Posted 4th Apr 2014
The magnificent Suffolk coast and quaint surrounding towns were once the inspiration for two of England's greatest painters some 200 years ago. Today the county still holds the same rural appeal and beauty, appearing as if untouched by modern life.
Suffolk is often referred to as the unspoiled and quintessentially English county of Britain, pulled together by its varied landscape of meadows, marshes, rivers, shingle beaches and a rich crop of picture-perfect towns. Once home to two of England's best regarded painters, Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, it was the romantic Suffolk scene and exuberance of nature that inspired the artists to so affectionately capture the counties' tranquillity in their work - a landscape that remains almost unchanged today.
The vast county has a lot to give, but its stunning Heritage Coast and illustrious surrounding towns offer a honeypot of fauna, ancient woodland, beautiful beaches and estuaries, preserving a sense of calm and raw natural beauty found in few other places. Flowing from Debenham to the North Sea at Felixstowe - where the Suffolk Heritage Coast begins - is the River Deben, a good starting point to explore the pretty coastal area beyond. Resting on the river's bank, just eight miles from the coast, is the chocolate-box town of Woodbridge. Not just a site for scenic riverside walks, Woodbridge is home to more than 1,100 years of recorded history, renowned for its once lucrative shipbuilding and timber trade. At the heart of the quay stands a mill well known as the last commercially working tide mill in the UK, operating for over 800 years until its closure in 1957. The original mill dates back to 1170, but it was in 1793 that the present tide mill was constructed on its site, used primarily for tanning leather, forging iron, making paper and of course milling flour. 11 years after its closure the mill was saved and restored, though not to its full former glory until 2011, when a successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund meant it could be vastly improved and function once again as a fully working tide mill. Today it opens its doors to visitors who can enjoy uncovering its history in the interactive exhibition, whilst watching the mill at work in special weekly demonstrations. The mill also produces its own wholemeal flour using the same machinery as it did over 200 years ago, selling the flour directly from the mill as well as in local farm shops and delis.
The scenic market town is also a hub for delicious local fare and quaint shops; boasting bakeries, tea rooms, antiques, craft shops and a popular farmers and fine foods market twice a month. Whilst exploring all Woodbridge has to offer look out for Jars of Clay - a friendly ceramics painting studio and café where visitors of all ages can express their creativity over a cup of tea, or pick up your daily bread from The Cake Shop, one of the town's oldest family businesses selling unique local bakes including the Suffolk trencher and Adnams sourdough. If you've worked up more of an appetite then there's a good choice of eateries nearby to keep hunger pangs at bay. Tucked away in a townhouse on Thoroughfare is The Crown, a sleek restaurant offering four intimate areas to dine and a huge choice of scrumptious dishes to sample. Whether you want to cosy up on the sofa, or share tales of your travels at the friendly communal table, you can tuck into a hearty meal from some of East Anglia's best producers. From fresh fish, seafood and Suffolk meat to cool marinated salads using local Aspall cider dressing and seasonal fruit and veg, there's something to sate every appetite. For a slightly quirkier experience pop over the road to the vibrant East Coast Diner and Bar where a selection of ‘posh pizzas' and gourmet burgers are on offer using local ingredients and oak-smoked meats, with a sublime selection of tempting desserts for after. Enjoy the Sussex mushroom pizza topped with Old Sussex Cheddar, or the North Sea pizza loaded with delicious prawns and anchovies. The drinks menu is just as enticing with Suffolk wheat beer, Aspall cider and local spicy tomato juice just some of the tipples to tempt your fancy.
