• WTS - Alde Garden - Roundhouse interior

Life on The Suffolk Coast - Alde Garden

It may have been a long winter, but time hasn't stood still at Alde Garden; we spoke to owner Marie Smith about campsite life and the exciting new additions coming this summer...

Talk us through a typical day at Alde Garden...

WTS - Alde Garden - sitting round the fire

Luckily, no two days at Alde Garden are ever the same - but seasonally there are some regular aspects. 

Spring is new life - the campsite needs all sorts of freshening up including building, painting, cleaning, refurbishing, re-waterproofing, planting, pruning. Last year's woodchip pathways become this year's compost - so they need digging out and feeding to the plants and we lay the fragrant fresh woodchip (from a local tree surgeon) in its place. Tents are put up and furnished, solar lights checked and replaced, wood is cleaned and oiled - everything gets a bit of TLC. 

Summer is camping season - every day involves a large dose of cleaning, replenishing stocks in communal areas of firewood, kindling, tea lights, soap, duck food (so our guests can feed their new feathered friends!) etc - plus there's always some admin to do. 

Autumn brings cooler, damper weather and as soon as the campsite is closed we begin the process of packing everything away. Canvasses need to be bone dry before storing, so the process is time-consuming, and everything needs to be stored safely. This is also the time of year we begin thinking about what the next stage of the cob round house build will be,  in the hope that we'll have some time to devote some whole days to it over the autumn and winter. 

Winter is when the pub (the campsite sits alongside the Sweffling White Horse) really comes to life, lots of exciting events especially over the festive season. As the pub building is entirely heated by wood, there is a lot of firewood-related activities to do over winter, especially moving wood from one place to another. During winter we try to get one or two days in the cob house each week, and also try to ensure we get at least one day off per week - something which is quite tricky to maintain at other times of year. I love cooking hearty soups and stews, going for winter walks, and curling up with a book in front of a woodburner on my days off.

There are some constants throughout the seasons, there is always stock which needs ordering, emails which need answering, bills which need paying - and there is always a duck, chicken, goose, cat or wild animal who needs special medical attention of some sort!

Tell us the story of Alde Garden

WTS - Alde Garden - hideout

We are both seasoned campers but not so enthusiastic about characterless campsites set in open fields. Wild camping is frowned upon in England, yet it is one of life's great pleasures, so we felt we wanted to create a campsite that harnessed all the nice bits about wild camping but with its own facilities.

On our own camping trips, we would travel by public transport and bike - so the journey became part of the holiday. We wanted to build a site where folks could enjoy the same, but not necessarily have to bring everything but the kitchen sink in order to do so. Once we'd established the kind of site we wanted to run, and where we wanted it to be, then came the job of finding the right site. But in the end, the right site found us. and by some clever trickery the universe made sure we also got a derelict pub to breathe new life into.

Once we had our piece of land (an overgrown beer garden) we began work turning it into a campsite. First, we had to cover the legal side of things. When we presented our ideas to the planning department they were keen and excited, ours was to be the first alternative campsite (now known as 'glamping') in Suffolk, and they were keen to attract more tourists to the area. Locals were equally keen. not least because their village pub had been closed for over 5 years by then and was looking like it might never be a pub again.

Then came the physical side of things, which friends and family played a massive part in, coming to stay with us for long weekends of clearing and building by day, and a campfire by night. The campfire was a melting pot of not only the day's prunings but also ideas and plans. Our site grew organically, working with limited funds (since we'd spent all our money buying the site) meant things happened slowly, but this turned out to be a good thing as when you're doing something new it's good to give yourself as much time as possible to think things through. Also, we wanted to use recycled and natural materials as much as possible - which again slows the process down somewhat. 

Just over two years after we'd bought the site, Alde Garden opened on 11 June 2010. Since then we've made lots of changes, but we've kept the site to our original dream - wild, green, quiet, wildlife-friendly, and the most important bit - a campfire at its heart. We feel a fire is an essential part of camping, and our years of travels to festivals and youth hostels, as well as the two years of friends' visits, firmly set the plan for one communal fire place.

