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No space goes unused in the Risby Barn Antique Centre.
No space goes unused in the Risby Barn Antique Centre. (Pary Smith / S&S)
No space goes unused in the Risby Barn Antique Centre.
No space goes unused in the Risby Barn Antique Centre. (Pary Smith / S&S)
The Risby Barn Antique Centre features furniture, carpets, and knickknacks like this figurine.
The Risby Barn Antique Centre features furniture, carpets, and knickknacks like this figurine. (Pary Smith / S&S)
The Dogwood Nursery, on the grounds of the Risby Barn Antique Centre, features rose and jasmine trees, a special bird-lovers section, and garden ornaments.
The Dogwood Nursery, on the grounds of the Risby Barn Antique Centre, features rose and jasmine trees, a special bird-lovers section, and garden ornaments. (Marni McEntee / S&S)
Hanging planters - or flower baskets - are sold at the Dogwood Nursery at the Risby Barn Antique Centre, located three miles west of Bury St. Edmunds.
Hanging planters - or flower baskets - are sold at the Dogwood Nursery at the Risby Barn Antique Centre, located three miles west of Bury St. Edmunds. (Pary Smith / S&S)
The woman's delicate image is etched into an occasional table at the Risby Barn Antique Centre, about three miles west of Bury St. Edmunds.
The woman's delicate image is etched into an occasional table at the Risby Barn Antique Centre, about three miles west of Bury St. Edmunds. (Pary Smith / S&S)

RISBY – Sometimes you just have to give in to serendipity.

So it was when we were (probably) speeding on the A14 from Alconbury to Mildenhall, and I barely saw a sign that said “Risby Antique Barn.”

“Get off here!” I shouted. So we did.

Off the freeway, we made our way by instinct along the now-signless road with the determination of two ladies looking for something pretty.

We found Risby, population 350, where short, brick houses and loved gardens stood sentry against all things untidy. Soon we were upon the farm, and turned in to the gravel drive.

In front of us was a wood-walled barn with a thatched roof crafted as carefully as a bird’s nest. Behind us was Lizzy’s Cafe, where tables sat in the sun and laughter and the sound of clinking dishes emanated from the open front door.

It was sunny for a change, so when we went into the barn, it was cool and the proprietor, Richard Martin, was all too happy to sit and chat.

It seems the barn is about 500 years old and was first used to keep the tithes of a God-fearing town. Hay, livestock, chickens and eggs were all given to the church and stored in the high–ceilinged, bucolic sanctuary.

In the 1940s, the barn belonged to the owner of the Burrell Steam Engine Co., which was famous for its traction engines, Martin said. Old Mr. Burrell lived in the nearby house.

Martin, 47, was able to get the place for a relative steal back in 1986 — a few years after he started the Dogwood Nursery next door.

“I said ‘If I don’t buy it, I’ll kick myself for the rest of my life,’ ” Martin said.

He has since built up the number of vendors and their wares.

“It evolved, rather than was planned,” he said.

Visitors now pay tithes to the 26 dealers who show their wares in the barn. Well-used, refurbished furniture shares space with Roman coins in plastic sleeves, books for bellicose boys with titles like “Napoleon’s Army,” and any manner of vases, statuary, carpets and knickknacks.

A second antique center, called Past and Present, is at the rear of the property. It offers vintage clothes and jewelry, as well as furniture and other collectibles.

In the barn, a large Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes hang facing each other from an exposed rafter, but Martin says he hasn’t had many Americans in the place since Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, vendors who had shopped at the farm to export antiques to the States have run upon a rash of new customs regulations that make it unfruitful in the end.

Not to mention the exchange rate, which makes the stuffed head of a wrathful fox worth $130.

Despite few forays by Americans, even the thousands at the big U.S. Air Force bases nearby, the place seemed fairly popular while we were there. Buttoned-down, older British folks ambled around, bringing this and that up to Martin’s till, where Tom the cat lay in long-haired leisure on the substantial wooden desk.

Like most tomcats, this one gets around the property, but spends a good deal of his time folded handsomely into a lone sock drawer on the desktop.

One gentleman explained to my friend why he was buying a couple of tiny porcelain boxes. In the old days, he said, “holidaymakers” would head to the beach for the summer. In between worrying about their goosebumps, they’d go shopping for something to bring home to show they’d been somewhere.

Often, it was a little piece of porcelain, something to put on the mantle. Proof, it seems, is best when it doesn’t take much space in the suitcase.

After a relatively thorough examination of the goods, and some regret over not being able to drive — instead of fly — back to Germany with that rocking chair or that beveled-glass cabinet, we stepped outside to check out the Dogwood Nursery.

The shop was nothing short of intimate, with lots of things you don’t need but you know you want, like scented soaps, weather vanes and door knockers.

Outside, plaster-cast masks and statues leered from stands amid rose and jasmine bushes. Inside a tiny shack, which beckoned with recorded bird songs, hung a display of handcrafted bird feeders — one encased with bird seed — extra seed sold separately.

If you go

The property is home to the Risby Barn, Dogwood Nursery, Lizzy’s Cafe and Past and Present.

Phone at the Barn: 01284-811126Clientele: Anyone hungry for vintage items or fresh cakes and other food.Prices: Hundreds of pounds for an antique bureau or rocking chair; food prices vary from 1.75 pounds for cake to 6.75 for cottage pie.Hours: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m.to 5 p.m. Sundays and bank holidays.Web site:www.risbybarn.co.ukDirections: Three miles west of Bury St. Edmunds on the A14. Or, for a more scenic route, take the Old Bury Road from Mildenhall/Lakenheath to Risby.

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