Now British summertime has finally arrived, there’s no place we would rather be, and England’s countryside has so many options to explore. Owned by the founder of Foxtons estate agents, John Hunt, Wilderness Reserve is a project that on completion will comprise five country estates next door to each other in Suffolk. One of these estates is his home, Heveningham Hall, where Hunt has planted 800,000 trees to transform the estate and bring the landscape back to its original Capability Brown design. Another is Sibton Park, where we stayed. Three further estates are in the pipeline, and Hunt hopes to complete the renovations in the next 10 years – his team has clearly been hard at work on this unusual project.
Set within 4,500 acres of private land in Suffolk, Wilderness Reserve is a collection of fully serviced luxurious properties available to rent for weekends or longer stays. Only a short drive from the celebrated Heritage coast or a two-hour train journey from London, the properties serve as the ultimate country bolthole.
Part of the ‘Manor Collection,’ Sibton Park is the largest of the properties built in 1827, and is a fine example of a Grade II* Listed Georgian country house offering accommodation for up to 24 people. The grand entrance hall leads into the beautiful drawing room adorned with the original Chinoiserie wallpaper. The perfect party pad, Sibton Park also boasts a cinema, games room and spectacular wine cellar. As someone said: “It’s Downton Abbey meets the twenty-first century!” Ideal for a special occasion, staff can be on hand as much or as little as guests like.
The land surrounding Sibton Park has been returned from arable use to the parkland it is today under the watchful eye of the celebrated landscape designer, Kim Wilkie. This has been a 20-year project to create long serpentine drives, parkland trees and follies with uninterrupted views of the surrounding landscape. The results are astonishing. Dotted throughout the grounds are the various properties.
We stayed at The Clockhouse (also set within the Sibton Park estate), a former Georgian coach house, which is part of the estate’s ‘Rural Collection.’ Centred around a charming courtyard, the house has four bedrooms and en-suite bathrooms, with a large sitting room with open fire. Thoughtfully converted to provide guests with a rustic, yet modern feel, the stone-floored kitchen is perfect for gatherings large and small, with floor-to-ceiling French doors opening into the courtyard. Details including the kitchen’s large island, an American-style fridge-freezer and range cooker, plus a separate utility room make the house a pleasure to stay in. If further bedrooms are required, guests can take the adjoining property, the Barn – converted from a traditional eighteenth-century Suffolk barn – with four further en-suite bedrooms.
The charming Graham Sutherland, Hunt’s right hand man, was on hand to greet us, providing ‘a light meal,’ that was more accurately a magnificent feast of crab from the coast, cheeses, cold meats, local salads and bread. The journey from London to Suffolk (on small roads) on a Friday can be a bit of an ordeal, so there’s nothing like the sight of a table groaning with food, and a fridge full of wine. The estate is happy to do this for their guests, along with catering for any other meals if guests wish. An exceptional chef also provided a hearty dinner of country comforts, including smoked trout salad with beetroot and horseradish cream, and local fillet of beef, followed by tart tartin with caramel ice cream. The perfect end to a day in the great outdoors. Happy to help with additional requirements, the estate gladly provided a cot and highchair for our son. When travelling with children, this makes life so much easier.
Wilderness Reserve offers all the country pursuits you’d expect from a traditional English estate, including fishing, clay-pigeon shooting, bird-watching, buggy tours and cycling. The buggy tour is a must; aside from the excitement of charging through the muddy undergrowth, the full scale and beauty of the project must be seen to be believed. All properties have access to the swimming pool found sheltered in a secluded hollow and reached via a series of sweeping grass terraces (a signature Wilkie design).
Defying logic, the Grade II* listed Gate Lodges have been ingeniously extended underground to create a stunning property for smaller parties (there are two bedrooms). The spectacular drawing room features French windows leading to a secluded terrace, one of two in the property. Smaller still, and set within its own meadow and woodland, the enchanting one-bedroom Hex Cottage is part of the ‘Lost Collection.’ With no electricity, a wood burner heats the property and provides hot water. Perfect for people hoping to get away from the world, Hex Cottage can provide the ultimate ‘digital detox.’ Two new cottages have also made their debut this summer; the Farmhouse and the Granary that are also available for exclusive-use hire and sleep 12 and eight people respectively.
Hunt’s idea is that the guests and ‘tourism’ offering will eventually pay for the upkeep of the estate. So conscious of their footprint, some farm buildings have been pulled down, and 100 acres of land have been taken from arable use and turned back into parkland. This has caused a remarkable knock-on benefit for nature with an explosion of wildlife spotted on the estate: 450 species of moth (a great indicator of biodiversity), 120 different species of bird and 13 breeding pairs of barn owl. Author of Birds of Suffolk Steve Piotrowski is the estate conservationist, who looks after deer, fox, birds of prey, muntjac, badgers, hares and rabbits, among other species. The aim of Wilderness Reserve is to restore these estates to their former glory, keeping them intact, at a time when so many others around the country are disintegrating and falling into disrepair.
The Sibton Park estate has quietly been hosting guests for over a year already. There are numerous properties to choose from for parties of all sizes and tastes. Aside from a relaxing weekend in luxurious houses surrounded by nature, Wilderness Reserve provides a great insight into how England’s country estates were once run. It’s no wonder that Country Life has called it “the most exciting countryside initiative in England today.”