Luckily the first visit was to a new house at Wrabness in Essex. I say luckily because I'm not sure such a property would have added to the ambience of Suffolk. I refer to Grayson Perry's dream home, a Disney-like structure the locals refer to as the Gingerbread House. 2003 Turner Prize winning artist Grayson Perry has created, in a new building, a work of art; in its own way it is a tribute to Essex and to Julie, a mythical Essex girl.
On the south bank of the Stour with distant views of the Royal Hospital School and the cranes at Felixstowe Port sits the most unusual house ever. Under a copper roof, still shining gold, with walls clad in weird ceramic tiles it is as disjointed and ill-fitting as it is possible to be. An ostentatious celebration of two troubled lives - the mythical Julie and the cross-dressing artist Grayson - they are both society misfits, even for Essex.
The sensible facts in this story are that the building was commissioned by 'Living Architecture', an organisation which builds and then runs self-catering holidays in quirky new buildings. The Balancing Barn at Thorington, and Dune House on the beach between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness are local examples. Charles Holland of FAT Architects designed the building and it was built by Rose Builders of Lawford (probably the most unusual contract they have ever undertaken).
Julie's House is at the mouth of the Stour, the water is saline and the birds wade in and out with the tide. Some distance further upstream close to the source of the river is the pretty village of Clare, just on the Suffolk side of the county boundary. In Clare the Priory is from a different age; it offers a retreat from modern living, from the noise of the traffic and from life's ever present canned music.
A substantial part of the Priory complex has been demolished, including the Church, which was 168 feet long, a substantial building which would have held a large congregation. Also missing are the Cloisters, although some walls survive; still standing are the Lodgings (the house) from the late 14th century, retained after the Dissolution as a private house and the refectory. The house was returned to the Augustine Friars in 1953 for use as a retreat.
So what brought me here, and what comparisons can be made with my earlier visit? The friars' dormitory was a separate building which has undergone many changes of use over the years including the loss of its first floor when it became the church. The Priory re-established itself here after the house came back into community use in 1954 and this 'new' church has been too small for successful worship ever since. Until, that is, Inkpen Downie architects from Colchester were commissioned in 2001 to design an extension. The fact that this extension has been so long in gestation can be explained by the array of stakeholders with a vested interest, from English Heritage to individual users via heritage and amenity groups to local conservation bodies.
The result is stunning. Having been involved with the Suffolk Association of Architects annual Awards for over 20 years, this is probably one of the most outstanding extensions I have ever seen. The architect has created a usable space that is so calm and peaceful, so full of light but almost without noise. The loudest noise to be heard on the Sunday afternoon of our visit was the birdsong outside.
So if you are inspired to visit architectural gems in the region, avoid the crowds of tourists in Black Boy Lane, Wrabness and wander peacefully by the River Stour in Clare.
"We are overjoyed with what you have given us" Father Bernard Rolls.
Clare Priory is a special site because of its intrinsic loveliness, its venerability and its religious and cultural associations.