Shingle beaches that stretch to the horizon, coastal villages packed with cottages and ancient flint churches were what drew me to Suffolk. This was our first visit to this county and I was delighted to find all these things and more on our autumn trip. We rolled into Suffolk at Bury St Edmunds in our Blue Bus and stayed firstly near Ipswich before following the coast eastward.
In the couple of weeks we were in Suffolk we walked miles along shingle beaches deep with pebbles and soon learnt how tiring wading through this is. We also found sandy beaches that were made for buckets and spades. In Orford we took the boat to Orford Ness and were spell-bound by the combination of post-war military structures and hardy plants. You couldn’t miss the power of nature. Between Minsmere and Dunwich seal pups sat in the surf as we meandered between the clumps of sea kale that breaks up the shingle and climbed up to the heath-covered cliffs.
In Southwold we kicked along the soft sand below rows of colourful beach huts, each one individually decorated, and stood under the pier watching the tide crashing against the complicated lattice of pier struts. Later we sampled a glass of Adnams, the local beer, in a pub off the seafront.
While Thorpeness seems hardly real with its holiday villas that are straight from Disney, the weatherboard houses of Aldeburgh felt real and charming. The brick and stone Martello Tower is solid and dense in comparison to the village. This is now a Landmark Trust property you can rent and what a treat it would be to stay there. If you’re interested in unusual places to stay in, the famous House in the Clouds old watertower in Thorpeness is also available as a holiday rent.
At Aldeburgh we gazed across the sea, guessing there was nothing between us and the Netherlands. From the edge of the village, the dyke path took us on a lovely green route around Aldeburgh passing productive allotments. Leaving the houses we picked up a path through a nature reserve where trees arched above the sandy path, sunshine dappled through the foliage and blackberries glistened by the path and we picked ripe ones as we walked.
Lavenham is hard to beat in the charming village awards. Over 300 buildings are listed in this well-preserved medieval village that was once a wealthy wool town and walking the narrow streets and lanes to the market place is like undertaking a crash course in timber-framed building designs.
Towns & Cities
We were initiated into the sights of Suffolk in Bury St Edmunds and it was the perfect introduction to the county for two Suffolk newbies. We began in the park of this small town, wandering around the abbey ruins to the monumental and richly-decorated stone gatehouse. Later we visited the cathedral, spent a fascinating hour or so in the Moyse’s Hall Museum and finished off our trip in a sunny square with coffee and cake.
From our campsite near Ipwich we visited Ipwich and Felixstowe. The bus to Felixstowe took the slow road and we sat on the top deck until the end of the line at Landguard Fort. You can visit the fort but we were keen to walk and after watching the huge cranes picking up the containers and placing them on the ship like a giant tetras game we set off along the seafront. The sea defences were easy to follow back to Felixstowe with views to the pier and more ships out at sea.
In Ipswich we began with the waterfront, a marina surrounded by old warehouses, the Custom’s House and some shiny new buildings. We had coffee and watched students learning filming techniques with the boats as a backdrop. We wandered through the city centre, passing all the shops you would expect, to Christchurch Park, a large green space with grass, woodland and a pond. Christchurch Mansion is a free museum with a collection of paintings from local artists Constable and Gainsborough.
In Lowestoft we found our way around a sprawling Bird’s Eye factory, no doubt pumping out boxes and boxes of fish fingers, to find England’s most easterly point. I expected a bit more of an attraction here but the orientation circle in the concrete promenade was informative. Checking out the distances we realised we were closer to mainland Europe than we were to Lancashire! Walking along the promenade we could see a lower prom had been washed away by the sea, so I guess Europe is getting further away. Inland we climbed one of Lowestoft’s scores, narrow steep alleys, to the High Street, an old shopping street with some historic buildings and quirky shops
Sitting by the River Waveney between Beccles and Lowestoft a kingfisher flew low over the water and minutes later a swan landed perfectly in front of us and harrumphed occasionally and gently until its partner negotiated an equally skilful landing and they slipped away together. A buzzard emerged from the trees opposite, circled the field and flew away as a group of geese passed overhead. Beside us were bushes decorated with bright-green hop fruits that look too exotic to be British. We had caught the bus to Beccles and after coffee and cake in a cosy but wildly expensive café we followed the Angles Path along the Waveney, a watery highway busy with boats but few other walkers. The weather was quiet, with no wind and the cloud hung in the sky like a billowing duvet. In the wet meadows alongside the river we spotted plenty of Chinese water deer with their teddy bear ears and strange hare-like run.
Churches & Abbeys
I had read about Blythburgh Church but that didn’t prepare me for the loveliness of this medieval church. The exterior flint has been worked and arranged to look like chequer-board tiling. Inside the wonky tiled floor held stories from thousands of feet and I stepped up to the high medieval font. We had come to see the painted angels on the wooden ceiling who peered down on mortals in the nave, their magnificent wings outstretched. While I admired the carved wooden pew ends, Anthony found an information panel about JF Kennedy’s brother, Joe, who died in a Second World War plane explosion nearby.
Leiston Abbey, a ruined abbey not far from Sizewell, today suffers from metal-fence-itis. Ugly temporary fencing circled every part of the ruins that presumably are unsafe. Nevertheless, beyond the fencing we could appreciate the structures, the 14th century arches and windows and the cloisters that retained their sense of peaceful space.
In Pakefield on the edge of Lowestoft, we walked around All Saints and St Margaret’s Church on the seafront. Technically two churches built next to each other, you will notice the tower is attached to one half of the M-shaped roof. These churches were once some distance inland but coastal erosion has led to the loss of many houses here as the sea has nibbled at the land. In the Second World War the buildings took a direct hit and were rebuilt.
Southwold‘s parish church was another church we took the time to visit. This church is fascinating for its Jack. This is a wooden statue dressed in armour, and holds a sword and an axe, which can be used to ring the bell at the start of a service. The Jack has been in the church since the 15th century and it is thought it was originally made to strike the hour for a clock and was repurposed.
Off the main roads, Suffolk seemed to be characterised by narrow lanes, plenty of them going nowhere but to a small coastal village. We took the Blue Bus to the end of the road at Orford and caught the National Trust boat to Orford Ness (see above). Driving to the RSPB reserve at Minsmere the lanes became narrow and then even narrower as we got closer to the sea. The lanes wound around fields and woodland until I had no idea which way was north and whether we were heading in the right direction or not. The only thing you can do is trust the RSPB signs! After our walk we had to follow the same byways in the opposite direction.
Sizewell was an exception. We immediately noticed what a good road it was to Sizewell, presumably for the traffic to the nuclear power station.
Where we stayed
We stayed at some Caravan and Motorhome Club sites on the way down [Grafham Water] for one night and at White House Beach which was handy for Lowestoft. These were both the usual standard.
For Ipswich we stayed at Little Sage Hill, Copenhagen Cottage Caravan and Camping Club Certified Site. I reviewed this site here.
Beach View Holiday Park at Sizewell is a large independent site that was okay for a couple of night and was well situated for walks to Thorpeness and Aldeburgh.