Historic Houses Invitation to View tour of St Peter’s Hall in the Saints near Bungay is refreshingly different | Words & photos: Lindsay Want

Great British Life: St Peter's Hall, BungaySt Peter's Hall, Bungay (Image: Archant)

From Clare to Campsea Ashe and Wangford to Little Whelnetham, Suffolk is simply crawling with ancient ecclesiastical sites. Wealthy medieval East Anglia may have had more than its fair share of England's nigh on 900 religious houses and over the years the stone, bricks and mortar have survived to become part of great manors and country dwellings.

Maude of Ulster called today's Bruisyard Hall home, Butley Priory and The Abbey at Coggeshall speak for themselves, at Wingfield a Georgian façade hides a 13th century monastic chantry college.

Near Bungay, South Elmham Hall was once a bishop's palace. From there, across the wide fields and farmsteads of The Saints, half-moated St Peter's Hall, with its fine French stone, huge tracery windows and fancy flushwork, looks just a priory too - or at first glance anyway.

For all that glistens is not gold, unless you're talking about the internationally renowned amber ale being brewed where the old pigsties used to be behind St Peter's thatched barn.

Great British Life: St Peter's Hall, BungaySt Peter's Hall, Bungay (Image: Archant)

St Peter's Hall - its name leads you down a monastic garden path, until you realise that it's just one of those weird Suffolk saints things where everything, even the village, takes its name from the local church - which happens not to be here, but a ten minute walk away down Wash Lane.

Located in the fertile farmlands of north Suffolk, with a moat stocked with mirror carp and a modern micro-brewery producing millions of pints a year, St Peter's Hall recalls self-sufficient, medieval cloistered communities, who turned their hands to farming and keeping fishponds, milling, making bricks and brewing.

Solid, stocky and purposeful, with modern windows whacked in here and there in true functional farmhouse fashion, it looks like a place that has reinvented itself over the centuries.

The gargoyle heads, tucked under the eaves with the house martins' nests, know differently, and by the delicate window tracery, stone faces crack a smile as people delight in the discovery of ancient 'scratch' sundials, without working out that they'd never tell the right time.

Great British Life: St Peter's Hall, BungaySt Peter's Hall, Bungay (Image: Archant)

The mighty two-storey porch would be worthy of accompanying any medieval church tower or steeple, but what's the tombstone doing inside it, and why, as well as a bishop's chair is there a 16th century Swiss butchers' shop sign adorning its chambers?

After nibbling on delicious biscuits and nuggets of not-adding-up history over coffee by a Brussels tapestry in the Great Hall, the tour starts in earnest down in the oldest part of the house, now the Library Bar, dating from 1280.

"St Peter's Hall was originally known as Tolly's House," recounts custodian and attentive host Jill Hall. "It was a two-up, two-down back then, with the west range added in the 14th century. The Tolls family sold it to the Tasburghs in 1445 as a working farm with 600 acres.

"When the brewery set out in 1996, it used to brew its beer in here. The Great Hall came about in 1539 when John Tasburgh acquired parts of the priory from Flixton, just up the road." Suddenly, the explanation of St Peter's Hall's strange appearance falls into place.

Great British Life: St Peter's Hall, BungaySt Peter's Hall, Bungay (Image: Archant)

It's debatable whether the sacrifice of 12 small monastic houses to fund Wolsey's plans for Ipswich College put the idea of the full-scale Reformation in Henry VIII's head in the 1530s, but when the nunnery at Flixton was one of them, it's not inconceivable that an ambitious Catholic gent like Tasburgh paid a good price to make his humble farm house into a more stately home.

Local bailiff and architectural salvage merchant Richard Warton, of Bungay, obliged in the 1537 demolition job.

It's entertaining to imagine John Tasburgh wandering around Richard Warton's Bungay archi-salvage showroom, selecting flushwork Catherine-wheel panels, great priory windows, carved corbels and fireplaces, maybe even the occasional bressumer beam or memorial brass.

Or perhaps he had nipped over and made a note of them in situ, so they could be delivered directly from demolished door to door? But in the 21st century, what was it that made Interbrand's John Murphy want to acquire St Peter's Hall - by then, rather neglected - as a brewery site?

"All the water for our beer comes from a natural on-site bore-hole that goes down twice the height of Nelson's Column," explains chief beer sommelier Robin Parker, standing alongside the great steel tuns inside the 'farmyard' brewhouse, on part two of the tour.

The ancient glacier water comes from a band of chalk apparently, and eight pints of the precious stuff are required to make just one pint of beer. He's proud that the brewing area is a computer-free zone, so the processes are based on old-style skill and the time-honoured tricks of his trade.

Although St Peter's now brews draught as well as cask ales, arguably it's the distinctive oval, American heritage inspired bottles that get them most recognised in the market place. "We export worldwide from this small former farm site and have a pub in London too, The Jerusalem Tavern named after the 12th century Priory of St John of Jerusalem."

Back in the Great Hall, those who have managed to leave the tasting samples and beer shop behind them, take a perch on the French choir stalls and set to on Jill's magnificent full afternoon tea.

On the wall hang carvings of brave merchants and a Byzantine looking bishop. On the window sill stand statues of be-mitred men and a Madonna and child.

Like John Tasburgh's bought-in ecclesiastical architecture and John Murphy's 18th century Philadelphian gin bottle inspiration, everything in St Peter's eclectic mix seems to have been selected and collected with devout intent - to build on a myth and create a legend.

Historic Houses Invitation to View tours offer visits to privately owned houses rarely open to the public.

St Peter's Hall, nr Bungay: June 25, July 30, Aug 27, Sept 24

South Elmham Hall, nr Bungay: Aug 22, Sept 26

West Stow Hall, nr Mildenhall: June 12, 16, July 8, Sept 26

Otley Hall, nr Ipswich: June 18, July 1, 25, Aug 23, Oct 2, Dec 12

Info & tickets: invitationtoview.co.uk

T: 01946 690823.

Tours from £16 per person incl. refreshments. Discount for Historic Houses members.

Group tours on request 01284 827087.