You’ve seen the programmes, watched the nightmare property blunders, and wondered why on earth anyone would take on such a challenge. Now meet the couple who rose to a mammoth quest in order to develop a hospitality business in Suffolk.
Businesses are born out of all sorts of motivations.
There’s the desire to use a skill you’ve trained darned hard to achieve; the knowledge you have a ground-breaking concept that the world really and truly needs; or, let’s face it, pure and unadulterated, cold hard cash.
And then there are the more quirky – the ones where you find yourself asking ‘what on earth made them think that was a good idea’?
If you’d seen Natalie Roberts and her husband Steve only a year or so ago, you might indeed have been asking that very question of them.
After all, this is a couple who came to Suffolk on an overnight stay for a Christmas Market, and pretty much walked away with the keys to a dilapidated windmill that hadn’t been touched in almost a century.
In fact, when you see the gongs and acknowledgments they’ve already scooped for their savvy travel concept, you’d be forgiven for being just a little envious.
Natalie, originally from London, is all too happy to share the story on a tour around the wonderful and simply named The Windmill Suffolk.
“Steve and I both know it sounds crazy when we tell people how this business came about,” she laughs.
“We’d been thinking about moving out of London – to Suffolk – for some time. In part, it was because my husband’s parents had moved to East Anglia, but also because my Mum had friends in Suffolk, so our plan was to find somewhere that we could pool our money together and all live on the same plot.
“At this stage there was no talk about a business concept, Steve and I were both still working in London and commuting.
“The birth of an actual ‘business’ only came about because, instead of finding a conventional house, our hearts went on a property that also came with a windmill…of all things.”
Steve and Natalie had driven to the county for the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Market, late in 2007. The following morning, they were idly flicking through the property pages of the local paper, when their eyes fell on an advert for a house with a forlorn windmill attached, just outside the town.
“I immediately spotted it, and I remember nudging Steve straight away and saying, this would be an amazing house with an incredible project for the future,” Natalie recalls.
“He was keen too, but after debating whether to go and see it, we wrestled with our conscience and said that perhaps it wasn’t the sensible option, and that maybe we should just go back to London and forget our dream move for a while.”
Fate, however, intervened.
“Two months later, having not said anything to anyone about the place, even though between the two of us we’d often wondered whether we had been stupid to walk away from an opportunity like that, we got a call from my Mum.
“She was at an estate agency in Suffolk and said she’d just looked at the details of an amazing property. I immediately said to her ‘it doesn’t happen to have a windmill as well does it?’.
“It did! There and then we knew something was pulling us back, so, although we were on holiday at the time, we made the plan to drive straight from the airport to Suffolk to view the property, and that day we did.
“We started to drive away toward the M25 after an initial viewing, and one of us – I can’t even remember who – just said, this is the one – do you think we should go back and sign for it now?”.
There began Steve and Natalie’s mammoth journey in property renovation, in adjusting to rural life, and in the world of establishing their own hospitality business.
It hadn’t so much been strategically planned, as something which they both felt was ‘perfectly written in the stars’.
“Despite the fact it was in such a dire state, derelict for almost 100 years, and didn’t have sails, a top, or any proper interior framework of a ‘house’, we were determined that we would be the next custodians of this piece of history, and that we’d make it a business so that others could come and stay at it,” Natalie says, exuding passion for her incredible project.
“With the main house alongside, and an annexe for Mum, it was ideal, so within eight weeks we had moved in, but work didn’t start on the Mill until 2014.”
Seeing the stunning boutique accommodation offering today, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might have been ‘reasonably straightforward’.
The truth is rather more colourful, involving some eight years of planning bids, community opinions, building challenges, design amends – and not to mention the loss of both of their full-time careers in the past 2 years. (Steve had to give up work in late 2014 to work on the project with other local craftsmen and Natalie left her job in training in March of 2016 to take over the running of The Windmill as a business).
“Some would say it was absolute sheer madness, to throw all your collective savings – yours and your Mum’s – into something of this scale,” says Natalie sombrely.
“I also had plenty of friends questioning how I, an out and out city girl from London, would settle into rural life or forgo stilettoes for a life mucking in on a business like this.
“But to be truthful, from the moment we saw this place, it felt like it was our meant-to-be.
“We knew that whatever it took, however much it stretched us financially, or exhausted us physically, we could turn this into a boutique property which would allow people to experience East Anglia in a really unique way.”
Officially, the business itself only launched late last year – providing unique self catering accommodation for up to four people, over five floors.
Despite that short timeframe, it boasts a number of awards (recent ones include the Tourism and Leisure category for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, as well as the Suffolk Design Award for the Royal Institute of Builders and Architects), and has taken a great number of bookings from the very beginning.
“We’re just so happy with the reception we’ve received,” says Natalie.
“As a ‘building’ it’s now something that the community tell us they like and they view as making a valuable contribution to the economy locally, whilst as a tourist attraction and accommodation option, it seems to be fulfilling a dream on many people’s bucket lists.
“We used local architects – the amazing Beech Architects, who have now had enquiries about working on builds for other Windmills in East Anglia since seeing what The Windmill Suffolk has achieved – and designers and builders on the project, we send our guests to the local stores, pubs and restaurants, and we stock our larder with local produce from great local suppliers.
“I think it’s perfectly possible to be a business with a commercial mind, but also to remember the impact you are having on the community, and the brand of your region.
“I love the thought that we are custodians of The Windmill for the next generation and that we have truly ‘brought it to life’ after a century of it being unloved.
“There can’t be many newly started business people who can say they’ve already accomplished that as part of their story.”
How to book
Contact The Windmill Suffolk with details of how many guests and the dates you would like to stay at:
01284 828 458
**Minimum of 2 nights stay in unique adults only luxury self catering holiday accommodation from £180 per night for a maximum of 4 people.
This includes the rental of the whole five floor Windmill with private gardens and private parking.