The story of Suffolk’s lost palace at Great Ashfield House, and the letter that inspired a film
At last, she spotted a gateway in the old stone wall. The path led into a dark thicket of yew trees. She pushed her way through. Suddenly, in front of her, stood a huge, eerie, grey house.
Cobwebs covered the open windows. At first sight, it appeared deserted. In 1943, to wartime land girl Kate, 'it looked like a lost palace'.
“The front door was open so I ascended the once-noble steps and looked in. The hall was very large with no furniture in it at all, and a huge staircase stretching up to darkness,” she later wrote in a letter.
What happened next was even stranger as she met the family who lived there... once part of high society but now withdrawn almost completely from the outside world.
It is now June 2022 and, just like Kate, I am circling that same stone wall looking for the way in. This time, there is no forbidding wood with fallen trees barring the way.
And there it stands. The great grey-brick house still so recognisable from her description.
Except there are cars, people, an instant warm welcome, and tea and biscuits in a beautiful room with French windows opening on to the garden.
Eighty years on, the land girl’s letter has inspired a film... and the set is Great Ashfield House, the very place that made such an impression on her all those years ago.
The house has changed hands since those days. Part of it is now transformed into a comfortable – if tricky to heat – home for Gen and James Spreull and their family.
But one wing remains frozen in time, although no longer sinking into dereliction as it was when Kate was sent to see the eccentric Hollond family during the Second World War.
So much of the family’s everyday lives was left behind... books, albums full of sepia-tinted photographs, scrapbooks, letters, and household items.
Even some of their clothes remained in the house, including turn of the century dresses that possibly belonged to the once-glamorous Mrs Hollond.
Today, the house and the memories held within its walls are cherished by the current owners who see themselves as guardians of its history.
It is a place with a timeless magic that immediately captivated film-makers Freddie Shelbourne and Lucy Andia.
The third member of their team, Edward Spreull, was well aware of it already. He is Gen and James’ son and grew up there. He even remembers the last surviving Hollond sister, Ivy, who lived to the age of 100.
The trio met five years ago, and Shelbourne films, which specialises in documentaries, was formed soon afterwards.
“Freddie and I would be invited to Great Ashfield House and, with Edward, we’d explore the untouched wing of the house,” said scriptwriter and producer Lucy.
“For years, we have been trying to find a story to set in the house. When Edward found the letter, we knew we had it.”
Their short film is called The Lost Palace, after Kate’s description. It’s a ghost story with a twist and, while the plot is fiction, the characters are real... Kate herself, Mrs Hollond, her daughters Elsie and Ivy, and a gardener, James, cheekily named after Edward’s dad.
But it took time to decide the shape it would take. “I think it’s version 26 we’re on now,” said Lucy. Around version 16, it evolved into a ghost story.
“Casting the film, we had more than 2,000 applications for the five human roles. The other stars are two goats, the same rare breed as those kept by the Hollonds and, of course, the house itself."
Great Ashfield House, according to its Grade II listing, dates from around 1820.
In the 1880s, the estate on the edge of the mid-Suffolk village of Great Ashfield was acquired as a country retreat by wealthy couple Arthur and Beatrice Hollond, who also had a home in London.
They had seven children – five girls and two boys, one of whom died in childhood. The other, Henry, became a distinguished professor of English law at Trinity College, Cambridge.
The Hollonds moved in cultured circles. Artist Stanley Spencer visited in the 1920s and a painting he did there, of turkeys, is in the Tate Gallery collection.
But life began to change after Arthur’s death in 1928. Slowly, the family remaining at Great Ashfield became disconnected from the world they had known.
The once-grand house became derelict. The nature-loving daughters took to sleeping outside in all weathers, regarded by villagers with a mixture of suspicion and fear.
By the time Kate went to follow up a letter about goats sent by Beatrice Hollond to the War Agricultural Executive Committee, the family lived in almost total isolation.
Describing how she approached the house, she wrote: “I felt rather frightened and would have run away if I hadn’t been warned about the Hollonds.
“There were muddy footsteps on the floor, which gave me hope of finding someone, but I couldn’t make anyone hear.
“I then went to the back of the house and saw two beds in the garden made up, and which were evidently used, and also two inhabited rooms, but still nobody about.
“I then went and looked at the animals and found a herd of white goats in a large field, a flock of geese and an old man in a tattered mackintosh wheeling an old wheelbarrow.
“He stared at me as if I was from another world and mumbled something, and said he would fetch Mrs Hollond. Eventually, Mrs Hollond appeared.
“She was a dear old lady of about 78. She was very pleased to see me and fetched her daughters who were the goat-keepers.
“As I waited, I noticed some very good pictures and was looking at them when the two most extraordinary girls came in.
“They were both dressed as gypsies, in complete rags of bright colours, yellow knee socks and red handkerchiefs round their heads.
“One of them had an old red jersey on without a back and on top of it an old orange one without a front. The younger girl did nothing but laugh very loudly at everything I said, which was most disconcerting.
“However, the other girl was very nice and extremely intelligent, though very wild and odd-looking.
“She told me all her trouble about the goats and, while she was out of the room getting statistics about the milk yields, Mrs Hollond told me that she was a very good artist and had done all the pictures that I had been looking at.
“The two girls sleep outside all the year round and never go off the estate, and live on herb tea and goat’s milk and cheese.
“You can imagine how intrigued I was with this family. I am now trying to find out their history. I feel I discovered a lost family.”
Whatever cooking the Hollonds did – they also ate eggs provided by the girls’ pet chickens – would have been done in a part of the house they would recognise today.
Now, the old wing has no working electricity or water but, in its heyday, was bang up to date with hot water systems and flushing toilets, says James.
In the vast, almost Downton Abbey-style, original kitchen, the green paint on the walls probably dates from the 1930s or before. On the shelves are enamel jugs and pottery, and the old black range cooker is still in place.
The legs of the huge wooden table bear the claw marks of the Hollond sisters’ pet cats, who feature in so many of the photographs the family left behind.
The scullery has a massive stone sink around eight feet long. “That’s where they would have washed the plates,” says James.
There is also the servants’ kitchen, where the staff would have eaten, and other rooms in what was once the engine room of this house.
“It’s amazing to think that all this space was devoted to serving the rest of the house,” he added.
Filming of The Lost Palace took place at the end of June.
The house, and the goat shed that still looks identical to how it appears in one of the old photos, was a ready-made set. “Whatever we ask for, James will say, oh yes, I think we’ve got that,” said Lucy.
Taking the house back 80 years meant thinking ahead.
“They had to leave cobwebs on the doorbell, and James stopped mowing the lawn so the grass was long and seeding,” she said.
The Lost Palace is crowdfunded, with rewards for donations ranging from a link to the finished film, to an invitation to the première.
Because two of the stars are goats, five per cent of all funds raised will go to a charity that provides goats for families in Burundi.
To help, go to www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/lost-palace.