Property: Living in a piece of history: Anne Spackman visits Giffords Hall, built in 1480, still used as a family home and now up for sale

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Strolling through the gardens of Giffords Hall in Suffolk, the only noises you hear are birdsong and the occasional sound of lapping water in the moat. The Tudor house itself sits like a fragile old lady, resting gently on ancient oak supports. As you look east, beyond the medieval fishpond and gently rolling fields, you see the occasional squat church tower. Only a distant pylon reminds you that this is the 20th century, not the 15th.

The scene was not always so tranquil. At the beginning of this century Giffords Hall had fallen into disrepair. Its great chamber, an outstanding example of early Tudor craftsmanship, was being used as a carpenter's shop.

The Victoria & Albert Museum asked if it could remove the fittings of the chamber and those of the great hall below, and reconstruct the rooms in the museum. Luckily for subsequent owners, an alternative white knight arrived in the shape of a Mr Fass, who set about restoring the house and its architectural treasures.

What makes Giffords Hall so extraordinary is that it is still a private home. Stepping into the great hall, its leaded windows displaying heraldic shields, is like entering a historic monument. The walls are panelled in small squares of linenfold carving - where the wood looks pleated. Fluted ceiling beams are as high as those of an Edwardian house, giving the room a feeling of spaciousness, rather than the claustrophobic cosiness of some Tudor buildings. Tapestry wall-hangings and heavy furniture enhance the atmosphere.

The dining-room has oak beams and panelling, and a vast inglenook fireplace dominates one wall. Twentieth-century fittings have been added discreetly - even the double glazing of the leaded windows is in oak frames.

Upstairs is the great chamber, the finest room in the house, where Elizabethan gentlewomen would have spent their time embroidering. They also indulged in the less genteel activity of carving their names into the stone of the fireplace. These early graffiti include the names of Mary and Joan Higham, whose ancestors built the present house in about 1480. A house had existed on the spot since at least 1272, when it was owned by Peter Gifford who gave it its name.

From the great chamber you look out over terraced gardens, smothered in old roses and garnished with heraldic statues, to a narrow three-arched bridge. It is made from a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of red bricks, like the outbuildings and walls which surround the main house.

Giffords Hall is well and truly lived in. You could argue that if the V&A had stripped out many of the Tudor treasures, more people would have seen and enjoyed them. But a roped-off display is lifeless by comparison with seeing a home in full working order.

At Giffords Hall you can open the windows. You can lean on the fireplace. And the great oak beams and early joinery are much more impressive when you can see them still holding up a roof. Unfortunately, few people enjoy that privilege. The only way for more people to see a house like this is for it to be open to the public. The Gardiner family, which has owned Giffords Hall for 40 years, used to allow the public in, but stopped because of the security risk.

The Gardiners' daughter, Sally Tolhurst, still opens the beautiful gardens to the public to raise money for charity. The gardener, Bob Cook, has been there even longer than the family, which is now selling the house.

Giffords Hall is Grade I listed, which means that any alterations must have listed-building consent. When the Gardiners replaced the guttering it had to be wooden with lead lining. In return for preserving the house accurately, the work is exempt from VAT.

Only 2 per cent of listed buildings are given a Grade I rating, the vast majority of them dating from before 1700. Not many are still in private hands. Of those that are, even fewer are as old as Giffords Hall. Most of the early Tudor places listed by English Heritage are religious buildings.

Further north in Suffolk, another private Tudor listed home is also up for sale. St Peter's Hall, situated near Bungay, which is listed Grade II*, looks as much like a priory as a house, with its elaborate arched windows and a carved Gothic arch to the front door. The 16th-century stone-built house has kept its fireplaces and exposed ceiling timbers.

St Peter's is for sale through John D Wood for pounds 275,000. For Giffords Hall, which is much larger, with six bedrooms, five principal reception rooms and 86 acres, Savills in Ipswich is seeking offers above pounds 850,000.

With houses this old, it is unlikely that buyers will be unsympathetic to their history. Some wealthy purchasers are specifically looking for timber-frame Tudor houses, and have precious few to choose from.

But such wealth is unlikely to be local. Giffords Hall is probably beyond the means of almost all the history dons from nearby Cambridge University, many of whom have made the pilgrimage to admire it. Mark Oliver of Savills thinks the buyer will probably come from London or abroad. Whoever buys the house, English Heritage will be waiting in the wings to ensure that it remains a working Tudor monument.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments