Fog and Ruins: A Walk to Rougham Hall
Between the trees ahead of us, the ruined hall materialised out of the mid-morning fog like a ghost. Thickly clothed in ivy, with deep cracks opening between the bricks of even the most intact walls, Rougham Hall’s gothic architecture almost suits dilapidation.
Despite both of us having lived within 6 miles of the hall for most of our lives, the land of Rougham estate had always been something of a negative space for us during our childhoods. A vast swathe of woodland that you had to drive around (or, in the case of the A14, zipped through) on your way to other places. The walls of dark woodland on either side of the roads around the estate always seemed rather imposing.
At least, that was how we had felt before moving back to Suffolk. We bought a house just a little over a mile from where the main park entrance would once have been, but we first heard about Rougham Estate from a game keeper we met at the Christmas shop at Blackthorpe Barn (which has now become a regular feature of our festive build-up). His description of this large forested estate, teeming with muntjac and roe, surrounding the ruined remains of its once great hall, captured our imagination immediately.
Keen to learn more, we dug-out our old maps of the area, and there it was: Rougham Park, sitting right on our doorstep, in the middle of what we had always assumed was ‘empty space’ – whatever that is supposed to mean – between Bury St. Edmunds and Thurston. A little online research revealed a mysterious story of a World War II bombing and a floor plan of the old hall, while a book of Suffolk ghost stories offers a few indirect references to Rougham Tree Fair, that was held on the estate between 1978 and 1982.
Finding an opportunity to look at the hall ourselves took a little longer. The tours run by George Agnew – grandson of the last inhabitants of the hall, and current Chairman of the Rougham Estate Trust – are very popular. For a few years we were unable to book tickets before they had all been snapped-up, and last year’s walks were understandably cancelled.
The morning of our tour seemed an ominous start. A heavy fog blurred the outlines of the trees at the sides of the road on our way to the estate, and our boots were soaking just from crossing the car park from what must have been rain during the night. We met George at the entrance to Blackthorpe Barn, and he led us along woodland paths, over the A14, and across fields until we spotted the remains of Rougham Hall through the trees.
We were not allowed into the ruin – and, looking at the condition of the walls, I can’t say I’m surprised – but we were allowed within the perimeter fence and were able to see through many of the windows and doors.
It was amazing to see the familiar domestic scenes – tiled floors, cast-iron fireplaces, panelled shutters – being overrun by nature. Trees were growing from beneath the floor of the library, vines climbing through the window frames of the drawing room, and a carpet of ferns in the billiard room. I suspect the ivy is the only thing keeping the tower standing. Some rooms were missing entire walls, with weeds spreading across the floors. It looked like one of those Greek myths where nature, led by Dionysus, disrupts the civilised world, entangling everything in vines and turning everyone into animals.
Except it wasn’t nature that destroyed Rougham Hall, but men. The hall had stood for 120 years and seen six generations pass through when, on Monday 23 September 1940, a German bomber dropped a 2,000lb bomb directly on the hall. The bomb exploded in the cellar, destroying one whole wing of the building, though thankfully no-one was hurt.
There have been a number of suggestions for why Rougham Hall might have been targeted, though none of them seem to answer all of the questions. George outlines a few of the theories in his article on the history of Rougham Hall. We may have to accept that we will never know the full story. Either way, the hall was beyond repair – especially during the war – and it has been being slowly reclaimed the Suffolk countryside ever since.
The destruction of the hall has not been the end of Rougham estate however, and things seem busier than ever. Alongside the Christmas shop at Blackthorpe Barn, there are regular art exhibitions and craft workshops, and the estate ran a number of significant wildlife surveys with the Suffolk Wildlife Trust in 2019. Additionally, you can visit to pick-your-own sunflowers in the summer, pumpkins for autumn, and Christmas trees for winter.
We left the estate through what had once been the Rose Garden. After decades of neglect, the roses are long gone, while the low hedges that would once have divided the garden into a segmented circle have gone crazy, soaring high above our heads, closing us is narrow tunnels of knotted branches. The air was still, and it felt strangely warm away from the wind, giving it a secretive, almost magical feel, like we had stepped out of one world into another.
As we walked back across the fields, I realised that this Rose Garden seemed to capture the atmosphere of Rougham Hall perfectly. Long abandoned and left to nature, but still retaining the outlines of its former habitation, it seems to acquire a new beauty as a ruin.
George Agnew explained that he was leaving the Rose Garden just as it is. I think it’s the right decision.