'London girl' transforms her Norfolk home into the ultimate retreat
- Credit: Kathryn Taylor, kathrynltaylor.com
Self-confessed “London girl” Fiona Cartwright says her heart still skips a beat when she arrives in Norfolk, a decade after buying her sprawling ten-acre property known as Hazelwood Farm.
“We bought it knowing that we were going to spend a lot more time there and making it our forever family home,” she says. “We still have a place in London, which we’ve actually just sold, but the children never stay there. We have our family Christmases and everything in Norfolk, so it has fulfilled that family home slot.”
Her son just got married there, she says, and her sisters live close by, but the property has had lots of other benefits too, allowing if not encouraging her to “indulge” her passions for nature, creativity and craft – something she now shares with others.
Just before lockdown, Fiona started running creative retreats from Hazelwood, which she says were born out of her home’s amazing sense of place. “I found myself doing creative stuff with friends and it just all kind of came from there,” she says. “It’s all based around the place, really – the place has inspired it.”
The ‘place’ is both the property and its surroundings, which includes outbuildings and fields in a secluded patch of countryside.
The house itself has changed a lot over the decade that Fiona and her family have owned it. “I’ve done quite a lot of work to it,” she says, “but I like to think of it as bringing it back to how it ought to be.”
Hazelwood is one of the historic farms in the village, she says, although it used to encompass a lot more land.
A house has existed on the same site since the 1400s, and although their family home isn’t, in fact, that old, the property is still considered a site of historical interest. It’s largely Georgian in style, with some lovely examples of Norfolk flint, but it isn’t listed.
“When we moved in, unfortunately and fortunately, a lot of the original features had been taken out already, which meant they didn’t want to list the inside of it,” Fiona explains. It also came with a lot of outbuildings – in fact, “there’s probably as much space in the outbuildings as there is in the house,” Fiona says.
Since being there, the main work they have done is to join the stable block on to the main house to make a much bigger kitchen area – something Fiona describes as an “interesting” journey.
“We thought ‘oh, we’ll do something fabulous’, you know, we’ll get a fabulous architect and we’ll make it amazing,” she says. “So we got this fabulous architect who came in and proposed knocking down the stable block, which is beautiful old flint, and replacing it with a black wooden barn. And, you know, you sort of get carried along by these things... But I literally woke up one night and thought ‘I just can’t do this!’”
Afterwards, Fiona says the architect “threw his hands up” and said he wanted “nothing to do with this” if they wanted to keep the old buildings, so instead they enlisted the help of a local builder, who they had known for years.
“He started to strip out the stables and bits fell down,” she says, “but he was great. He sort of, you know, found bits of flint and shored up places. Where he’d taken out flint he put it in somewhere else, so it’s kind of evolved using the old buildings, which has made me very happy.”
The result is “higgledy piggledy”, Fiona says, a mismatch of old and modern. “It’s not a beautiful example of any kind of Georgian architecture or anything like that,” she says. “It’s a mismatch, but again, I like the evolution of it.”
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Other areas have evolved, too. They have turned one of their two cart barns into more guest accommodation. “We’ve called it the field of dreams – you know, build it and they will come, when the children have got children and all of that.
“The other one we’ve turned into a kind of studio space that has a cinema at one end, which is rather fabulous, but that we can also use for parties and events – in fact, we had my son’s wedding in there.”
But even the barns are charmingly mismatched, Fiona says, describing one as “very beautiful and flint” and the other as “not very beautiful, with a sort of 70s façade”. Others they haven’t yet found anything to do with, she says, but will likely be used for storage or event space.
Hazelwood Farm “feels very solid – like it’s been there forever”, says Fiona. It is located at the end of a farm track – and although it’s secluded, it’s not isolated. “When you’re there you feel very much as though you’re just part of this landscape,” Fiona says. “It’s surrounded by fields – not ours, all of them – but I really felt a connection when I looked at the house.”
The surrounding land is divided up into five one-acre fields and the rest comprises a formal garden, vegetable garden, a couple of ponds and a wildflower meadow. There is also a poplar wood, which was planted by the farm’s former manager.
“It’s quite an interesting story,” Fiona says. “Some friends of ours met a guy at a fete in Colkirk and they mentioned Hazelwood. His father was the farm manager and he’d lived in the house. His father actually planted the poplar wood for his mother because they came from Lincolnshire and it made her feel at home.”
The space has allowed Fiona to feel more at home in herself, too. After a career in the City, she retrained as an interior designer and says she’s always been a crafter. “I hate the word ‘craft’ but it’s become a lot trendier since lockdown I think. My mother used to call me a Blue Peter mum – you know, I’d much rather be cutting and sticking – so that’s always been part of me.
“I think as a result of coming to Hazelwood, I’ve had space, I’ve had time – because the children are that much older – and I’ve had the environment. I’ve just kind of started turning my hand to much more natural crafts. You know, I’d never done any natural dyes before we had this house, but I’ve started to do a lot of that and started to grow a bit of a dye garden. A lot of what I do is to do with nature and the environment, and I suppose I’ve been able to indulge myself in a way.”
Fiona says that when people would come and stay at Hazelwood, they would often ask her to show them how to replicate the things she was making. “I started to do a few workshops, but then I realised that I wanted to share the place in a much more fundamental way.
“Just turning up for a couple of hours didn’t really do it for me, and actually I’ve discovered it doesn’t really do it for the people who come. I think it feels like there’s a lot of age and a lot of history there and people are able to really relax, so that’s why I started doing it – house parties, in a way.”
Since then, Fiona says she’s tried to make Hazelwood even more of a “holistic experience” by teaming up with other creative and wellbeing practitioners who share her ethos. She runs a series of scheduled retreats, which can be booked on her website (myhazelwood.co.uk), as well as private events for small groups of ten or less.
“It’s just such a lovely place to be in,” she says, “so it’s a very relaxed kind of thing. I say ‘okay, I’ll lay this on for you, this is what we can do’, but actually if what you want to do is come and lay in bed all day, that’s fine too.
“I’ve certainly been on these kind of retreats where there’s a real timetable. At Hazelwood, there is a timetable of things that you can do, but if you choose not to, that’s fine. The idea is that its space, for yourself, completely.”
Retreats like this take place all over the country, but there’s a real sense that Fiona could only do what she does in Norfolk. She might be a “born and bred London girl” but Hazelwood has become home.
“We’ve been coming to Norfolk for so many years,” she says. “I’ve got family here now, it has become part of me. If somebody said to me, you can only have one or the other... I mean – it depends which day you asked me. Certainly when I am there, I don’t ever want to leave.
"Over the years, it’s become very special to all of us.”
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