A wild coastal retreat, with glorious countryside too
Within easy reach of both London and the Midlands, Suffolk is the smallest and gentlest of the East Anglian counties. Its biggest draw is perhaps its coast, which is home to two of Britain’s most alluring seaside resorts – Aldeburgh and Southwold – with the Minsmere RSPB Reserve and ancient settlement of Dunwich at the centre of some glorious stretches of marsh, heath and woodland.
People also come to Suffolk to visit ‘Constable Country’ – a string of bucolic villages straddling the Essex border that were famously painted by the English landscape painter. Meanwhile, further inland, the old wool towns of Lavenham and Bury St Edmunds are handsome destinations for a lazy weekend break. Even Ipswich has a spruced-up waterfront district and interesting attractions. All in all, Suffolk is an easily accessible and diverse region for a weekend break – or longer.
Hot right now . . .
Martin Dunford, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest things to do and places to stay and drink this season.
The East Anglia hotel and restaurant group Chestnut Inns took over The Northgate(Northgate Street; 01284 339604) in Bury St Edmunds three years ago and turned what was a fairly traditional guesthouse into one of the region's most stylish places to stay. Not content with that, however, they have recently upgraded the ground floor bar and restaurant, installing what is by any standards a very cool cocktail bar and gussying up the restaurant with splashy colours and a busy chef’s table. Bury St Edmunds is crammed with good places to eat and drink these days, but this is one of its best.
Just outside Ipswich, Milsoms Kesgrave Hall (Hall Rd, Kesgrave; 01473 333741) is upgrading with a brand-new spa, due to open in spring 2020, and a very welcome addition to what is already a comfortable yet extremely relaxed boutique country house hotel. It will have a large hot tub and wood-burner, five double treatment rooms and offer various packages including spa days, lunches and afternoon teas.
The Guinness Arms (The Street; 01638 597547) is the latest venture from Lord Iveagh’s Elveden Estate, a revamped gastropub with rooms that opened a few weeks ago in the straggling Suffolk village of Icklingham. The food is top-notch, inventive pub food, with beef and game from the estate and lots of local and seasonal variation, and the rooms, housed in a number of updated barns next door, are comfortable and affordable, each named after a member of the Guinness family.
48 hours in . . . Suffolk
Start with an excellent breakfast just outside Ipswich at Milsoms Kesgrave Hall (Hall Road; 01473 333741), followed either by a visit to the waterfront district and Christchurch Mansion (Soane St; 01473 433554) in the centre of town – or in the opposite direction to Woodbridge, where you can wander the sights and shops of the riverside and the old centre, before heading to Sutton Hoo (Tranmer House, Woodbridge; 01394 389700). The site is the burial ground of a warrior king who was interred in a forty-oar ship with a treasure trove of possessions in the early seventh century. You can see the main burial mound, as well as several others.
Have lunch at the Unruly Pig (Orford Rd, Bromeswell; 01394 460310). In its former incarnation as the English Larder, this pub on the fringes of Woodbridge has always been a great place to eat, with a lovely laid-back vibe and great service. The menu features British classics with an Italian twist: for example, the bread selection includes Pump House sourdough alongside Sardinian carta di musica.
Leave the pub and head up through the wilds of Rendlesham Forest to tiny Orford, with its castle and harbour – before heading to Aldeburgh. Here you can enjoy a walk along the seafront, followed by an ice cream at Ives(160 High St; 01728 452264) or a cup of tea and a cake at the Two Magpies Bakery (183A High St; 01728 453204). Next, visit the home of local hero Benjamin Britten – The Red House (Golf Ln; 01728 451700) – on the edge of town. It has a museum chock-full of artefacts relating to the composer, and you can also see the library, still filled with Britten’s and Pears’ collection of furniture, books and paintings, and the studio where he composed War Requiem and other late works.
After this, head inland to Framlingham – and its wonderful ‘castle on the hill’ – Framlingham Castle (Church St; 01728 724922) and the Tudor tombs at the church of St Michael (Church St; 01728 621255). You can walk right around the 12th-century defensive walls, still topped with their Tudor-style chimneys, and enjoy fine views of the surrounding countryside.
For dinner, head to the Station Hotel, also in Framlingham (Station Rd; 01728 723455). It doesn’t look like much, but it's a real foodie joint: the pan-fried pigeon breasts and venison are standout dishes.
Afterwards, stop for a pint at the King’s Head in nearby Laxfield (Gorams Mill Lane; 01986 798395). This ancient watering hole is unusual in that it has no bar per se – just a room full of barrels that staff disappear into to get your order, while you make yourself comfy in one of the pub’s wood-panelled rooms.
Have breakfast at Darsham Nurseries (Main Rd; 01728 667022) and visit Emmetsin Peasenhall (The Street; 01728 660250) to pick up some of its home-cured ham, bacon and other goodies – before heading back to the coast at Dunwich, where you can walk to the RSPB reserve at Minsmere (Sheepwash Lane; 01728 648281). Spend the rest of your morning walking the lagoons, watching the birds and perhaps spying the odd otter amongst the reeds.
