also in today. They're from the Stowmarket Resource Centre and have been coming here for nearly two years, working to create a bee garden for the museum!

I like to think that volunteering is a mutually beneficial activity. Not only are individuals helping to improve the things the museum does but the museum provides a focus for the community and a chance to meet people, make friends and participate in something interesting.


Today I meet with a couple of the museum's trustees. The museum is an independent charitable trust and the trustees are a bit like school governors. They give their time freely and have a wide range of skills; we have an accountant, businessman, head teacher, ex-chief constable, former museum director and peer of the realm (always useful to have one of them).

Today we discuss the thorny issue of finance and set next year's budget. The museum is not exactly flush and we're constantly working to raise funds (donations are, of course, always welcome!). We are very aware of the need 'to manage our finances rigorously', that is to make a little go a long way!

As relief from hard sums I go and walk the entire 80-acre site. I try and do this at least once a week, the walk is good for me and it also gives the opportunity to see if there are any new and rare 'visitors' to our wetland meadows. By the beginning of May another 30 acres of the museum site will be opened up as a nature reserve. So far this year we've seen a pair of kingfishers and a family of otters have made their home in the river Rat.

My last task of the week is to locate a comedy cowboy hat and shooters, as were going to a wild-west party this evening. Luckily Stowmarket is a town that still has some 'proper shops' and the toy shop on Bury Street comes up with the goods.


Rachel and I recently bought a tumbledown 17th century thatched cottage (well, a museum director couldn't really live in a modern house!). We have a very long list of jobs to complete; today's major achievement is finally fixing a number to our front door which should please the postman.

Mike, my best mate from university comes to visit. He's a barrister in London and enjoys coming to sample the quiet life in Suffolk. We nip down to Aldeburgh and take a bracing walk along the beach. We discuss the merits of the scallop sculpture and collect shells. I manage to find a 'hag stone', that is a pebble with a natural hole through the middle. Historically, if found in the fields, these stones were hung above the hearth to keep evil spirits away from the home; the hag stones in our house are working thus far, as we have never seen a witch.

In the evening the three of us go to the always excellent Bell Hotel in Saxmundham. We walk home after closing time across the fields. It's a really clear night and the pitch black sky is full of stars. You certainly don't get views like that in London.


We all get up rather late with thick heads, due to an overlong encounter with a bottle of Calvados the night before. The three of us enjoy a lazy Sunday morning reading the papers and drinking coffee.

Mike and I used to share a flat in Norwich in the mind 90s so we venture north of the Waveney to relive some old times in the city. The place has changed a lot in ten years and we behave like two old gits bemoaning the change in character of favourite pubs.

Later in the day I settle down to watch my much-loved Pompey get walloped by Liverpool in the Cup. Showing this sort of form they'll definitely be joining Ipswich and Norwich in the Championship next year. This is the only real negative point of an otherwise enjoyable week in Suffolk!

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