The Heritage Open Days event takes place over the second weekend of September every year. It’s a chance to visit buildings across the country which are not normally open to the public.
Towns and villages across Essex and Suffolk really embrace the event, with staff and volunteers at houses, churches, mills and old industrial buildings welcoming people.
We decided to visit three National Trust houses, and on the way we thought we should fortify ourselves with a couple of visits to pubs, and then finally rounded the day off at a tearoom.
We set off in the rain for our first stop, Thorington Hall in Stoke by Nayland. Before we arrived though we visited the beautiful 16th century Angel Inn in the village, for a quick drink (to keep up our strength you understand!) It’s very comfortable and welcoming with big chairs and sofas and newspapers to read. We didn’t eat at the inn – we saved ourselves for our next planned pub visit, but the menu looked very enticing – so we plan to visit again.
Our first house to visit was Thorington Hall. Until very recently it was let to National Trust tenants, but at the moment it’s empty, as it is being converted into holiday homes. This means that you can see the structure of the house. It was was most likely built and then altered in two distinct periods in the 1630’s and then in the 1700’s. Like so many timber-framed buildings, it seems to sink into it’s surroundings. There is a beautiful staircase, with hearts carved into the newel posts, plus graffiti from visitors in the 18th and 19th centuries scratched into the window panes, and the most amazing cellar.
After Thorington Hall we drove through the beautiful Dedham Vale to the village of Stratford St. Mary, We were on our way to Dedham, but we stopped at The Swan for our lunch. The pub was quiet, but the barman was really friendly and helpful, and we had a lovely platter lunch with smoked meats, olives, humous and bread. And of course some lovely dark beer.
On to Dedham where we visited Sherman’s House. This is a Georgian fronted house on the High Street. Another National Trust property, it’s tenanted, so open for just one day a year. It’s a slightly strange experience looking round someones home whilst they aren’t there, but the National Trust volunteers made us feel very welcome. The most fascinating part was seeing how the brick Georgian wall stands clear of the front of the original timber-framed house.
Our final house was Valley Farm at Flatford, which if the weather is good you can reach by walking along the banks of the River Stour. The farmhouse is medieval, built in the early 15th century. If you look up you can see where the beams were blackened by the early open fire, which was replaced by the massive “new” inglenook fireplace sometime during 17th century. And hidden behind a door is a tiny secret staircase, carefully protected from witches by good luck charms carved into the beams.
And finally our last stop – the National Trust tearoom at Flatford where we had a cream tea and admired the view of the lock that John Constable painted so many years ago.
The term “hidden gem” is greatly over-used (often by us!), but these three houses certainly fall into that category, and we would definitely recommend a visit to them if they are open next September.