Seckford Hall – History Special
Michael Bunn has called Seckford Hall home for over 50 years. As a boy he explored its rambling Tudor frame, watching builders at work as they converted family home into family run hotel. He knows every nook, every inch; indeed it’s all he has known as a home. And yet still he finds the building and its grounds to be a constant source of inspiration. Like their predecessors stretching back over five centuries, Michael and his wife, Christine, treat the building as a living entity, to be nurtured and gently developed.
The property sits wedged in a natural hollow a mile west of Woodbridge. On first approach, as you pass the towering gatehouse and head down the winding drive, it’s breath taking. A sprawl of chimney and castellation, the house is both rigid and relaxed. The geometric design and formality of grandeur have been tempered by time, and the softly worn red brick is wholly inviting.
Seckford Hall has remained a home to the Bunn family since Michael’s father bought the property in 1951. Augmented and renovated, in their hands this Tudor mansion has become a much loved country hotel. Today, it boasts all the comfortable luxury of a modern hotel – bedrooms, suites, a swimming pool, banqueting hall and restaurant are integral to the Seckford Hall experience – but at heart the building remains a family residence.
The hall as it appears today began taking shape in the 1530s, yet the building’s origins probably predate this by as much as a century. Timber fragments found in the hall suggest that the Tudor structure was built around an earlier house. Both buildings seem to have been the work of the Seckford family; the former most likely built by Thomas Seckford, the latter by his son, also called Thomas, but known more fully as Thomas the Settler having sold the outlying manor of Hackford and consolidated his Suffolk estates. The Manor of Seckford and the accompanying title can be traced back to the reign of Edward I.
The fabric of the building was woven from its environment. Built from bricks made of alluvial mud from the nearby River Deben, the hall seems to rise organically from the soil. It was built in the traditional ‘E’ shape, common to large houses in Elizabeth I’s reign. Originally the large front door would have opened straight into the Great Hall, a miniature baronial hall around which life at the house would unfold. Three of the walls supported a balcony, the forth was dominated by stone framed widows that lit the room. The physical changes to this Great Hall capture Seckford’s evolution in miniature: much of the original soul remains, yet the last century has found addition and amendment redefining the actual space.
Sir Ralph Harwood, former financial secretary to King George V, instigated much of this change. It was Sir Ralph who purchased the hall from a demolition contractor in May 1940, only to see the building commandeered by troops six weeks later. He regained the property in October 1945 and, early in 1946, began restoring and modernising the neglected property. Much of what he did wouldn’t win approval at the local planning department today.
Sir Ralph had made restoring Tudor houses something of a hobby in the 1930s, amassing a large quantity of old oak. Much of this stockpile was used to revamp the Great Hall at Seckford. Panelling, doors, carved beams and, most radically of all, ceilings were used to redefine the space. The cavernous room that once rose up through the building’s two storeys was divided to create two floors comprising various different spaces. An entrance hall and what is now the hotel reception were both born of this reshuffle, partitioned off from the Great Hall that survives on a smaller scale. The ceiling, with its sumptuously carved beams and joists, was imported from Beau Desert Manor in Staffordshire. On first glance it seems to fit perfectly in the hall space; only closer inspection reveals it to be an impostor. The windows are a giveaway, disappearing as they do into the ceiling.
Renovation in 1946 also blessed the Great Hall with a medieval rederos, removed from a church and employed here as a means of separating the entrance hall from the main room. The five arches, complete with intricate latticing, makes for a unique partition. Despite the processes of restoration and reform unleashed on the Great Hall, it retains a genuine sense of medieval drama. Indeed, in its location at the heart of the building, the Great Hall remains a social hub. Whereas lords and ladies – Queen Elizabeth once held court here – used to dine on sumptuous feasts of game and poultry, today it’s a place where hotel guests mingle and chatter.
“Without doubt, the Great Hall is my favourite room in the building,” ponders Michael. “And even though it’s got that grand name, it doesn’t feel huge and intimidating, it actually feels really cosy. We have always tried to keep the building feeling like a family home. When people come here they can see that that’s what it is; they’re not intimidated or overawed by the scale of the place. It can feel quite empty when we close down at Christmas, and we have the whole place to ourselves. It’s the sort of place that needs people; it’s always been a home and a place where hospitality is important, right back over 500 years.”
Elsewhere, Seckford Hall retains all the grandeur you’d expect of a manorial seat. Throughout the lower floor of the property visitors are watched over by 60 different faces, carved into doors, over fireplaces and on wooden panelling. Large oil paintings, suits of armour, sturdy four-poster beds and darkly stained pieces of furniture all contribute to the heraldic air pervading the property. Some of these items are native to the property, but were picked up at auction by Michael. A number of pieces, including a stool and a bed warming pan in the Great Hall, originate from Windsor Castle. In the Garden Room, a cabinet displays savarin and jelly moulds that once graced royal households. The pack of cards in the same showcase belonged to George V.
These intriguing quirks are what make Seckford Hall such a rewarding experience. It’s grand and stately in the best traditions of a Tudor mansion, but it’s the details – often the product of extension and addition over the centuries – that make for such a fascinating whole.
Printed with kind permission from Suffolk Journal – April 2005 Issue.