Folks have privacy by their accommodation; we've made sure to encourage great screening for that feeling of seclusion when wanted, but the fire is a place to gather and meet new people. I'd say the most memorable moments here, for me, have been around that campfire. Not just in the early days when it was us and close friends, but also hearing the gentle sound of guests getting to know one another and sharing stories and tips on where to go locally. It is magical.

Tell us one fun fact about yourself...

FD - The Sweffling White Horse - Exterior at night

During the first lockdown I delivered beer to the pub's regulars on my bicycle & trailer (or on foot), dressed in a variety of fancy dress costumes! I didn't set out to do this, it just kind of happened. I went to visit my mum on mother's day and I stood outside her door to wish her a happy day. When I was about to leave she gave me a carrier bag, which turned out to contain a beer bottle fancy dress costume. She'd had it in her wardrobe for ages and thought I could make use of it. A few days later we were in full lockdown, and the community was shaken up.

Lots of people, myself included, were petrified of what was happening, and felt very stranded and alone. It had just been OK'd for pubs to sell take-outs, and I was about to deliver to a regular who was shielding, when I remembered the costume. I put it on, and thought it might make folks laugh if I took a video of myself walking through the village dressed as a bottle of beer. I got so many messages from people saying I'd brightened their day, and lots of people asking what I was going to wear next, it just became a thing. So I raided my own wardrobe, and also bought a few 2nd hand costumes online too. My favourite was the massive whooppee cushion!

Tell us about the new Roundhouse...

WTS - Alde Garden - Roundhouse

I saw a photo of a garden studio made from cob, which had been built by Edwards Eco Build (who used to be based in Norfolk). We included it in our planning application, hoping that one day we would have the time/resources to build such a thing. Five years later we felt the time was right and put wheels in motion.

We first contacted Kate Edwards but they had moved away, so we searched for someone else to build it for us but it just didn't quite work out. In the meantime I had bought lots of books on natural building began to ask ourselves - could we build this ourselves? It would be an adventure, we would learn loads of amazing skills, we could employ local folks to work with us and use whatever materials came to hand, basically build it in the same way as we built the campsite. Except we didn't factor in how long this would take bearing in mind we still had a busy campsite and pub to run!

For the first couple of years, I worked on the cobhouse pretty much full time. By day I would be working on site with one or two labourers, early evening tidying up and prepping materials for the next day and then researching the next stage of the build whilst eating my dinner - then off to run the pub at 7. This would be 4 or 5 days a week (whilst Mark took care of day-to-day campsite running), leaving the rest of the week to cram in all the other work I had to do.

Once the structural work on the house was complete, we decided to change gear, to slow down and enjoy the build, and allow it to fit in around other work. So since then it has just been myself, or me and Mark, and occasional volunteers. 

The cobhouse project started out as a plan to build a simple roundhouse from cob with a timber frame and a reciprocal roof. But the more I read and the more research I did on the internet, the more ideas I had and the more varied aspects I wanted to add to it. So the north face of the building is strawbale, and the plain cob walls evolved into thick cob with cordwood and a cavity wall for insulation. The shape and size changed too, I added a bedroom (so the house could be occupied by two couples or a small family) and a bathroom. As time goes on, new ideas keep evolving, and with each new idea comes a great big learning experience. It's lots of fun.

What makes the roundhouse so unique?

WTS - Alde garden - Roundhouse roof

I think the most unique thing about our roundhouse is the sourcing of the materials. We have tried, as far as possible, to use things sourced as local as possible. We've listed on our website the location of most of the ingredients. 

