England: Sublime Suffolk

By Jeremy Gates

If you want to forget the last 50 years have happened, Suffolk is a good place to hunker down, says Jeremy Gates.

Southwold Beach looking towards Sizewell, Suffolk. Photo / Thinkstock
Southwold Beach looking towards Sizewell, Suffolk. Photo / Thinkstock

The pub menu promises "lovingly grown" lunches, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, after devouring the goat's milk ice-cream, to be invited to meet the goats who'd kindly provided my tasty dessert.

"Meet Venus and Lily,'' says Garry Cook, the chef who runs The Crown Inn, a 15th-century smugglers inn and Grade II-listed building in the Suffolk village of Snape, with his wife Teresa.

"Lily's mad and gives me the evil eye,'' he says, "but we still get 10 litres of milk each week from them.''

You'll find a complete animal farm across the five acres, which provide the "home-reared meats" for The Crown Inn. There are Gloucester Old Spots grunting in the mud, tiny piglets hiding behind nettles, sheep, ducks, chickens, turkeys and quail.

Garry offers fish dishes too - so Teresa goes fishing off Southwold for sea bass fresh from the North Sea.

East of Ipswich, the fenlands of East Anglia have a soothing effect on visitors - on narrow estuaries, like the River Ore at Orford, families happily mess around in dinghies, and walkers stride purposefully along the breezy, shingle beaches.

But as the landscape divides into a patchwork of farmlands and fields of reeds swaying in the breezes as far as the eye can see, thoughts of fresh, local food are rarely far from your mind.

As we contemplate priceless sculptures on the riverbank at Snape Maltings, a young mum walking her baby urges us to visit the bakery in Orford village square for delicious fresh bread.

Another local tip takes us through winding country lanes to the village of Bawdsey, and lunch on the veranda of the Boathouse Cafe, watching the ferry trundling half a dozen passengers across the Orwell to Felixstowe.

We probably shouldn't have eaten for a week before lunch at the 600-year-old Bell Inn, in the riverside village of Walberswick, a `50s time warp which still feels like Enid Blyton's Famous Five country.

Although this spot is crammed with celebrity second-home owners (among them actors Bill Nighy and Geoffrey Palmer, the Freud family and director Richard Curtis), there's no hint of bling.

Nick Attfield, the dynamic young manager of The Bell, has packed his bars with stripped pine tables and creaky lounges, and added a take-away sandwich bar for visiting townies with no time to spare as they tend their boats.

Nick was taken to the pub as an eight-year-old by his Dad - and apparently decided his future career there and then.

"I read economics at Durham with Andrew Strauss,'' he says. "He didn't know then that he'd be England cricket captain, but I hoped I'd soon be running The Bell.''

Now, he's gently tweaking The Harbour Inn too, on the opposite side of the River Blyth in Southwold. The chain ferry across the river was destroyed in 1940, so today you go by rowing boat. It's well worth the trip, if only for a stroll along the famous pier.

After a drive up the A12, our holiday really begins in Aldeburgh High Street.

At the offices of Suffolk Secrets, your holiday awaits in an eco-friendly canvas bag - guides about what to see, where to go, plus the keys to your holiday home.

Directly opposite the Suffolk Secrets' shop, we spot a cinema, created partly from an 18th-century house. Run by the locals, it's one of the few surviving independent cinemas in the country.

Almost next door is Aldeburgh Bookshop, crammed with new hardbacks and one of the first I've seen all year not announcing a closing-down sale.

I feel so enthusiastic that I order a book and, two days later, as we stand in a field contemplating the splendid Cathedral of the Marshes at Blytheburgh, an alarm pings on my mobile announcing its arrival.

The only crowds I see in Aldeburgh are on Saturday night - outside the fish and chippy, with cars arriving from far and wide.

Of 280 holiday homes on the books of Suffolk Secrets, many are in the middle of town. We're lucky enough to have one of the biggest: Sol Backen, a large, well-preserved 1930s detached family home; a rare treat to find in holiday brochures.

A Rayburn cooker is the centrepiece of a large kitchen, and gardens are beautifully tended front and back. The house is so far from the road you barely hear the traffic.

From the back garden, we can see the beach and The Scallop - a giant metal shell sculpture created by Maggi Hambling as a memorial to English composer Benjamin Britten, who lived in Aldeburgh for 30 years.

From Sol Backen, it's a 25-minute stroll each morning before breakfast to collect daily papers in Aldeburgh's main street.

The journey takes me past a line of sheds on the shingle beach selling fish brought in with the dawn; the delectable smells gently wafting past my nostrils would cost a small fortune in a city restaurant.

A simple trick has enabled sedate and serene Aldeburgh to avoid the gloomy, run-down seafronts which disfigure so much of Britain's coastline; instead of a seafront, it merely has a footpath - Crag Path - and some grassy banks.

The High Street has small businesses thriving without a supermarket in sight.

The "Town Steps'' climb up to delightful Victorian and Edwardian terraces, and recently resurfaced tennis courts at the back of the park.

One evening, the wind at our backs, we walk along the beach towards The House in the Clouds at Thorpeness, with the dome of Sizewell nuclear power station on the horizon.

Designed by a Scottish architect who made his fortune from Russian Railways, Thorpeness was created as a model community where young children could play in total safety. It has been amazingly well-preserved since 1912, with a mock Norman castle still sitting proudly at one end of the boating lake.

Sutton Hoo, too, is another must. In 1939, an archaeological excavation revealed an amazing array of treasures in an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, and as you walk around today you can glimpse the charming town of Woodbridge through the trees, where we later enjoy a charming stroll around Framlingham Castle.

Snape Maltings is a heart-warming sight too, where disused Victorian malthouses have been turned, attractively, into shops, galleries and cafes, surrounding the famous concert hall.

And in the sleepy village of Iken nearby, which appears to be full of bungalows occupied by elderly folk who enjoy gardening, we can barely believe that one day, long ago, Queen Boadicea had roused the locals to so much anger that they terrorised the whole of England.

IF YOU GO

STAYING THERE:

Suffolk Secrets - originalcottages.co.uk; suffolk-secrets.co.uk.

PLAYING THERE:

Festivals and regattas are a regular feature all year - Alderburgh Literary Festival (March), Poetry Festival (November), Carnival & Regatta (August), but prices are lower between the crowds.

Go for a walk along the 12th-century battlements at Framlingham Castle, and Sutton Hoo, a key Anglo-Saxon archaeological site still under development by the National Trust.

BEST FOR:

Fresh, locally produced food, wildlife (Minsmere, near Saxmundham, is a famous nature reserve of the RSPB) and thriving coastal resorts.

NEED TO KNOW:

Suffolk brewers - Adnams in Southwold and Greene King in Bury St Edmunds - are renowned for their award-winning ales and delightful country pubs.

DON'T FORGET:

Boots and maps for walking. The Orford, Aldeburgh and Thorpeness Walks map is good.

- AAP

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