Suffolk – a great place to visit
On my wife’s 40th birthday, we journeyed to the Suffolk coast as it was a place neither of us had visited before, and her family had roots there, going back to the mid-1600s. For those who are not familiar with the area, Suffolk is an East Anglian county of ancient origin. It borders Norfolk in the North, Essex to the south and Cambridgeshire to the west. To the east, there is the North Sea.
Picture Credit: “Postcard map of Suffolk with parts of Cambridgeshire and Essex” by Alwyn Ladell is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
In my younger days, I had been to the Norfolk Broads, but never to Suffolk. Here’s what we found on the trip and subsequent research.
The county town is Ipswich. Other important towns include Lowestoft, Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket, and Felixstowe:
- Lowestoft lies on the edge of The Broads. It is the most easterly UK settlement, 110 miles northeast of London, 38 miles northeast of Ipswich and 22 miles southeast of Norwich. The port town developed out of the fishing industry and as a seaside resort with wide sandy beaches. As its fisheries declined, oil and gas exploitation in the southern North Sea in the 1960s added to its development. These roles have been reduced, but Lowestoft is developing as a regional centre of the renewable energy industry.
- Bury St Edmonds (commonly referred to locally as Bury) is a historic market and cathedral town. The town (formerly called Beodericsworth) was built by Abbot Baldwin around 1080 and is known for brewing, malting and sugar processing. It is the cultural and retail centre for West Suffolk, with tourism being a significant part of its economy.
- Newmarket is famous in the equine world with the headquarters of British horseracing, home to the country’s largest cluster of horse training yards and many key horse racing organisations, including the National Stud and Newmarket Racecourse. Tattersalls bloodstock auctioneers and the National Horseracing Museum are also in the town.
- Felixstowe is the only seaside resort in East Anglia to face southwards with the largest container port in the UK. It is named after Felix of Burgundy, a saint and the first bishop of the East Angles in the 7th century. Before the 13th century, the resort was called Walton. In both world wars, Felixstowe played an important role – see Imperial War Museum, HERE.
The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Suffolk and East Anglia happened on a large scale – it may have followed a period of depopulation by the descendants of the Iceni who had, by the 5th century, established control of the region.
The Anglo-Saxon inhabitants later became the “north folk” and the “south folk”, from which developed the names “Norfolk” and “Suffolk”. Suffolk and several adjacent areas became the kingdom of East Anglia, which later merged with Mercia and then Wessex.
Our destination was the Suffolk Coast, designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The coast is the nearest one to London and has remained largely undisturbed. Famed for its food and wholesome fresh produce, it is hardly surprising that it is a popular destination for holidaymakers. Below, I share details of some of the tourist spots. Apologies for those not shown.
Tourist Spots and the Coast
- Aldeburgh: the town, which lies north of the River Alde, was home to Benjamin Britten. The centre of the International Festival of Arts at nearby Snape Maltings since 1948, it remains an art and literary centre, with an annual poetry festival and several food festivals and other events. As a Tudor port, Aldeburgh gained borough status in 1529 under King Henry VIII. Its historic buildings include a 16th-century moot hall and a Napoleonic-era Martello Tower.
Visitors are attracted to Aldeburgh’s Blue Flag shingle beach and fisherman huts, where fresh fish are sold daily. In the 16th century, Aldeburgh was a leading port with a thriving shipbuilding industry. Its importance as a port declined as the River Alde silted up, as larger ships could no longer berth there, and it survived mainly on fishing until the 19th century when it also became a seaside resort. A unique quatrefoil Martello Tower stands at the isthmus leading to the Orford Ness shingle spit.
- Cavendish Village: this is one of the prettiest villages in Suffolk. It is famous for its thatched cottages and picturesque green, set against a backdrop of the historic Saint Mary’s Church and the Five Bells free house. It was home to Sir John Cavendish, the ancestor of the Dukes of Devonshire, who helped suppress the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
Leonard Lord Cheshire and his wife Sue Ryder are buried in Cavendish Cemetery, and there is a memorial to them within St Mary’s Church. As Cavendish was begun as a home for concentration camp survivors, Sue Ryder’s charity has records of some people rescued by her.
