We're having a glorious summer - full for most of July and for the whole of August, which has been very satisfying for a new venture like ours! Great guests and a real mix, some with children, some coming for a romantic get-away, some with bikes strapped to the roof rack and a few by train. The woodland shower has proved a huge hit with all of them - from six-year old Seth who "hates showers but loves the woodland shower" to those who've been enjoying candle-lit showers in the dusk.
The camp fires have proved popular too and the tripod with cookpot for cooking over an open fire has now been christened, with very favourable reviews. The new potatoes are disappearing fast from the field - we're about to move on to the salad potatoes and after that there's some pink fir apple potatoes (delicious) to try. The sweetcorn is beginning to ripen and the yellow cherry tomatoes are doing well too - there's been enough sunshine despite some cloudy days.
Nick and I have been having a holiday too during the first couple of weeks of August, and have had a great time - there's masses to do locally and the weather has been remarkably good. So we've enjoyed late afternoon swims on the beach at Walberswick, an afternoon canoeing down the Waveney complete with kingfisher sighting, several river swims at one of Roger Deakin's wild swimming spots at Geldeston by the Locks Inn (which has great local cider and good food too) and cycle rides round "The Saints" - a collection of villages just to the north west of us, which includes St Peter's Brewery (their beer has very wide distribution now and comes in distinctively shaped bottles). St Peter's is situated in a 15th century moated Abbey and has a good bar with very good food as well as a restaurant. You can sit out by the moat and relax in the sun whilst trying their summer ale - grapefruit - which I can recommend, along with the home-made fish-cakes on the lunchtime menu. And of course we've been walking down by the estuary at Blythburgh and the Hen Reedbeds, where there's masses of gulls, geese, oyster catchers, waders of various types (I've never been strong on identification) and curlews.
We managed to combine several of our favourite activities with a day spent cycling to Beccles, a trip on the newly restored Big Dog Ferry (with bikes safely stowed on board) to the Locks Inn at Geldeston, a picnic bought from Bailey's at Beccles (nominated for the East Anglian Good Food Awards) by the moorings and then an afternoon swim, followed by glass of cider whilst doing the crossword and a ride back across the fields and through the quiet lanes of The Saints back home.
It's been a lot of long hours over the past weeks (and months) but we finally had our open day for Westhall residents and businesses, followed by our first guests! The local paper ran a really nice piece with photos - front page and inside page - though Nick complains that he didn't know the photographer was coming, so didn't look his best. You can judge for yourself.
We had a great turn-out of local people on the Sunday before we opened - it was a gloriously hot day and Nick and I spent the afternoon conducting tours of the yurts and chatting to people in the coolness of the barn, where we had teas and elderflower cordial on the go. It was good to meet so many people and we were pleased that Tony (from Tony's Stores) came along; he told me he will be celebrating 60 years of running the shop this summer and is planning a party. Of course we meant to take lots of photos (there's nothing quite like photos with people in them) but were far too busy in the end. But we did take some of the barn before everyone arrived - finished now except for the final stage of insulating the walls, which is now a job for next year. Crockfords have made a great job of it and have been a delight to have around. We've now got the table tennis and table football set up in there, as well as books, maps, arm-chairs and a huge table (it came with the house and looks as though it used to be a billiard table) and pew (courtesy of Diss Auctions) as well as practical things like a fridge freezer and kettle, toaster etc.
We've now welcomed our first two sets of guests and so far, so good - we've found the reason for the slight leak in the Mongolian yurt which is now fixed (canvas flaps need to sit on top of the sheep's felt, rather than underneath - ask us if you're really interested) and we've now got some time to turn to things that have been neglected in the house and garden over the past 8 months, with a couple of new fruit and vegetable beds planned. And also some R&R - we had a good meander round the Bungay Antiques Street Fair at the weekend - masses of different things on sale there, with lots of the stalls being run by people who do it as a hobby, which felt great and also meant there were some good bargains to be had.
