SUFFOLK

Calm sea near Suffolk-Norfolk borderSuffolk has all the makings of a great tourist county—pretty villages lined with timetravel-worthy houses, vast low-lying green fields, and a coastline so beautiful it is considered one of England’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  But while most towns would milk all these attributes for what they’re worth, with commercial enterprises targeted towards tourists, Suffolk remains a humble county, depending on agriculture, not tourism, as the backbone of its economy.  Here you will rarely find tourist traps or bustling crowds hurrying to the next must-see sight.  However, it’s not undiscovered; many travelers have been here before.  But its untouched postcard-pretty landscape makes one feel as if stumbling over some hidden gem for the first time.  Every turn makes one feel as though one is stepping into a fairy-tale picture book. 

Bury St Edmonds Cathedral flickr Martin Pettitt Bury St Edmunds (pop. 35,200) , situated at the very heart of East Anglia, is a borough that wears its thousand-year heritage on its sleeve.  Everywhere you look, you will see traces of the town’s history, from the ruins of the abbey around which the town eventually grew, to the medieval and Georgian structures that dominate its streets.  Even its street plan reflects its history as the first town to experience Norman urban planning.    Nowadays, it is one of Suffolk’s prettiest towns, winning titles for its marvelous floral gardens for several years now.  It has always been famous for its lively agricultural markets, and it continues to uphold that very tradition.  Many travelers to the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts and surrounding towns treat Bury St Edmunds merely as a base, but many will be surprised at the amount of sights that this compact historic town has to offer—everything can be explored on foot, which means that most likely, every which way you look there’s something interesting to see.

History
The area upon which the town of Bury St Edmunds now stands was one of the royal towns during the Saxon era.  The monastery founded by King Sigebert in 633 became the burial place of the venerated King Edmund, who was slain by the Danes in 869.  It was around this monastery, later conferred the status of an abbey by King Canute of the Danes, that the town of Bury St Edmunds grew.  Because of the many miraculous events in the abbey, it soon became a popular pilgrimage site.        

The town is also associated with early politics.  In the mid 1200s, English barons met up in the abbey to draw up what would later become the Magna Carta.  It is clear why the barons chose the abbey, as it had become one of the richest abbeys in England at that time, up until its dissolution in 1539.

The dissolution of the abbey didn’t lead to any decline of the town, though, as the town itself had been developing steadily as a prosperous wool trade town.  Nowadays, it remains a pretty affluent town, supporting the growth of many small local industries that has given jobs to majority of its population.

Layout
The gridiron layout of the town makes Bury St Edmunds a friendly town for those geographically challenged.  The farthest sight from the centre of the town, Angel Hill, is only forty-five minutes away.  Bus services are frequent along the town centre as well, and the train station is a few minutes away south of Angel Hill.

Sights
Bury St Edmonds Abbey 2  flickr Martin PettittThe ruins of Bury St Edmunds Abbey (near Angel Hill, free) are hauntingly beautiful, though they leave no concrete picture of its former significance and prosperity.   Even the remains of King Edmund, the legendary king of East England from 855 until his death in battle with the Danes, are nowhere to be found in the ruins.  It is still an awesome sight to behold, though, and everyone is free to wander anytime of the day.  The abbey gardens are especially pretty, and across from it, the Norman Tower, which used to be the main gate of the abbey, still stands tall, with its collection of creepy dragon gargoyles.   

The Norman Tower is one of the two entrances to the ruins.  Another entrance is the Great Gate, and beyond it you will find the Great Court, and further along, the ruins of the Abbot’s Palace, which were discovered only in the late 19th century.       

If you exit from the Norman Tower, you will find yourself right next to the front part of the recently reconstructed Cathedral of St. James or St Edmundsbury Cathedral (Angel Hill, +44 1284 748720, donations welcome).  Since it was conferred the status of a cathedral in the early part of the 1900s, as the seat of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, the officials have made an effort to make it grander.  Side chapels were built beside it, as well as a new choir school in its grounds.  In 2000, a Gothic Revival tower named the Millennium Tower was built, and completed in 2005.  It is imposing, yet still quite friendly-looking, with its light colored limestone.  Inside, you will find the impressive sculpture of the crucified Christ, made by Dame Elizabeth Frisk.   The entrance of the cathedral shows the heavy influence of its founder, Abbot Anselm, who built this church after failing to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  

While you’re still in Angel Hill, you can find, at the far end of the town square the Athenaeum (+44 1284 758100), a grand Grade I listed Georgian assembly house still in use nowadays.  In Dickens’ heyday, he used to hold public readings of his work here.  On your way to this assembly house, you will be sure to stumble upon many a Georgian and medieval structures.

