Q. We are looking for a large, comfortable property or group of properties to rent for a family gathering at Christmas, preferably on the Norfolk/Suffolk coast. We need to accommodate 16 with a large enough dining area to have at least Christmas dinner together. Indoor entertainment such as a pool or games room would be a bonus. We know we need to book soon, do you have any suggestions?
J Gaston, via e-mail
A. Either the Norfolk or Suffolk coast would make an excellent choice for a Christmas celebration. One of the region's best assets is undoubtedly its unspoilt coastline, which often enjoys a light dusting of snow between Christmas and New Year - just enough to keep the dream of a white Christmas alive. It also benefits from below average rainfall and without looming rain clouds, you can admire the sweeping shoreline and rolling countryside that has inspired painters such as Constable and Gainsborough. Meanwhile, its quiet villages encompass an impressive number of historic houses available to rent that are perfectly suited to festive get-togethers.
Starting in Suffolk, where better to spend a grand, rural Christmas than Christmas Hall in the village of Bildeston (01449 741428; www.christmashall.co.uk)? This aptly named converted Georgian rectory sleeps up to 20 guests and has everything you requested, including a grand oak dining table, seating 20, flanked by two kitchens. However, if that instils anxieties of too many cooks, Christmas lunch can be catered for (at an additional cost). There is also a games room, complete with a seven-foot pool table, for post-prandial relaxation. Christmas Hall has high-ceilinged rooms with large windows offering atmospheric views of Bildeston's peaceful town square and surrounding buildings. The square's annual carol concert and costumed Christmas displays add to the festive charm.
Bildeston is an old wool town and its legacy is apparent in its grand old buildings, many of them timbered and dating back to the Tudor period. Although small, Bildeston still has all the necessary amenities to ensure a comfortable stay, including a grocer, butcher, two pubs and the Crown Hotel and Restaurant. Larger nearby towns include Stowmarket, Needham and Ipswich. Christmas Hall is also half-an-hour's drive from the Heritage Coast, with highlights including the fashionable seaside town of Southwold, Minsmere Bird Reserve, and bracing coastal walks. Fishing, sailing, golf and horse-riding are also all available nearby for those wanting to work off those mince pies. All this does come at a price, though, with Christmas Hall costing £5,000 to rent for the Christmas week. It is currently available from 22 December.
Alternatively, you might choose Chippenhall in the village of Fressingfield in northern Suffolk (contact Suffolk Secrets on 01502 722717; property ref. CHIPP on www.suffolk-secrets.co.uk). This timbered manor was recorded in the Domesday Book and sleeps 16, with a suitable dining area for a traditional Christmas dinner, where several notable families have eaten in the past. These include the Sandcroft family, whose Dr William Sandcroft was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 17th century, and crowned King Charles I. They, however, could not enjoy the present view of Chippenhall's renovated courtyard and outdoor pool. With its grand fireplaces, tapestries, and oil-fired Aga, Chippenhall promises a luxurious yet cosy Christmas break. It is also set in eight acres of private grounds. Sandwiched between Diss and the Suffolk Coast, Fressingfield is half-an-hour's drive from popular seaside towns such as Southwold and Walberswick. But with such luxurious surroundings you may not feel an urge to step outside the oak arched front door. Rental costs £3,000 for Christmas week.
Heading over the border into Norfolk, the Old Vine Barn is another good choice: a stylish barn conversion that can sleep up to 18 people, with converted stables that can accommodate a further 12 (01379 641682; property ref. CRG on www.english-country-cottages.co.uk). This antique-laden property features spacious beamed rooms, open fires, and a farmhouse-style kitchen. There's also a comfortably large conservatory-style dining room, suitable for seating your entire party, overlooking the beautifully maintained garden. The lack of a games room is made up for by the presence of a large (35ft x 16ft) indoor swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Caterers, housekeepers and babysitters can also be arranged. Venturing outside, meanwhile, offers still more treasures in the form of nearby day trips. Particularly recommended are Norwich with its impressive cathedral and castle, the picturesque Georgian town of Bury St Edmunds with its abbey ruins, and of course the Heritage Coast. A week's rental isn't cheap, however, costing £5,800 for the barn without the stables annexe, from 22 December.
Since larger properties tend to be booked up first over Christmas, you might consider renting a group of smaller properties. Pilgrim's Holiday Cottages (01603 871 872; www.pilgrimsholidaycottages.co.uk) are clustered in the grounds of Pilgrim's House in the village of Bacton on the Norfolk coast. The Grade II-listed 16th- and 18th-century buildings sleep up to 18 guests in four cottages, and are a few minutes' walk from a sandy beach. The buildings also share use of a heated swimming pool and sauna housed in a thatched barn. But it's the buildings' character that is the real draw: the barn conversions feature restored timber frames, flint walls, oak and terracotta flooring and a Tudor brick fireplace. For such interesting properties, they are something of a bargain, with a week's rental from 23 December costing £3,600 for all four. However, they do lack a large dining area suitable for accommodating you all. With this in mind, you could either squeeze into the largest dining room, or eat out. The Crown Hotel in gentrified Wells-next-the-Sea, around half-an-hour's drive north up the coast from Bacton, is open on Christmas Day.
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