- Clare: Clare is a market town on the north bank of the River Stour. It lies in the “South and Heart of Suffolk”. Clare won Village of the Year in 2010 and the 2011 Anglia in Bloom award for Best Large Village for its floral displays. In March 2015, The Sunday Times and Zoopla placed Clare amongst the top 50 UK rural locations.
Clare and its vicinity reveal evidence of man’s long habitation throughout prehistory. The historical record demonstrates a community that changed yet persisted across centuries, from the Norman Conquest through religious differences, agricultural upheaval and the industrial revolution to the present day.
- Haverhill: Haverhill is a market town and civil parish in Suffolk, next to the borders of Essex and Cambridgeshire. It dates back to at least Anglo-Saxon times, and the town’s market is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. Whilst most of its historical buildings were lost to the great fire on 14th June 1667, one notable Tudor-era House remains (reportedly given to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce from Henry VIII) and many other interesting buildings.
- Lavenham: The village of Lavenham was once one of the wealthiest settlements in England. Today, it is a popular day-trip destination for people from far and wide. It prospered from the wool trade in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the town’s blue broadcloth being an export of note.
In 1487, Henry VII fined several Lavenham families for displaying too much wealth. The town’s prosperity at this time can be seen in the lavishly constructed wool church of St. Peter and St. Paul, completed in 1525, which is disproportionately large for the size of the village. Other buildings also show off the town’s medieval wealth, such as the 1529 Guildhall of the catholic guild of Corpus Christi overlooking the market square. Cheap imports from Europe contributed to the decline of the wool trade in Lavenham, and by 1600 it had lost its reputation as a notable trading town.
During the reign of Henry VIII, Lavenham was the scene of serious resistance against taxes to pay for the war with France. In the late 18th century, the village was home to poet Jane Taylor, who wrote the poem The Star, from which the lyrics for the nursery rhyme Twinkle Twinkle Little Star are taken.
- Long Melford: the large village of Long Melford (aka Melford) lies on Suffolk’s border with Essex, by the River Stour. It is one of Suffolk’s “wool towns” and is a former market town. Its name is derived from the nature of the village’s layout (concentrated initially along a 3-mile stretch of a single road) and the Mill ford crossing the Chad Brook (a tributary of the River Stour).
Prehistoric finds have shown that an early settlement of what is now known as Long Melford dates back to the Mesolithic period, up to 8300 BC. The Romans constructed two roads through Long Melford, the main one running from Chelmsford to Pakenham. Roman remains were discovered in a gravel pit in 1828. In 1997 further finds were uncovered.
By the end of the 17th century, cloth production became important as many new entrepreneurs started to produce a new range of materials. Melford Hall has been home to the Hyde Parker family for almost 300 years, and the family still live in the South Wing of the Hall. Beatrix Potter stayed there on visits.
During World War II, Long Melford was a location for American and Allied service personnel who flew bomber aircraft from RAF Lavenham and RAF Sudbury. Glenn Miller and his orchestra briefly visited Long Melford and played to injured airmen at the 136th hospital in 1944.
- Mildenhall: the market town of Mildenhall is near the A11 and is located 37 miles northwest of Ipswich. RAF stations Mildenhall and Lakenheath are located north of the town. Humans have settled in the area around Mildenhall since at least the Bronze Age. Following the Roman Empire invasion of Britain, Mildenhall was the site of a Roman settlement. It contained the Mildenhall Treasure, a large hoard of 34 masterpieces of Roman silver tableware from the 4th century AD, discovered in 1942. Following its acquisition in 1946, the collection was placed on show at the British Museum, although some replicas are on display in Mildenhall.