On the west side of Angel Hill, you will find the commercial centre of the town.  While it’s been affected by modern urban planning unlike the rest of the town, you will still find many Victorian-era buildings here, and the narrower streets in between Cornhill and Buttermarket.  You will also find the former Bury St Edmunds Art Gallery, now named Smiths Row (Cornhill, +44 1284762081, free) in this side of the town.  This art gallery is in a Grade I listed Georgian building, with foundations that date as far back as the 1500s.  But the antediluvian quality of the gallery stops there.  Smiths Row is best known for its contemporary fine art exhibitions.  Its rebranding is not a way for it to shed its Bury heritage; after all, its new name refers to the rows of market stalls near the building during the medieval age.  The rebranding is for the gallery to assert its contemporary slant, as opposed to the old name, which sounded a little stuffy.

On Cornhill, you will find one of the oldest structures in all of East Anglia that’s open to the public, Moyse’s Hall (Cornhill, +44 1284 757160, £4).  It used to be the town’s gaol, and even has barred windows as proof of this.  One of its main attractions is the room dedicated to the town’s history of witch burnings and the relics of the infamous Murder in the Red Barn.  On display here is the book bound in the skin of the convicted murderer, William Corder, whose trial is the very subject of the book, among others. 

The Greene King Brewery (Westgate St.,+44 1284 714297, day-£8, night-£10) is one of England’s most famous brewing companies that date back to the Victorian era.  Its brew house is popular among travelers who are curious about how one of England’s favorite brews is made. 

Theatre RoyalThe Theatre Royal (Bury St Edmunds (Westgate St., +44 1284 755127, £6-12) should be on the pilgrimage list of every Regency theater enthusiast, as it is the only working Regency theatre in the country.  Recently restored in 2005, the theatre gained back what was lost during previous restorations, including the entrances and forestage that are characteristic of a Georgian theatre, all thanks to the work of architect Levitt Bernstein, with the help of the research staff of the Theatre.  To further celebrate the Georgian heritage of the theatre, the staff is planning on staging some Georgian-era plays.  It also successfully stages many contemporary plays, and is open for guided tours.  The theatre offers different kinds of tours, all for varied charges.

Hotels

T
hose who want to pamper themselves will find no other better hotel to spend a night in than
Clarice House (Horringer Road, +44 1284 705550, £80-120), which is a great spa hotel.  Be sure to book early, though, especially if you want the spa package, as it can be quite tricky.  Their reservations personnel are also tricky to deal with, as you have to book over the phone.  The staff members at the hotel itself, though, are very attentive and friendly.  The whole ambience inside this Grade I-listed building is very elegant and lovely.

Angel Hotel (Angel Hill, +44 1284 714000, £100).  This former coaching inn is a literary reference, having hosted a fictional dinner in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.  It is still every bit as marvelous as it was described in the novel, with a modern twist: the hotel is divided into two, a contemporary section and Georgian one.  Choose a room in the contemporary side of the hotel if you value comfort over character in a hotel.




Holy Trinity Church, Long MeilfordLong Melford (pop. 2,752) packs a punch as a village straddling the border between Suffolk and Essex.  It supposedly has the longest High St., which perhaps harkens back to the days when most of the village was concentrated on just one road.  Its name also has something to do with this old attribute, and the Mill Ford on a tributary of the River Stour.       

For a simple village off the Stour Valley, Long Melford is rich in grand history. Here you will find a parish church that can compete with a cathedral in size. The Holy Trinity Church (+44 1787 829171), dating back to the fifteenth century, is among the richest wool churches in East Anglia, and is a fine example of the wool church tradition. It makes a dramatic impact upon travelers who aren’t expected a church of this size in a small village.

 Kentwell Hall (+44 1787 310207, £9.40) is a huge stately house in Long Melford that is so ancient that it has been mentioned in the all-important Domesday Book as Kanewella, a manor among the six owned by the brother of the Abbot of St. Edmunds at that time.  It has since been passed on to many tenants, until 1971, when it was bought by the Phillips, who have been able to fund for its restoration by opening it to the public.  Its long history as a manor may lead one to think of its museum-worthy interiors, but this is not so.  The couple who bought it still live in the house, hence lending it a cozy, homey feel, despite the fact that it’s outfitted in furnishings that date as far back as the Tudor times.          

