Escaping from the big city to the peace and quiet of a rural setting can come at a price. It can mean disconnecting oneself from culture, leaving the comfort of the urban LGBTQ community or travelling for hours to find any kind of culinary sophistication. To do it, one needs to resign oneself to a life of simple pleasures and leaving the richness of city life behind you. Or so I thought, before I met David Woodbine and Bruce Badrock, who sold up their South London home and relocated approximately two hours north, to the coastal town of Aldeburgh. On the surface, it’s a sleepy backwater full of the rural charms you’d expect from a National Trust designated area of outstanding natural beauty, but within weeks of moving, they discovered a whole new sense of community and a rich cultural life which surpassed their old life back in the capital.
After pursuing successful careers which required them to conform to rules, Bruce, a Hydrographic Surveyor in the Royal Navy, and David, an accountant for charitable NGOs, were looking to make a step-change. They wanted to build a new life that would give them the chance to pursue their interests and make a living from doing something they both loved.
Renovating their South London home ignited a passion for design and completing the project gave them both the confidence and the funds to take things further and build something from scratch. They wanted a rural but coastal location and somewhere accessible from London. After some intensive searching, they came across an old farm near the Suffolk coast. The site included a farmhouse, a barn and five acres of land, mostly woodland, just a mile from the sea. It had a huge amount of potential and they decided to take the plunge. Their vision was to turn the site into an upmarket guest house that catered both for London escapees in search of a quick getaway and those attending one of the two major annual cultural events in the area.
They had a clear vision of what they wanted to create: somewhere sophisticated where travellers could unwind and enjoy the slower pace and natural beauty of the surroundings without feeling cramped in a ‘cosy’ traditional country cottage. Deciding that they would need help to realise their dream, they enlisted renowned architects Blee Halligan, who specialise in creating beautiful contemporary buildings that are integrated into their environment.
Over the next two years, David and Bruce worked closely with the architects, their local builder and tradesmen to turn the site into a stunning, modern, purpose-built guest house set into the five acres of natural woodland. The building features multiple pitched roofs, which while reminiscent of a country church, give the structure a strong identity. It is entirely clad in hundreds of Canadian cedar shingles which help visually to tie it beautifully into its woodland surroundings; a process that their builder was more than happy to allow Bruce and David to get involved with.
Getting physically stuck in with the build started as a cost-saving measure, but soon became an important aspect of the process. Not only did it give them a tangible connection to the place, but it also had practical benefits. They now have an intimate knowledge of the building inside and out, so if a problem occurs, as they often can in most building projects, they are very well placed to find a solution.
The build and design stage also gave them a whole new set of skills, from plastering and tiling, to upholstery and interior design – they sourced and placed all the furniture and peppered the place with beautiful objects that work to soften the potentially austere feel of the architecture.
Learning and applying new skills is a process which Bruce and David clearly get a lot of satisfaction from, and it is hard not to be affected by their enthusiasm. They certainly aren’t short of projects, which they have thrown themselves into with gusto. They are always busy, either gardening, cooking, sourcing local produce or discovering activities to recommend to guests. As advocates of life-long learning, they are keen to facilitate educational experiences for their guests, from arranging cookery courses to visits to local (lesbian-owned) beehives to see how the honey they serve you for breakfast is harvested. They are also talking to some retreat organisers who are interested in using Five Acre Barn as a base for longer stays, something that the couple are keen to move into. As much as they love their new lives, running a guest house is very demanding on their time. So the natural break that having self-contained, week-long bookings gives seems like a rather attractive prospect.
It wasn’t long after moving to the area that they discovered they were not the ‘only gays in the village’. Through the process of getting to know the place, they very naturally began to meet other gay people and already have a network of like-minded, ex-London gay and lesbian friends who chose to make their lives here. This is nothing new. In fact, Aldeburgh’s long-standing gay and cultural heritages are inseparable. In the 1940s, the acclaimed composer Benjamin Britten moved with his opera singer partner, Peter Pears. In 1948 they held the first Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts which by the late 1960s had grown so popular that a large local brewery, Snape Maltings, was converted into a concert hall and continues to flourish to this day under the auspices of the Aldeburgh Festival. In addition, the High Tide Theatre holds a very well respected annual festival, pulling in yet more visitors with a bent for culture. Over the years a number of high profile movers and shakers from the british Arts have bought houses in the area. Famous British artists like ‘YBA’ Sarah Lucas and outspoken Maggie Hamblin have homes here. An impressive and apparently controversial ‘Scallop’ sculpture by Hamblin – a tribute to Britten – sits on the shingle beach just yards from the picturesque wooden boats that nod to Suffolk’s fishing industry heritage.
The area, like Five Acre itself, is very dog-friendly. David and Bruce’s gorgeous Hungarian Wirehaired Vizsla, Ruby, welcomes visitors. I joined David as he walked her from the beach at Aldeburgh to the neighbouring Thorpeness, a somewhat eccentric village with a windmill boating lake and the famous ‘House in the Sky’. From there it was a few, very pleasant, minutes’ walk down a hidden country path, passing cute cottages and a sleepy churchyard back to the barn for a welcome cuppa. Feeling thoroughly decompressed, we spent the evening over a few drinks chatting about each other’s lives. It is clear that David and Bruce have found much more than they had ever imagined by moving to this gorgeous little corner of the country. They seem genuinely content and it won’t be long before all their hard work will soon bear well-deserved fruit as the business matures and they set down their roots.