Afterwards, have lunch at The Anchor in Walberswick (01502 722112) or cross the river on the foot ferry and stroll up to the excellent Sail Loft for lunch by the dunes (53 Ferry Rd; 01502 725713). The latter is a beachside restaurant with an almost Mediterranean air: it has the feel of a funky seaside shack, with rustic furniture, bare floorboards and fresh fish dishes. They also serve afternoon tea on weekdays, from 1.30pm.
Next, drive to Southwold – to explore its pier and take a stroll along the beach. Afterwards you can do a tour of the Adnams brewery (Southwold; 01502 727200) – for famous Suffolk ales and gin – before heading inland to explore the towns of Beccles and Bungay. Tours of the brewery are regular and very popular, and they take about an hour to see the brewery’s main features and taste an ale or two.
On your way between the two towns, stop at Fen Farm Dairy (Flixton Rd; 01986 892350) to buy some locally made cheese and butter. It is home to perhaps the best cheese to come out of Suffolk in recent years: the creamy, golden Baron Bigod, made with unpasteurised milk from grass-fed cows.
You've definitely earned a pizza at Oakfired in Beccles (35 Ravensmere; 01502 710111). There are all sorts of exotic toppings on the menu, but it doesn't get better than their simple margherita with proper mozzarella and a perfectly blistered crust.
To round off the day, catch the Big Dog Ferry (Puddingmoor; 07532 072761) for the pretty 5km river journey to the Geldeston Locks Inn (Lock's Lane; 01508 518414). There is live music, Sunday afternoon sessions, folk nights and a thousand other inventive offerings to lure you here. It feels very remote, and is one of the few pubs that is easiest to reach by river.
Where to stay . . .
Occupying the prime spot on Ipswich’s impressive waterfront, the Salthouse Harbour Hotel mixes up the city’s maritime legacy with a unique modern style. Public spaces are enlivened by quirky modern sculptures and contemporary art – along with fanciful items picked up on the owners’ foreign travels. It's a winning combination, which also respects the warehouse building's heritage and makes the most of its wonderful location.
Doubles from £150. Neptune Quay, Ipswich; 01473 226789
With a combination of enthusiasm and an irresistible eye for detail, Five Acre Barn's owners have created the ultimate contemporary b&b in the grounds of their home in Suffolk. A world away from seaside guesthouses of old, it is a perfect base for seeing the best of the Suffolk coast. The style is hard to pin down, but the building itself has been shortlisted for various architectural awards and is relentlessly modern.
Doubles from £100. Aldeburgh Road, Aldringham; 07595 328529
The Sibton White Horse is a cosy village pub in a prime location, offering comfy rooms and a great deal of atmosphere. It's most notable for its food, which is hearty, locally sourced and a cut above the norm. For long-standing lovers of all things Suffolk, the White Horse’s location is a great one: at the centre of a peaceful grouping of picturesque inland villages – Sibton, Peasenhall and Yoxford – but also just a short drive for the coast at Walberswick and Dunwich.
Doubles from £90. Halesworth Rd, Sibton; 01728 660337
What to bring home . . .
Don't leave without a bottle or two of Adnams beer – or a tipple from St. Peter's Brewery (St Peters Hall, Bungay; 01986 782322). For seafood lovers, Pinneys Of Orford (Quay St; 01394 450210) also sells a fine range of smoked local fish, pâtés and fresh fillets: available from its shop and restaurant, or delivered direct to your door.
When to go . . .
The great thing about East Anglia is that it is one of the driest – and sunniest – parts of Britain. Winter can naturally be a bit bleak in outlying villages and coastal resorts, but you are just as likely to visit on a bright, sunny day as a dreary one.
Summer can be busy along the coast and in the more touristy inland spots – Lavenham, for example – but the crowds are rarely over-powering, and getting off the beaten track is easy.
Know before you go . . .
Suffolk is a small but unusually varied county, with a rural interior that gives way to a coastline that can feel quite separate from the rest of the county. Indented with creeks and inlets, it hosts a number of seaside towns and villages that are quite literally at the end of the road to nowhere, from Shingle Street and Orford to Aldeburgh and Dunwich.
Basically the A12 divides inland and coastal Suffolk, and to some extent forms the spine of the county – with the green fields and woodlands of rural Suffolk to the left, and the heaths and marshes of the coast to its right.
As with most English counties, public transport is sparse and if you want to see much you are going to need a car. But key towns are connected by train, with two lines spearing off from Ipswich in the south – one to Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds (and, eventually, Cambridge), and another to Lowestoft, with stops at Woodbridge, Saxmundham, Halesworth and Beccles providing feasible jumping-off points to the coast.
Suffolk has gained a decent reputation for food in recent years, with restaurants and other businesses making the most of its bountiful local produce – such as Blythburgh pork, Copella apple juice, Aspall ciders, and of course two of Britain’s biggest regional brewers: Adnams and Greene King. It has always had a great array of local pubs, some of them relatively unchanged and in picturesque locations, but many with a strong renewed emphasis on serving local, seasonal food. As such, you will never go hungry, or indeed thirsty, while you’re here.
Martin Dunford divides his time between East Anglia and London. He’s a big fan of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads and the Suffolk Coast, and is never happier than when following old footpaths between Medieval churches and ancient pubs.