Melford Hall
(+44 1787 376395, £6.30) is another Long Melford stately home, but its grandness matches its austerity, unlike Kentwell Hall.  It is now the ancestral house of the Parker family, and is maintained by the National Trust.  At a distance, at dusk, its red bricks and turrets make it look even more imposing and dramatic.  Perhaps the only cozy part of this well-preserved house is the Beatrix Potter room.  The author, who was famous for her watercolored children’s stories, was a frequent visitor to the house as a relative of the Parkers.  Some of the sketches she drew while there are on display.

 


Ikworth House  flickr alexbrnLocated 5 km southwest of Bury St Edmunds is the grandiose Ickworth House (The Rotunda, Horringer, +44 1284 735270, £9.15).  The pathway to the house is two hiundred metres long, which gives you an idea of how big the grounds are.  And the grounds are not just vast—they’re well-manicured, with a garden designed by one of the most famous landscapists in England, Capability Brown. 
       
The house, which is topped by a rotunda, itself looks grand, but in an odd way, due to its various periods of construction.  The exterior was so grandiose that it took eight years to be finished.  In fact, the 4th Earl of Bristol who started the construction of the house died shortly after the exteriors were finished.  The East Wing of the house was redesigned upon the instructions of the late Earl’s son as the living quarters.  The Rotunda, which was hardly used by the family, now contains well-preserved furniture and décor that have been there ever since the Georgian era.  It is now The Ickworth Hotel (+44 1284 735350).

 


Packenham wind mill  flickr Martin PettittEast of Bury St Edmunds you will find the village of Pakenham (pop. 19,600), which calls itself the Village of Two Mills”.  This tiny village is mighty proud of its two mills—one a windmill and the other a watermill, both of which are still working, despite having been around since the 18th century.  The watermill (Mill Road, £3) claims to be the last of its kind in Suffolk, and is run and operated by volunteers.  It continues to produce wholemeal flour from locally-grown wheat.         
The windmill, which was built in 1838 and restored recently in 2000, stands on a vast low-lying field.  It is a tower corn mill with five stories.  It is open to the public during working hours.
       
Another pride of this Village of Two Mills is its parish church, St. Mary’s.  It is an unusual church in Suffolk, because it is in cruciform, a design that is discouraged by the reformers.  Different parts of its architecture came from different eras too—its doors are Norman, the nave and chancel Early English, the north and south transepts from the 1800s.




Lavenham  flickr markhillaryLavenham (pop. 1,247) is stuck in time, not by accident, but by choice.  It may not be a prosperous wool trade centre anymore, but it definitely still looks like one.  This is all thanks to the local preservation society members who are so protective of their heritage that they banned any commercial trappings that may taint the authenticity of the village.  The overenthusiastic efforts of the locals have paid off.  Lavenham is a popular day trip destination, and is among one of the most visited (as well as most photographed, perhaps, as it takes no pro technique to make it look pretty) villages in Suffolk.

The half-timbered medieval structures and cottages mostly painted in Suffolk pink are concentrated in Market Place, where it is dominated by the Corpus Christi Guildhall (+44 1787 247646, £4.30).  This guildhall is testament to the wealthy heritage of the town, with its sturdy medieval construction.  It features displays detailing the rich history of the town during its wool trade heyday.  Those traveling with their children need not worry about hearing boredom complaints, as there are plenty of children’s trails in the guildhall.   

Another testament of its merchant wealth in the 1500s is the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, which was constructed with the help of many merchant families during the Tudor era.  It is perpendicular in style, and looks quite similar to the Church of Great St. Mary’s in Cambridge.  Look out of the eccentric 15th century misericords inside the church, which depict various composite creatures with humor.

Hotels

Swan Hotel
[High St., +44 1787 247477, £135-150] fits right in High Street, made up of three houses and with a part that dates as far back as 14th century.  The forty-five rooms are all comfortable and big, outfitted with cozy four-poster beds, though some may not have hot water in the shower.  The hotel staff is very accommodating, though, and will try to make your stay worth the money.