The two-person woodland shower is now up and running, and Nick and I have been doing our best to test it out regularly to ensure that it works perfectly for our guests! There's nothing quite like standing beneath hot running water with the sun shining (maybe it will again, one day....) with the goldfinches flitting about the trees. We can definitely recommend it! And knowing that the hot water comes from the solar thermal (which is working very efficiently) makes it doubly satisfying somehow! Both yurts are now fully furnished and ready to receive our first guests at the beginning of July and we're really looking forward to having them lived in.
We were really fortunate to have a feature on the Guardian Travel website (check it out here http://bit.ly/jGe4gE ) that picked us as one of the top 10 new UK holiday places, focusing on our new yurts and our proximity to the National Cycle Route and the bikes we are making available for guests who fancy some "soft cycling" exploring the surrounding countryside and coast. We're planning to put together some itineraries, which will range from some gentle 6 mile trips (which will get you to the Locks Inn at Geldeston for a river swim or a drink/lunch) as well as some slightly longer trips to Southwold and the wonderful walks and beaches at Dunwich and the nearby RSPB reserve at Minsmere. And of course we'll need to check out the various routes ourselves, which we'll enjoy! The ferry service has been restored from Beccles (by the lido) to the Locks Inn at Geldeston, with scope for carrying bikes too if there's space which we want to try out next time it's sunny!
Ten great new UK holidays for 2011
From cattle ranching to cycling for softies, and staying in a smuggler's house to wild camping, we've rounded up some of the best new things to do and places to stay in the UK
Check out our listing at http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2011/jun/13/uk-whats-new-holidays-accommodation
Nick, Freddy and I spent a very busy bank holiday weekend painting the Old Cowshed, which will house the toilets, showers, basins and washing up area. We're taking a bit of an inspired guess about its former use (and to be honest, all that remains of the old cowshed, if that's what is was, are very occasional bits of the foundations) and it's certainly far removed now from an old farm building! The solar thermal system for heating the water was commissioned on Friday and the plumber starts work on installing the showers, toilets etc next week. It's all beginning to take shape now and we really feel like we're on the home run - the builders have been working on the barn and the out-buildings since early December, and are beginning to feel like family! We had a great time with them a few weeks ago with an impromptu clay pigeon shoot in the field.
And the Mongolian yurt is up at last - we all have bulging muscles to prove it! Having not rained for several months, we had a downpour in the middle of a critical bit - the sheep's wool felt was on the roof, the poles were popping out (it's an occupational hazard during the process of putting it up!) and lovely Peter our builder wanted to discuss options for improving the drive! It soon dried out once we'd lit the fire and had a couple of windy days, but we all smelt of damp wool and yak hair for some days after.
We've started work on making the woodland shower area fun - with wonderfully tall foxgloves (moved from the farmhouse garden where they grow like weeds) and ox-eye daisies and we've got some good chunks of tree trunk to dot around and a rustic bench made by Alvaro (a great combination of a couple of planks of decking set into some of our willow tree trunks). We're hoping to grow some roses and honeysuckle around the willow fencing too. The plumber will connect it all up this week and we can't wait to test it out for ourselves!
The strawberries are ripening early and are really juicy, big, fat, sweet and red! They seem to have withstood the drought better than the blueberries, which are looking rather sorry for themselves. The first of the new potatoes will be ready in a couple of weeks - I'm trying out International Kidney (Jersey Royals) for the first time and am impatient to start unearthing them. We've also got Anyas (salad) and Pink Fir Apple potatoes growing, both of which have a delicious nutty flavour to them and are great simply dug out, cleaned up, put in a pot and enjoyed with plenty of butter! It's beginning to be my favourite time of the year as everything starts being ready to harvest. I've had to look - but not eat - the asparagus; it won't be ready to start cutting till next year. All but one of the crowns has come up which is good, and my judicious watering and a couple of good downpours in the past week will all have helped.
All the woodchip is down around the barn, so we've got a good sheltered space for table tennis or just relaxing on an easy chair with a book. It's a real suntrap in front of the barn and we've planted up a couple of big pots with a fig and a quince, both of which should be happy. We've got bush tomatoes in old oak troughs as well as a good range of herbs which hopefully will be safe from the rabbits!