Birdsong Barn, in the heart of England's '1066 Country', offers a unique break: a beautifully-converted building with a private 350-acre nature reserve on its doorstep. Toby Keel paid a visit.
The sound a lapwing makes as it darts across the skies on a display flight is mesmerising. It’s a squeaky, weird, almost unearthly noise – like listening to a tin kazoo being played back at 78rpm. It’s mesmerising.
I’d probably never have found that out if it weren’t for a weekend spent at Birdsong Barn, a few miles north of Hastings near the village of Westfield in the rolling hills of East Sussex. It’s an 18th century building that has been painstakingly and beautifully converted by the owner, Phil, and his wife Maria, and is now rented out via Kent & Sussex Holiday Cottages.
The accommodation itself, however, is only part of the attraction. Birdsong Barn is set within its own 350-acre private nature reserve, where wild horses roam, rare cattle breeds graze and thousands of songbirds take to the skies. And you’ll even have the chance to take a guided tour to soak it all in.
For what is nominally a two-bedroom place, the space at Birdsong Barn is huge. Downstairs it’s all open plan, with a well-equipped kitchen (including a 50s-style fridge-freezer and a Rayburn), dining area that seats six plus a living room with a pair of sofas (one of which is a sofabed) and an armchair arranged around a cosy log burner.
Upstairs, there are two bedrooms (one ensuite) plus a family bathroom, with gorgeous fittings. There’s also a downstairs wet room, just off the kitchen, making three bathrooms in all. That, plus the amount of space, meant that six of us were able to stay in comfort without ever once feeling like we were getting in each others’ way – and that was even in late winter, when the weather was too cold and damp for us to use the large private garden.
It feels like the sort of level of décor you’d want for yourself, rather than what you’d expect in a holiday rental. That homely feel was only increased by the basket of welcome goodies: not just bread, butter and milk, but also cakes from a local bakery and a bottle of English wine from a vineyard just a few hundred yards away.
The nature reserve
Phil bought the nearby 17th century manor house at an auction several decades ago, at a time when it was a run down old place with a small parcel of land. Ever since then he’s been steadily adding to his holding, and he and Maria keep a few sheep and some cattle. They also have a few Konik ponies – brought here to be kept wild, rather than to be ridden.
The river and its wetlands that are Phil’s passion. A tributary of the River Brede runs through the bottom of the valley, creating a place that is teeming with wildlife. Over 120 species of bird have been recorded, plus 30 types of butterfly and 22 different kinds of dragonfly. There are plenty of rare species here as well, including a ladybird which was believed to be extinct until a couple of years ago.
You might be happy to discover these natural riches on your own, but we’d recommend you don’t since as part of the package at Birdsong Barn, Phil will take your party out on a nature walk for a few hours, talking you through the place, its history, and its future. Maria took the children and grandchildren to feed the sheep while my wife and I walked out across the wetlands – even in the terrible weather of winter 2018, it was beautiful and unforgettable.
Things to do
Back in the 1990s Hastings used to have a bad reputation, but a huge amount of work has been done to the place in recent years. Today it’s a vibrant seaside town boasting Modernist architectural landmarks, galleries, funicular railways and a miniature train that runs through the fishermen’s sheds. There’s also the small matter of the most famous crazy golf course in Britain – the longstanding host venue for the World Crazy Golf Championships.
One of the highlights of the weekend, however, was a visit to the Shipwreck Museum (admission free, but do make a donation), which offered fascinating glimpses of maritime life going back through the centuries. Knowledgeable and friendly volunteers talked us through everything from ancient bottles of shipwrecked wine to tying nautical knots.
This entire area of Sussex has been rebranded as ‘1066 Country’ by the local tourist board – though many of the attractions included under that umbrella, such as Rudyard Kipling’s house, have no connection whatsoever to the last successful invasion of Britain.
Battle Abbey does, however. Built on the site of the Battle of Hastings, it was originally erected by a worried William the Conqueror as penance for the number of Englishman killed by his invasion taskforce.