“Suffolk is the new Norfolk”. So we were assured by Michael, the besuited driver of the 1971 Rolls Royce Phantom who came to collect us from Darsham station in Suffolk to ferry us to our lodge at Wilderness Reserve.
And nothing has done more to upstage Norfolk than this 4,500-acre set of estates near the Suffolk coast, owned by property mogul and Foxtons’ founder Jon Hunt.
In the Yox valley between Ipswich and Lowestoft, this is a land of ruined abbeys, Norman churches, eerily quiet fields and now, thanks to Hunt, a collection of beautifully restored cottages, follies and stables along with a manor house set in a landscape plotted by Capability Brown.
Hunt, who sold Foxtons in 2007, bought and renovated both Heveningham and Sibton manor houses. Having installed himself in Heveningham, a Georgian pile set in over 400 acres, he set about turning his vast grounds into something that fused nature — he oversaw the planting of 800,000 trees — with elegance fit for the London set.
Our Rolls was part of Hunt’s legendary car collection, its floor lined with thick green sheepskin and antique crystal glassware in an inlaid wood cabinet — plus silver thermos of gin.
Alas, we only had 10 minutes to enjoy it all before arriving at our weekend dwelling, The Gate Lodges — the old gatehouse formed of two neoclassical “pepper pot” follies at the top of the drive to Heveningham. Ingeniously the follies have been dug under and linked by a beautiful extension.
Down a spiral staircase was an enormous wood-floored living room, with plum-hued velvet sofas the size of boats, capacious armchairs in chic textiles, a dining room table leading out to the submerged terrace with a BBQ, and a smooth wood kitchen with all the bells and whistles, including a well-stocked Nespresso machine (the properties are self-catering although you can hire an in-house chef to cook, well, whatever you like for your party).
The houses, including ours, manage to be both cosy and spacious, as well as toasty warm thanks to underfloor heating — most welcome for our brisk winter weekend.
A welcome hamper that included local chocolate and a bottle of Adnams Suffolk brut meant bubbles in the great sunken bath to help wind down before we made dinner.
The challenge at Wilderness is to get the balance right between indolence and everything else. Secluded as we were — the Gate Lodge is a mile or two from the rest of the (much larger) houses on the Sibton estate — we didn’t want to miss out on the Wilderness part of the Reserve. So the next morning, Michael collected us and whisked us back to Sibton for a session with one of the resident naturalists, Tony.
Equipped with telescope and top-quality binoculars, Tony carefully helped us see woodpeckers eating upside down, mud holes caused by bee-wolves, a curious species of wasp, and fascinating trees, including thousand-year-old oaks, a Lebanese cedar and a Californian redwood imported by the manor’s 19th century owner.
And on borrowed bikes, we cycled to Heveningham Hall, our city lungs grateful for the fresh air — and our spirits uplifted by the greenery and peace.