'A terrific disappointment': What next for now-derelict Shrubland Hall?
- Credit: Archant
One of Suffolk’s grandest stately homes has fallen into such a state of disrepair that it was placed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register in November. Reporter Sarah Burgess visited to find out what is happening at Shrubland Hall.
Shrouded by trees, you’d be forgiven for missing the entrance to this sprawling, 288-acre estate and its 24-bed Georgian mansion nestled between two villages north of Ipswich.
The rusting gates, decrepit outbuilding and unkempt landscape which greet you suggest nothing of the former grandeur of this once-palatial manor — or the richness of its history.
Built in the 1770s, the hall spent most of its life as a private residence for nobility.
Its destiny changed, however, during the First World War, when the hall became a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, followed by a detox health clinic in the 1960s.
A source of local pride and intrigue, the spectacular, Italian-inspired hall has attracted the attention of many a celebrity, with the gardens open to the public until 2006 when the then-owner, Baron de Saumarez, sold the property to cover an inheritance bill.
But things have changed dramatically since the glory days, when locals recall actress Joan Collins participating in Shrubland’s renowned detox programme, and Terence Young directing the James Bond film Thunderball within its impressive grounds.
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The year 2009 marked the end of an era for Shrubland. Wealthy London businessman Muhammad Farmer bought the site for £6m. According to locals, the first thing he did was erect a grid-metal fence around the entire perimeter.
As director of the British Institute for Technology, based in London, he first used the mansion as a residential extension of the university. In 2014, he then tried running it, apparently unsuccessfully, as luxury hotel Shrubland Royale.
It closed less than a year later following scathing reviews, and accusations it was more like “Fawlty Towers” than a plush countryside getaway.
To locals' dismay there has been little activity or progress since — and Dr Farmer’s plans moving forward remain a mystery. In 2019 he claimed the hall could become a Hilton hotel, but nothing ever came to fruition.
Dr Farmer, who did not respond to requests for comment, has faced criticism for the way in which the much-loved building has fallen into disrepair.
“After the hotel venture failed, he very much disappeared from the scene,” said Coddenham parish council chairman Allan Fowler.
'Man of mystery'
According to documents on Companies House, Shrubland Hall is the registered office address of one company - Business School England Limited, founded in February 2020.
A director’s report attributed to Dr Farmer, written in February this year and published in November, refers to the school as a higher education and research facility, aimed at supporting graduates into “highly-skilled employment”.
“The school was established during the pandemic to continue global research and works through a combination of blended research and learning by some of our leading academics,” Dr Farmer explains in the report.
Documents suggest he has plunged over £1m into the project.
“Dr Farmer is a man of mystery,” reflected John Whitehead, the district councillor for the area. “He's very elusive. I’ve never spoken to him or seen him. I’ve got no email, no phone number or anything.”
When we stopped by the site earlier, the gates were open but there was no evidence of any activity.
The grounds were spookily empty, save for some workmen winching trees right by the entrance following the recent storm.
They knew nothing of the “business school” — and as far as they were aware the owner spent most of his time in London or abroad.
“We don’t have any communication with him,” one workman said. “We always deal with the man who looks after the estate on his behalf.”
But the groundskeeper, who lives in a small lodge near the site's Norwich Road entrance, wasn’t home.
At the hall itself, there were unopened parcels lying outside the front door. Inside, dimly-lit lamps could be seen at the top of the main staircase, but no-one answered when we rang the bell.
Although a van was parked in one of the hall’s courtyards, its owner was nowhere to be found.
And as for the area around the hall, it was in a state of serious dilapidation — and clearly worsening.
The courtyard gates and garden features were rotting, machinery had been randomly abandoned, there was rubbish splayed everywhere and the gardens themselves were unruly and overgrown.
What can be done about it?
A Mid Suffolk Council spokeswoman said enforcement action is one option open to them, but that was always a last resort.
“We can, for example, serve planning contravention notices, and have done so previously here,” she said. “This is where we request further information from a landowner so we can consider whether a breach has occurred.
“If this is the case, we have to then decide whether formal enforcement action is necessary, expedient and in the public interest given the significant costs to the taxpayer, and likelihood of success.
“It is far more preferable for us to work with the landowner, and with the support of Historic England, to ensure the preservation of this heritage site.”
Historic England’s spokeswoman said the organisation was “actively engaged” with both Mid Suffolk Council and Dr Farmer to come up with the “next course of action”.
‘A tremendous disappointment’
Chairman of Coddenham’s history club, Ray Collins, has lived in the village for 40 years.
He remembers the hall when it was owned by Lord de Saumarez, and is heartbroken the site has seemingly been abandoned and allowed to disintegrate.
“It’s a tremendous disappointment for all of us in Coddenham and Barham,” he said. “I can’t understand why anyone would pay so much money for a building only to apparently leave it to rot.
“The de Saumarez family had a great relationship with the village,” he said. “One day a year they’d open up the gardens to the history club so we could raise money for the church.
“And although the hall was technically private, they’d never kick off if you wandered from the public footpath.
“But the first thing Dr Farmer did was install a metal grid fence around the entire perimeter.”
Since that fateful day over 10 years ago, villagers have remained hopeful the hall and its vast grounds and gardens can be salvaged for the good of the community.
For them, it needs the right person with the time and money to restore it to its splendour.