The Old Lavenham Rectory [
Church St., +44 1787 247572, £175-190]
is a lavish three-room B&B which offers upmarket accommodation.  Two rooms are named after two local artists, Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, while the next one is named after John De Vere, an Earl who contributed much to the construction of the parish church.  The whole place is tastefully decorated in Georgian-era furnishings, and the warm welcome of the owner makes it cozy, not austere and stilted.  The over-all faultless accommodation comes with a price, though.

 


Gainsborough 'Abel Moysey' www.gainsborough.orgSudbury(pop. 7,979)  is a small ancient market town that has never seen an actual decline in its stature.  Out of all the small Suffolk towns, it is the biggest and most important, and it has seen a gradual but steady growth over the last three decades.  With that said, Sudbury is not without faults.  Some may expect here the pristine medieval look and feel of other Suffolk towns, but that is not the case with the town.  Take for instance its three Perpendicular churches.  Sudbury is among the three towns in Suffolk which has been divided into civil parishes, a clear sign of its medieval wealth.  However, over the years, these churches, St. Gregory, St. Peter’s and All Saints, have suffered through major reconstruction, so that upon closer inspection, they seem but a shell of their former glory.

The one reason people come to Sudbury is to visit the former home of its most famous son, Thomas Gainsborough (46 Gainsborough St., +44 1787 372958, £4.50).  Gainsborough was a popular portraitist during the 18th century.  While his statue stands proud in the middle of Market Hill in front of St. Peter’s Church, the house itself stands on Gainsborough Street.  The house was made from two different cottages adjoined in 1500s.  The artist’s father added some bricks to it years later as well as other refurbishment.  It is quite typical of Suffolk architecture.  It is the inside that holds a lot of interest, especially those interested in his steady rise as an artist.  The house displays a lot of his paintings, particularly in the years between 1740 and 1750. It also includes his first recognized painting, “Boy and Girl” as well as his most recognized one, “Portrait of Able Moysey”.  Behind the museum there is a walled garden used mainly for sculpture exhibitions during the summer.

Hotels
The Mill Hotel
(Walnut Tree Lane, +44 1787 375544, £61)
has been in business for quite some time, and people have been noticing the difference.  While the hotel is in a great location (only five minutes away from the centre of the town), its age has begun to show in its rather tastefully decorated rooms, despite the fact that it boasts of free Wi-Fi and free parking, as well as a great view of the River Stour. 

A pub converted into a B&B,
The Case Restaurant with Rooms (Assington, +44 1787 210483, £59)
with Rooms has accommodations located at the back of the main building.  There is a cozy garden between the accommodations and the free parking lot.  The restaurant here is a must-try, as it is the backbone of this 7-room B&B.

 


Kersey Old Yarn Market  flickr Bernt RostadA tiny village that still maintains its old layout as a street village, Kersey (pop. 350) is famous for one thing—being the birthplace of the Kersey cloth, which is a kind of coarse woolen cloth that was widely exported all around Central Europe.  Kersey itself is worth a sidetrip, as it is packed with character.   Upon entering the village, you will find a small stream, or a ford crossing the road. This ford is actually a tributary of the River Brett, a river that runs through neighboring town Hadleigh.

One of the prettiest structures in Kersey is the 14th century Bell Inn.  Its heavy timber framing and thatched roof makes it stand out among the other half-timbered houses neighboring it.  Though it is called an inn, it doesn’t actually provide accommodation.  What it does provide are good food, lovely oak beams, and a resident ghost.

Housed in a few old stables is the Kersey Pottery (The Street, +44 1473 822092).  The local stoneware produced in this workshop incorporates local materials that result in an unusual iridescent color and texture that’s unique to it. 

The best way to view the beauty of Kersey is on top of a hill overlooking it, by Saint Mary’s Church, a 14th century church that has not succumbed to modern commercialisation (i.e., no in-house tourist or craft shops!). 


 


Hadleigh Castle ruinsHadleigh (pop. 18,300), located southwest of Ipswich, is another one of East Anglian towns who had its heyday during the wool trade boom in the region.  Its striking features are mostly concentrated in the High Street. Its Guildhall (90 High St., +44 1473 822544, £2.50), which lay witness to its wealthier past as a market town, is a fine example of its timber-framed structures.  You can also tour the guildhall and the town complex, as well as relax with a cup of tea in its garden (£3.50). 

Other noteworthy structures include St. Mary’s Church, built and finished in the 12th century, with its tall spire.  When viewed from the south, you will see the churchyard, with its scattered tombstones, facing the guildhall.  Beside the church is the grandiose Deanery Tower, which was supposed to be a gatehouse to the archbishop’s residence in the 15th century.  Its brickwork is masterful and decorative, and its upper floor serves as a tiny chapel.

