Caroline loves her home becoming a special part of couples’ lives as they celebrate tying the knot. But she only discovered her ancient family ties with Crow’s Hall back in 2005. EADT Suffolk Magazine investigates.
Caroline Spurrier always says that having your wedding celebrations at Crow’s Hall is like borrowing a close friend’s stately home. It is a place she loves – and loves to share – but only when she bought the Debenham moated manor in 2005 did she discover long-standing family connections.
EADT Suffolk Magazine’s Lindsay Want joined one of Caroline’s ‘Invitation to View’ tours of the property to find out more and discover what makes the place such a very special home to share.
Historic Debenham is a secretly superlative sort of place. To the north near moated Tudor farms and Suffolk’s cider country, the River Deben joins forces with Stony Lane past Hilly Filly and Henniker Road, creating the longest ford in Suffolk on its final downhill furlong before the medieval wool town. To the south as the crow flies, beyond the weaving streets of houses and above the mighty church where a seemingly misplaced Sir Charles Framlingham lays at rest, a little lane climbs the river valley ridge. It culminates in a half-mile avenue of double-planted vintage oaks and, at its very end, not just the wonderful discovery of a redbrick moated hall – for sitting peacefully by its side, as if undisturbed for centuries, is what is quite believably the longest Tudor barn in the whole of East Anglia.
Crow’s Hall has been the perfect look-out across the wide, rolling panoramas of the gentle Deben hills since at least the 11th century, and no doubt long before. You can’t help wondering whether John Crow’s Yarmouth shipping family felt all at sea when they landed here in the late 13th century or whether Charles Framlingham felt just slightly off-piste when he inherited the site in 1559. Acquiring a wife and her dowry just a couple of years later though, he soon settled down to feather his Debenham nest, building a fine and fashionable redbrick manor. Parts of it still survive to be seen today, together with the beautiful bridge, gateway, delightful thatched dovecote and extended barn range which appeared in the 1580s courtesy of his knighthood and position as High Sheriff of Suffolk.
“Hello there!” Even before reaching the bridge, footsteps alongside the row of stable boxes betray an arrival, launching a cheery greeting from within. “Do go across to the barn. I’ll be with you in a minute. Thank you so much.” But within seconds, you find yourself far from alone with a whitish ‘Westie’ leading the way as if she owns the place. As promised, lady-farmer and eminent horse-woman, Caroline Spurrier, soon joins the gathering throng, with a beaming smile and a slightly less spritely entourage of Westie no. 2 and Molly, the moody, I’ll-save-my-energy-for-chasing-rabbits-if-you-don’t-mind, greyhound.
Outside, one end of the long barn reflects on its past in the moat – a gently wavering stretch of time-honoured brickwork with unusual windows and doorways, dotted with terracotta tiles depicting beasts once stalled within. Inside, it’s a different picture – a world of towering timbers, propping, leaning, soaring, supporting, creating a vast space.
Crow’s Hall Suffolk wedding barn venue»
“It’s 72 metres long in total,” explains Caroline, “Over the years, it has accommodated a brewhouse, a granary, stables and livestock, even servants and soldiers. At one point, it was a court hall and I’m sure it would have witnessed many village celebrations too, but it has always been at the heart of the working farm here.” The great barn has surely seen harvests come and go, but these days there’s a chic modern grain store next door, so when not serving as winter storage or workshop for the 400-acre farm, it rolls out the carpet to welcome wedding parties looking for the ultimate in authentic backdrops. A rare survival, it has never lost its original sense of purpose or sacrificed itself to the temptations of commercialisation – no bar or purpose-built kitchen lurking in the corner here; no fixed fancy lighting or flash terrace, but then just across the moat, Crow’s Hall has a superb collection of garden ‘rooms’ and these days especially with Caroline’s help, everything else is just a touch of the screen away. What’s a unique find is a timeless historic space that’s truly kept its integrity and is as real as real can be – not to mention an accommodating owner who’s up for sharing her home for a full week whilst highly individual preparations are put in place.
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But how to make such a huge space always warm and welcoming? Taking the chill off must be quite a challenge. Calm and confident, with a charming and friendly warmth all of her own, it’s clear that eventing champion, Caroline, is a lady who’s used to overcoming significant hurdles. “Do let me introduce you to Boudicca. She came to me at about two in the morning and has joined up the thinking on everything.“ Well, there’s an invitation to view … a 3 tonne, 200KW biomass woodchip boiler. And so the story of a sustainable future for Crow’s Hall unfolds – how the indomitable Boudicca powers the all-important grain-store driers; heats the barn and estate cottages, and thanks to some clever sinking of pipes across the moat, even keeps the Tudor hall nice and toasty too.
There are many more connections below the surface at Crow’s Hall. Like John Crow, Caroline was new to these Mid-Suffolk parts, only pursuing the purchase of the property in 2005 after another strange wake-up call in the middle of the night. “I turned it down originally, but it simply wouldn’t go away,” she shares, standing in the sunshine amidst the Pool Garden’s blue delphiniums and white Winchester Cathedral shrub roses, with a faithful Westie raising an ear to hear the tale on each side.
“I came here one drizzly, cold November morning. I wasn’t sure that I even liked it when I saw it. Tenanted for many years as part of the Thornham Estate, even after a few private owners, it was in a poor state and all I could see were cheque books shredded into the bottom of the moat.” Caroline rang the agents to say ‘lovely thank you, but no thank you’ and continued her country-wide search.
“My father adored ‘Dad’s Army’ and all Captain Mainwaring’s sparring with Pike. When I was young, if I wasn’t on the ball, he’d tease me gently and call me ‘stupid girl’. That night I woke up to his familiar words, including: ’Who do you know? What have you learnt? Don’t waste it.’“ With the support of specialist architects and craftsmen who had worked extensively with her family at their Easton Lodge estate in Essex, Crow’s Hall turned from a flight of fancy into a feasible renovation project.
If her late father brought his daughter to Crow’s Hall, then perhaps he’d chatted to previous incumbents behind those pearly gates. Caroline, the great granddaughter of Daisy, Countess of Warwick, soon learnt from the weathered coat of arms above the gate that Sir Charles Framlingham’s grandmother, grand-niece of Warwick the Kingmaker, was in fact ‘family’ – and Crow’s Hall was built with the inheritance of some of her very own ancestors. “I really didn’t know Suffolk before I discovered Crow’s Hall, but my great grandmother, Daisy, spent much of her childhood at Hoxne Hall, not so very far away. I often wonder whether she might have visited. I think she would have liked it here.”
Crow’s Hall is certainly a place that’s comfortable in its own company, yet with an almost tangible history of hospitality. At night, it’s still as dark and quiet as it has ever been, even though it’s now subtly switched on to the 21st century. Inside the renovated hall, personal touches like the greyhound motif above the dining room fireplace can’t help but catch the eye; outside, the rooms especially designed by gardening guru, Xa Tollemache, are gently traditional, highly practical and beautifully just right.
Crow’s Hall wedding gardens to celebrate »
Caroline may say that the farm, the horses and the dogs rule the roost here, but its clearly a historic place which she loves to share and which, above all, she is very comfortable to call home.
Feature published EADT Suffolk Magazine April 2019.