The name of the town was first recorded in 1050 as Mildenhale. In 1086, the Domesday Book recorded that the town was the property of the Abbot of St Edmunds and had a population of 64 families. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, ownership of the town was transferred to Edward North, 1st Baron North, whose son, Roger North, became a resident in Mildenhall for a time.
- Orford Ness: Orford Ness is a cuspate foreland shingle spit on the coast, linked to the mainland at Aldeburgh. It stretches along the coast to Orford and down to North Weir Point, opposite Shingle Street. It is divided from the mainland by the River Alde and was formed by long-shore drift along the coast. The material of the spit comes from places further north. Near the middle point of its length – at the foreland point or ‘Ness’ – once stood Orfordness Lighthouse – demolished in summer 2020 due to the encroaching sea. Orford Ness is an internationally important site for nature conservation, containing a significant portion of the European reserve of vegetated shingle habitat, which is internationally scarce, highly fragile and very easily damaged. With Havergate Island, the site is a designated National Nature Reserve and forms part of the Alde-Ore Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is listed as being of national importance in the Geological Conservation Review (GC) as a grade 1 site in the Nature Conservation Review. (NCR). The peninsula was formerly administered by the Ministry of Defence, which conducted secret military tests during both world wars and the Cold War. The site was selected as the location for the Orfordness Beacon, one of the earliest experiments in long-range radio navigation. The Beacon was set up in 1929 and used in the WW2 pre-war era. In the 1930s, Orford Ness was the site of the first purpose-built experiments on the defence system that would later be known as radar.
Orford Ness is the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe. It is approximately 10 miles long and covers over 2,200 acres, of which 40 per cent is shingle, 25 per cent is tidal rivers, mudflats, sand flats, and lagoons, 18 per cent is grassland, and 15 per cent is salt marsh. The spit itself is formed almost entirely of flint deposited by waves through the process of long-shore drift. The size and shape of the spit fluctuate over time. Its dynamically changing nature means the true age of the spit’s formation is unknown. But before about 1200, Orford is thought to have been a port facing the open sea.
- Snape: Snape is a small village on the River Alde close to Aldeburgh, now best known for Snape Maltings, no longer in commercial use but converted into a tourist centre with a concert hall that hosts the major part of the annual Aldeburgh Festival.
There has been human habitation at Snape for 2,000 years, although the original village stood on higher ground – around the present Church. The Romans established a settlement centred on salt production. In Anglo-Saxon times the Wuffingas (who ruled East Anglia from Rendlesham) used Snape as a burial site, and archaeological investigations have revealed ship burials and other graves.
The Domesday Book mentioned a church with eight acres. The present Church, thatched initially, was built in the 13th century, with a porch and tower added in the 15th century. Snape Priory was founded in the mid-12th century, downriver from the village. It survived until 1525, when it was closed and stripped of its wealth by Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York. The monks also built a watermill and probably also constructed the first bridge across the Alde. As a result of fertiliser, sugar beet, and malted barley, Snape became a busy inland port by the end of the 19th century. The famous Aldeburgh Festival is now held in the Maltings, emphasising the area’s links with Benjamin Britten.
Picture Credit: “Snape Maltings, on River Alde” by velodenz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
- Saxmundham: the market town of Saxmundham is set in the valley of the River Fromus 18 miles northeast of Ipswich and 5 miles west of the coast at Sizewell. The town is bypassed by the main A12 road between London and Lowestoft.
The Parish Church of St. John the Baptist dates back to the 11th century. Some features remain from the medieval period, but its present appearance owes most to the 19th century. Much of the Church’s official architectural guide, with accounts of its medieval remnants, can be read on the Town Council site. It has had a market charter since at least 1272, and a market is held every Wednesday.
Brother Eadulf has become Saxmundham’s most famous international fictional character through the best-selling Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne.