Outside the town overlooking the Thames estuary are the ruins of Hadleigh Castle.  Built in the 13th century as a fortification against the French during the 100 years war, it became a favorite residence for Edward III.  Unfortunately the castle was buillt on unstable London clay which subsided and led to its eventual ruin.

Hotel

Edge Hall Hotel
(2 High Street, +44 1473 822458, £85-95).  A little on the steep side, this hotel dates back to the late 1500s, and has been a hotel ever since, so you know it is an institution.  It is located right at the center of the action.  In the Lodge house, you will have access to a kitchen as well as a dining room.

 


Sutton Hoo helmut  Wikimedia CorcoranDiscovered in 1939, the body of this Anglo-Saxon ship revealed the thousand-year-old burial place of King Raedwald of East Anglia, filled to the brim with all sorts of riches.  Now under the care of the National Trust, Sutton Hoo (Tranmer House, Woodbridge, +44 1394 389700, £6.85) stands on a 103-hectare land and has been reconstructed to give visitors a picture of what the ship burial may have looked.  It also includes the original finds that archaeologists found along with the ship, and some great replicas of what may have been inside the burial.  There are also seventeen identified burial mounds you can walk around on, and while you’re at it, you should go on the guided tours to make sense of this quite odd ancient tradition.  The guided tours are provided by the Sutton Hoo Society so you know you’re in good hands.  If the weather permits it, Sutton Hoo is also a good place to take a walk.  It’s also child-friendly, with many activities like quiz trails and dress-up for kids to partake and enjoy, all the while learning.

Sutton Hoo is located nine miles north of Ipswich and is accessibly by taking a train to Melton and another two-mile walk or taxi ride.

 


River Orwell, Ipswich  flickr Jon's picsDespite many attempts to win city status, Ipswich (128,000) remains a town, and its efforts to urbanize and gentrify its town centre have not won many fans.  Located at the head of River Orwell estuary, Ipswich is one of the oldest Saxon towns in England, and a thriving medieval town.  However, nowadays, this rich heritage is being overshadowed by many aspects—the Victorian reconstruction of the place, as well as the out-of-place post war development around the area.  You will also find more trendy gastropubs among half-timbered structures littering the town.  So despite it being Suffolk’s capital, it’s not an actual destination; it’s no more than a stopover for people traversing the county, with a few noteworthy sites to while away the time till the next agenda on the itinerary. 

Sights

Ancient House, IpswichThe town’s centre- the ancient Saxon market place, Cornhill- is urban with a few Victorian structures to make it look slightly interesting.  On Stephen’s Lane, which is a few minutes away from the market place, you will find Ipswich’s claim to fame, the Ancient House, or Sparrowes House.  The structure itself is a Grade I-listed building back to 15th century.  Its façade, though, was only added in 1660 to 1670 by Robert Sparrowe.  The façade features detailed pargeting, the best of its kind this side of England, which depict the four continents known to the Western world at that time: Asia, Africa, Europe, and America.  Each continent is represented by varied mythical creatures and objects characteristic of what the Western explorers knew about them.  Much of the building has undergone extensive renovation in the early 1980s, after it experienced detrimental decline during the late 1970s. 

A few minutes’ walk away from Ancient House will lead you to another popular sight here, the Christchurch Mansion (Soane St., +44 1473 433554, free) stands on a park with a land area much bigger than the town centre itself.  The mansion may seem over-restored, but the interiors prove to be much more interesting, with its Georgian Saloon and displays of Victorian doll houses and toys, as well as the biggest collection of John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough paintings outside of London. 

Hotels
Ipswich town centre  WikipediaSidegate Guest House
(121 Sidegate Lane, +44 1473 728714, £48-53).  This B&B is a little pricier compared to B&Bs of its style, but the large cozy bed will make you forget that instantly.  Bathrooms are at the moment being improved because they are on the small side. 

Stylishly modern interiors (think bold colors and lots of prints) and a converted old warehouse—
Salthouse Harbour Hotel (1 Neptune Quay, +44 1473 226789, £115)
combines both like no one’s business.  Once inside, you will forget you are inside an old structure, because the amenities are modern, but not soulless.  The view is also enviable.  This is a luxury hotel, though, so be prepared for the cost.