Another unique thing about the roundhouse is its design features. Having been built slowly and with lots of love, we have been able to add lots of visually pleasing aspects. We've made a round window which is big enough to sit inside, a little reading nook with a bookshelf above, lots of coloured bottle 'light tunnels' designed to catch the sun at certain times of day (or of the year),  a cupola in the roof whose own roof mimics the shapes of the main reciprocal roof, a glass jug in the wall appears to be pouring cob. Also, the roof rafters have been debarked and sanded to reveal the natural light colour of sweet chestnut & we stained the larch boards which lay on top - thus giving you the feel of being under a tree's branches beneath the dark night sky.

I also designed the house for maximum passive solar gain, in fact the photo shows me using an auger to make a peg hole in a chestnut beam we were putting in place to raise the front roof rafters up and allow more light in on that aspect. The front of the house faces South, and has glass doors and massive glass windows. As a result of this, and the raised front section of the roof, the winter sun when low in the sky can reach far into the house, striking the floor almost as far as the back wall.

The cob floor then acts as a thermal mass, storing the heat and slowly emitting it later to warm the house. The insulation layer under the cob floor reduces the amount of heat lost downwards  The great thing about this passive solar design is that it allows the heat of the sun to warm the building in the winter, yet in the summer the overhang of the roof and the design of the cupola prevents sun from overheating the house. So it's wonderfully cool inside on the hottest days of the summer, and in winter it stays warm even though we haven't installed any form of heating yet.

What should people pack for a stay at the Roundhouse?

WTS - Alde Garden - child with chickens

At the moment, work clothes, tough boots and a good pair of gloves! It's a project the making, but when it's finished I'd say you'll need a good book, slippers and as few devices as you can mange without. This will be a space to be enjoyed slowly, utterly and very much in the moment

Where is your favourite place on The Suffolk Coast?

Towns & Villages - Dunwich - heather (Gill Moon photography)

Wow there's a few contenders - but I think it's got to be Dunwich. It has so much; the beach, cliffs, heathland (that colour in August... stunning), woodland, wildlife, windswept, history (look it up - it's astounding!), Flora Tea Rooms (sshhh don't tell everyone but the fish and chips are as good as Aldeburgh) and The National Trust Tea Rooms and of course Minsmere RSPB Reserve. I could spend the whole day there - dawn at Minsmere to watch the birds at sunrise, a circular walk taking in the beach and woodland above, lunch at Flora's (fish & chips of course!), a heathland walk in the afternoon ending at the tea rooms for tea and cake and then wait there for the starling murmuration. A perfect day!

Where is your favourite place to eat out on The Suffolk Coast?

WTS - Alde Garden - Yurt

I'm very lucky. Right on my doorstep, just 10 minutes walk, is Juniper Barn Cafe in Rendham. I love to walk up there, particularly with friends or family when they are staying, for what is most certainly the best breakfast in Suffolk. They cook everything fresh, source ingredients locally and will tailor your 'full English' to your own personal tastes. My favourite is their 'full veggie' which has no manufactured meat substitutes whatsoever - just wholesome & fresh ingredients. All this, in a beautiful environment (stunning converted barn) and served with the merriest of smiles


You can book a stay and read more about the Roundhouse at Alde Garden at https://aldegarden.co.uk/



Things to see and do

National Trust Dunwich Heath

National Trust Dunwich Heath

Dunwich Heath and Beach is a precious landscape on the Suffolk coast where you can experience a true sense of being at one with nature. 

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Dog friendly Wheelchair Accessible

RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve

RSPB Minsmere Nature Reserve

Westleton

Discover nature together on the beautiful Suffolk coast. Wander among the wetlands and woods, potter along the beach, and pause to watch some amazing wildlife. Explore the Wild Zone with the family, then sample some delicious home-cooked, locally-sourced food in the cafe.

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WHERE TO EAT

The Sweffling White Horse 

The Sweffling White Horse

A traditional pub in the village of Sweffling near Saxmundham and East Anglia Pub of the Year 2015.

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Free wifi Dog friendly

where to stay

Alde Garden

Alde Garden

A tiny site with an eclectic range of quirky and unusual accommodation, set in the garden of an award winning pub.

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Free wifi