- Sudbury: Sudbury was an Anglo-Saxon settlement from the end of the 8th century, and its market was established in 1009. It retains its status as a market town with a twice-weekly market. Sudbury stands on the River Stour near the Essex border, 60 northeast of London. Its textile industry prospered in the Late Middle Ages, the wealth of which funded many of its buildings and churches. The town was noted for its art in the 18th century as the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough. His landscapes inspired John Constable, another Suffolk painter of the surrounding Stour Valley area.
The history of this market town dates back to the age of the Saxons – the town’s earliest mention is in circa 799 AD, when Ælfhun, Bishop of Dunwich, died there. Sudbury is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. The Church of All Saints, St Bartholemew’s Benedictine Priory and the Chapel of Holy Sepulchre were established in the 12th century, and the Dominicans established Sudbury Priory in the mid-13th century.
The town was formerly a port: from 1705, horse-drawn lighters transported grain to the numerous watermills, locally made bricks, coal and even coconuts used for mat-making in Sudbury and Long Melford.
During World War II, an American squadron of B-24 Liberator bombers of the 834th Squadron (H), 486th Bomb Group (H), 8th Air Force was based at RAF Sudbury.
Children’s author Dodie Smith lived nearby, and a part of her famous novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, which inspired the Disney film of that name, takes place in the town.
- Thorpeness Beach: just north of Aldeburgh lies Thorpeness Beach, a quirky little seaside village. Originally, it was a small fishing hamlet originating in the late 19th century, with folk tales that it was a route for smugglers into East Anglia.
The beach is an expanse of shingle leading to some sand at low tide. It is dominated by the Mere (an artificial lake covering 60,000 acres). In 1910, Scottish barrister Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie bought the hamlet. He transformed it into a private fantasy holiday village, with pretty mock Tudor houses and the fairytale ‘House in the Clouds’ (an unusual water tower with a boarded house on top, appearing to float up into the sky – see below). The Mere has many small islands, all named by J.M Barrie, author of Peter Pan.
Sophie Lascelles, who was born in the village in 1973, is a professional photographer of note. She is a great-great-granddaughter of King George V.
- Woodbridge: this historic market town lies about 8 miles up the River Deben from the and 7 miles northeast of Ipswich. The town is close to several archaeological sites of the Anglo-Saxon period, including the Sutton Hoo burial ship. It is well known for its boating harbour and tide mill, on the edge of the Suffolk Coast and Heath Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. One of the first in England, the mill, still used to this day, spans over 800 years of production. As a “gem in Suffolk’s crown”, it has been named the best place to live in the East of England. Archaeological finds point to habitation in the area from the Neolithic Age (2500–1700 BC). The Romans occupied the area for 300 years after Queen Boudica’s failed rebellion in 59 CE, but little evidence of their presence remains. After the Roman forces returned to Rome in 410 AD, substantial Anglo-Saxon settlement ensued.
Excerpted from Various Sources and Further Reading
- The Iceni were a tribe of British Celts living in today’s modern Norfolk and northwest Suffolk. After the Roman invasion, they retained their territory as a client kingdom. In 47 AD, the Iceni rose in revolt after the Romans tried to enforce a law forbidding the carrying of weapons. ↑
- The Peasants’ Revolt, also named Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Great Rising, was a major uprising across large parts of England in 1381. The revolt had various causes, including the socio-economic and political tensions generated by the Black Death in the 1340s, the high taxes resulting from the conflict with France during the Hundred Years’ War, and instability within the local leadership of London. The final trigger for the revolt was the intervention of a royal official, John Bampton, in Essex on 30 May 1381. His attempts to collect unpaid poll taxes in Brentwood ended in a violent confrontation, which rapidly spread across the south-east of the country. A wide spectrum of rural society, including many local artisans and village officials, rose up in protest, burning court records and opening the local gaols. The rebels sought a reduction in taxation, an end to serfdom, and the removal of King Richard II‘s senior officials and law courts. ↑