After a good meal why not transport yourself back to Anglo-Saxon Suffolk and explore aplace where kings were buried in treasure-filled ships? Steeped in mystery, the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial site is home to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. Stretching over 255 acres, the beautiful estate is scattered with around 18 ancient burial mounds, stunning seasonal walks and a fascinating Edwardian House where the story of Sutton Hoo began. Little did Edith Pretty, resident of Tranmer House, know, her vision one evening would reveal a story that had been hidden for over 1,300 years. There are many versions of the tale, but it is believed Edith Pretty saw the figure of an armed warrior standing atop one of the mounds at twilight. Convinced there must be treasure in the mound he stood on, she requested the services of an archaeologist. A knowledgeable local man named Basil Brown soon arrived at Sutton Hoo and began excavating the mounds one by one. In 1939 excavation at last began on the largest mound, mound one, and revealed an undisturbed Anglo-Saxon burial ship in its glorious entirety. The 90ft boat, believed to be the burial site of King Raedwald of East Anglia, held many treasures - from swords, spears and shields, to a helmet, feasting items and exquisite jewellery. The other mounds were not lacking in interesting finds either, with the remains of a young warrior and his horse, another boat and many gold coins among the discoveries. Visitors to Sutton Hoo can feast their eyes on the treasures for themselves in the Exhibition Hall, where the story of the mounds unfolds, or just a short walk from the entrance the original burial mounds can still be viewed along a pretty woodland trail - be sure to look out for colourful rhododendrons and the sweet sound of woodlarks as you go. Tranmer House can also be visited, where Mrs Edith Pretty invites you to make yourself at home, hear her story and enjoy picturesque views out across the mounds and the River Deben.
Not only famous for its Anglo-Saxon heritage, Suffolk is also home to Rendlesham Forest, a bountiful woodland interspersed with heathland, wetland - and a UFO sighting. In 1980 a number of US Air Force personnel staying at the nearby RAF Woodbridge reported mysterious lights coming from the forest, with some even claiming to have seen and touched a spacecraft. Today, an exciting UFO adventure trail perfect for families allows the imagination to run wild as the kids have fun looking for strange alien symbols and have a go at cracking the secret message. The forest also offers circular walks and cycle routes, a thrilling adventure playground and picturesque picnic spots where a sandwich can be enjoyed whilst listening for the unmistakable churr of the nightjar among a myriad of other bird life.
If the sun isn't shining there's still plenty of unique things to try on your travels. A visit to Leah Hinks in her studio, The Granary, is sure to ignite your creativity as she teaches the wonders of ceramic craft. Opening her doors to the public in June, visitors can watch her at work during Suffolk Open Studios, creating handmade porcelain jewellery, dishes, bowls, spoons, pictures and much more. Leah also offers creative clay evening classes for children, making themed projects and sitting outside in the orchard during summer to make the most of leaves, twigs and surrounding nature when it's at its most vibrant.
If you're left feeling inspired by Leah's art, then a trip to Snape Maltings promises a treasure box of wonderful finds, from the Pond Gallery exhibitions of pottery, painting, sculptures and prints, to the main gallery where the work of Suffolk's most celebrated artists can be enjoyed. Not just for the art lovers, visitors can also find the Food Hall and Fresh Food Pantry bursting with locally produced and seasonal food, as well as a few luxury ingredients. Look out for Stokes chutneys, dressings and jams made just five miles away, or Butterworth & Son's hot chocolate and delicious biscuits. There are plenty of goodies to be browsed for the home and garden too, as well as independent shops selling clothes, antiques, books, cards, toys, gifts and crafts. Also on site is the magnificent Snape Maltings Concert Hall, famed as the home of the Aldeburgh Festival. The Hall was once a malthouse, transformed into a concert hall by Lowestoft-born composer Benjamin Britten in 1967. A central figure of 20th century British classical music, Britten was inspired by his vast and moody surroundings along the Suffolk coast and, along with singer Peter Pears and writer Eric Crozier, founded the Aldeburgh Festival. Over the years Britten and Pears reclaimed more buildings on the site and established a centre for talented musicians. This legacy lives on today as a year-round performance centre known as Aldeburgh Music. The concert hall is still going strong too, with live music events and theatrical performances taking place throughout the year. With such a lot to see and do, a well deserved break at Café 1885 in the Food Hall is called for. Working with local farms and producers, the café serves an all day brunch of pastries, smoked salmon, hot porridge and a full English breakfast, as well as exciting lunch options including local vegetable tagine, mixed game puff pastry pie, baked salmon and a sublime fish platter. The Café has won a Suffolk Food and Drink Award for its use of local produce, with everything down to the crème fraîche sourced within a few miles.
Read the rest of this feature on p.116 of the May/June 2014 issue...
Images courtesy of Philip Vile, Natalie Mason