Suffolk is unique in Britain – and probably the world, since Britain seems to lead the rest when it comes to house and garden openings – with its Invitation to View scheme. The scheme, now in its eighth year, allows for private visits, by appointment to 32 historic properties.
The system is simple: while it’s quite possible for groups like history societies and Women’s Institutes to plan a private view to a house, it’s impossible for the general public except in this county where tourist information centres collect individual bookings by name and organise appointment-only tours on specific days. This year, 223 tours have been organised by the Invitation to View’s committee of house owners running from the New Year until December 27, but with the heaviest concentration over the summer. In almost every case, the owners will show visitors round themselves and provide tea, coffee and even wine as part of the visit.
The 32 properties include grand mansions such as Euston Hall (home of the Dukes of Grafton) and Kentwell Hall in Long Melford; Barsham Old Hall has a strong Nelson connection (his mother lived in the rectory) and there are small houses such as medieval Read Hall, Mickfield, where tour numbers have to be limited to a maximum of eight. Bedfield Hall, where the owner is an expert architectural historian, has lectures on the ‘witch protection’ marks on his ceilings.
The chairman of the group is Hew Stevenson who lives at Columbine Hall, Stowupland, which dates from 1390 and is surrounded by a moat. He is passionate about the scheme and hopes, next year, that Norfolk will also be included (with help from one of its sponsors, the estate agents, Bidwells.) ‘I think Invitation to View, which was originally the idea of Suffolk County Council as a tourist initiative, should go national. There is every reason why houses and their visitors all over Britain should take part. Visiting private homes, where real people live, is always great fun and educational as well. Suffolk is lucky in having hundreds of historic houses, many of them medieval, which are too small for general opening but so are most other counties and certain towns. I know I’m being very ambitious here, but after all, The National Trust started out in a small way too.’
Typically, the visitors are from East Anglia where the scheme has a cult following. This year, when 12 new houses joined Invitation to View, dedicated fans rushed to see what the new places had to offer. Other aficionados make several visits to see work in progress. Some house owners have had work offered after a tour, been used for photographic sessions and one even appears in a novel. The scheme’s other sponsor, Thorpeness & Aldeburgh Hotels, has plans to organise visits for its hotel residents.
When Hew Stevenson shows visitors around Columbine Hall he often learns more than he teaches. He once met a distant relative who is now a good friend and a family portrait, of Newson Garrett who built the maltings at Snape, was given to him to show to visitors. Leslie Geddes-Brown, his wife, was contradicted when she told visitors that the kitchen cupboards were built for the house. ‘No, they weren’t,’ said a voice from the back, ‘Dad bought them from Bury Corn Exchange and Mum was furious with him.’ The visitor, a daughter of a previous owner, was one of the party.
Bookings for the houses, gardens and other properties can be made through the Stowmarket Tourist Information Centre, 01449 676800. For details of the places involved, look at the website, www.invitationtoview.co.uk