Home to an abundance of green spaces and 50 miles of coastline, Suffolk has always been a hotspot for rural staycations. But in recent years, a sleepy corner of the region has transformed into one of the UK’s coolest countryside hangouts. We’re of course talking about Wilderness Reserve, Yox Valley’s sprawling 8,000-acre estate made up of woodland, lakes, rolling pastures and a sprinkling of stylish holiday properties. The venue has attracted a continuous string of famous faces over the years: from Alexa Chung to Jack Whitehall to Cheryl Cole, who recently celebrated her 40th birthday there. So just what makes it so special? Ellie Smith checked in to find out.
Review: Wilderness Reserve, Suffolk
Wilderness Reserve is the brainchild of property entrepreneur Jon Hunt, who joined forces with landscape architect Kim Wilkie on a large-scale conservation and restoration project. This saw the estate transformed into a luxury off-grid destination for weary city dwellers – but also rewilded into a haven for wildlife. Within its confines you’ll find over 150 species of birds, 300 types of plants, 33 mammals and 23 butterflies – plus many acres of wildflowers, which bloom into a rainbow of beautiful colours throughout the different seasons.
A visit here has been on my bucket list for a while (ever since I spotted it on an episode of my reality TV guilty pleasure, Made In Chelsea), so I was excited to finally see the estate IRL. Just over two hours’ drive from London, or an easy train ride from Euston to Darsham, it’s the perfect distance for a weekend break away from the city. And for those who, like me, live in an urban space, a visit here will feel like a real escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Upon arriving, the first thing that strikes me is the total quiet and feeling of tranquility – it’s a hugely popular spot, but all the homes are spread far apart, offering total privacy.
There are 18 properties at Wilderness Reserve, split into two estates (Sibton Park and Chapel Barn), ranging from one-bedroom cottages to a massive 17-bedroom manor house. My boyfriend and I stayed in one of the former: a property called The Hovel which, obviously, is not hovel-like in the slightest. Instead, it is a spacious cottage nestled beside a lake, complete with its own jetty and rowing boat, plus a hot tub. It’s spread across one floor, giving it the feel of a jazzy studio flat, with a bedroom area at one end and a wooden kitchen at the other. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the lake and greenery beyond, offering particularly magical views on a bright day, when the room is flooded with dappled sunlight.
The interiors are the stuff of cottagecore dreams – think white fluffy rugs, patterned cushions, lots of wicker and a roaring fireplace, all set beneath a thatched roof. But there’s nothing cookie cutter about The Hovel: the cottage has a vibrant and unique look, with blue feature walls, dashes of pink throughout and quirky tiles lining the walls of the bathroom.
While the estate certainly feels remote, this is manicured wilderness: properties are decked out with all the amenities you could need for a cosy stay. There’s a well-equipped kitchen complete with cooking equipment, a wine fridge, a Grind coffee machine, a dishwasher and a washing machine; the bathroom is decked out with toiletries; and a wardrobe contains fluffy pink and green dressing gowns. You won’t find a TV here though: instead, there’s a cupboard filled with board games. While the WiFi connection is certainly strong enough to stream Netflix through a laptop, we decided to lean into the vibe and spent a thoroughly wholesome evening playing Scrabble over a glass of wine. If you really want to switch off, the Hex cottage has no electricity or Wifi: just candles and good old conversation.
Properties are kitted out with everything you need to cook your own meals, but a team of professionals are also on hand to help cater for your every whim. Chefs at the on-site Estate Kitchen use locally sourced produce from the bountiful Suffolk larder to whizz up fresh, seasonal fare, with a focus on hand-reared meats, sustainably sourced fish and organic vegetables.
A variety of dining experiences are on offer. Guests can have home cooked meals dropped off to their property, which just need heating up, or order a movie night hamper filled with pick ‘n’ mix and popcorn. For a more refined dining experience, you can organise for private chefs to come and host a fully catered dinner. From BBQs to Sunday roasts and fine dining meals, the opportunities are endless – the team can even set up a woodland feast, where you can enjoy flame-grilled food amid the tree canopies.
We opted for the former, and were treated to a delicious family-style menu featuring venison stew, butternut squash tagine, roast potatoes and greens. In the morning, a breakfast hamper appeared, containing fresh bread, croissants, fruit and granola. If you want to pick up a few extra bits, there’s also a shop jam-packed with goodies, from chocolate and crisps to wine and olives.
For foodies, an extra special time to visit is during YOXMAN, the Reserve’s Michelin-starred food festival which sees top chefs coming to the estate to host special dinners and events. It’s returning for two weekends in 2024: a winter edition from 26 – 29 January, and a spring one from 17 – 20 May 2024, complete with names like Alex Dilling, Raymond Blanc and Tom Aikens.
While it’s tempting to hole up in your cabin and never leave, it’s definitely worth getting out and exploring the beautiful estate. Head out on foot, hop on one of the Pashley bikes, or take your rowing boat out for a meander on the lake. An extensive range of activities can also be arranged, from axe throwing to electric mountain biking, paddle boarding to private wine tasting and acoustic music sessions. There’s also tennis courts and an outdoor pool, plus multiple freshwater lakes for wild swimming. Nervous to brave the cold? Do it the Wilderness Reserve way: with a fire pit and warm towels waiting for you, plus a cup of hot sloe gin and a bacon bap.
Private spa treatments can also be arranged, from 111SKIN facials to the Wilderness Signature Treatment, a personalised ritual which involves an invigorating body exfoliation and head, neck and shoulder massage. Three of the larger properties, meanwhile, have their own spa facilities, such as saunas and steam rooms – one (Chapel Barn) even has a gym.
Ideal for those keen to explore further afield, the estate has recently partnered with BMW UK to offer guests their very own complimentary, fully electric BMW iX or the sporty BMW i4 Gran Coupé to use during their stay. Head out to explore the nearby seaside towns of Southwold and Aldeburgh, visit Sutton Hoo national park, or go for lunch at one of the cosy pubs nearby (in your property you’ll find a list of suggested spots). For those who simply fancy taking the ultra-smooth and sleek car out for a spin, recommended driving routes can be sent to you via WhatsApp.
THE FINAL WORD
This dreamy retreat certainly lives up to expectation, offering a place to connect both with nature and with loved ones. The smaller properties are perfect for romantic couples’ getaways, while the larger houses are ideal for marking special occasions with family and friends – including weddings, for which you can book out one of the two estates for exclusive use. Wilderness Reserve might not be a real trip to the wilderness, but it’s certainly a place which works in harmony with the natural world and encourages slow living in the best way.
Prices from £530 per night, book at wildernessreserve.com