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Early afternoon on Southwold sea front and you can hear a seagull’s feather drop in the Sailors’ Reading Room. A lady rustles quietly through the daily papers on the table whilst deep in an armchair, her partner enjoys a post-prandial snooze, a copy of Warship Technology abandoned on his knee. Meanwhile, the rhythmical tick of the wall clock reminds readers that outside at least, time marches steadily on.
‘Like stepping out of the modern world’ is how one grateful visitor describes this priceless piece of Victoriana in the Visitors Book. ‘Moving’, writes another. ‘Emotional’. ‘Long may it continue’. ‘Strange but fascinating’. The high-ceilinged room is all of those things with its glass cases of model ships and maritime artefacts, its walls packed with photos and etchings of local nautical folk.
Opened in the 1860s by the widow of a Southwold sea captain, the Sailors’ Reading Room was designed to help local Jack Tars improve their minds rather than ruin their livers in the neighbouring pubs. Today, it’s as much a free museum as a literary haven, though you can still browse the newspapers and search illustrious publications such as The Naval Architect and the Register of Ships.
And for those who still can’t resist the lure of the demon drink, it’s a very short walk to the temptations of the Lord Nelson public house, supplied of course by the local Adnams brewery.
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The Sailors’ Reading Room is just one atmospheric corner of the seaside town which marks the northern boundary of the 45-mile stretch of East Anglia known as the Suffolk Heritage Coast.
An area of great prosperity in the Middle Ages thanks to fishing and the wool trade, this level agricultural landscape gave rise to thriving market towns, solid castles and some of the finest churches in England. Now, however, this easternmost section of Suffolk is best known for its unspoilt coastline and atmospheric estuaries, its pretty coloured houses and fascinating heritage sites.
Southwold certainly boasts all the best bits of traditional British seaside. Elegant balconied villas and quaint coloured cottages. A gleaming white lighthouse seemingly planted in somebody’s garden. And of course a pier, first erected in 1899 and completely rebuilt a century later.
Those who remember Southwold – or indeed any of the towns and villages near the Suffolk coast – from their younger days will certainly notice an air of 21st century gentrification about the area. It’s become a bit of a weekend bolthole for frazzled families escaping the hustle and bustle of London and the Home Counties, but here the high streets have somehow retained their individuality and largely remains a Starbucks-free zone.
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Foodies in particular will have a field day in Suffolk, which makes the county an ideal choice for the self-caterer. Buy fresh fish from the quayside in Aldeburgh and locally grown vegetables at one of Suffolk’s many farm shops. Try a pork and stilton pie from Woodbridge Fine Foods and take home a smoked widgeon or marinated ham hock, a fish pate or a pound of pork and venison sausages from Richardson’s Smokehouse in Orford.
There’s a good selection of both inland and coastal properties for rent and we chose one that almost falls into both categories. Snape Maltings sits beside the river Alde at its lowest bridging point, just a few miles across the marshes from the sea. Once one of the largest flat floor maltings in the country, it ceased production in 1965 after 120 years.
Snape is typical of the small ports on which this area once depended. At high tide, ships as big as 100 tons capacity can still come alongside the quay below the bridge, but at low tide, the river is reduced to a narrow channel between gooey mudbanks patrolled by wading birds. In the summer months, you can pick up a one-hour birdwatching trip here aboard the Osprey.
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Today Snape Maltings is best known for its concert hall – made famous by Benjamin Britten - and as a major centre for arts and crafts. Browse the gallery for original paintings by local artists, wander the tempting interiors and kitchen shop, and tour the craft, furniture and antiques outlets. If hunger strikes, you can relax inside or out at the Granary Tea Shop or try the Plough & Sail for drinks or a restaurant meal.
So if you like the idea of an atmospheric holiday cottage with amenities literally on the doorstep, book into one of the four properties which sleep from two to seven guests each. We took Kiln Cottage which boasts four spacious bedrooms on three floors, all sympathetically decorated in period colours, and a shared rear garden surrounded by tall red brick buildings. Perfect for anyone attending a concert at Snape Maltings or one of the regular painting and craft courses.
Follow the well marked trails beside the Alde and eventually you’ll come to Aldeburgh, once home to composer Benjamin Britten and to author J M Barrie who wrote Peter Pan in a bright blue house on the southern end of the promenade.
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Seaside strolling seems to be the favoured pastime here unless you’re a fisherman. The beach is shingle and requires a fair amount of stoicism when it comes to both swimming and sunbathing, but the straight promenade is just perfect for watching the world go by – or being watched by the residents of the seafront houses which come in every shade from raspberry red to cornflower blue, salmon pink to canary yellow.
Don’t miss the 16th century timbered Moot Hall near the lifeboat station nor the controversial shell sculpture which rises out of the shingle just north of the town.
The river Alde does a right angle bend to the south just outside the town, running behind the shingle spit of Orford Ness to merge with the river Ore near Orford.
This beguiling spot is a hamlet of two halves – a cluster of cottages inland round the church, castle and village square, and a cottage-lined road running down to Orford Quay.
A quiet fishing and farming community until the 12th century, Orford quickly developed as a commercial port once Henry II ordered the building of the castle to guard against maritime invaders. Trade flourished and for a while, this was one of the main seaports for the east of England, but as the harbour gradually silted up, so Orford returned to being a sleepy backwater with a small fishing fleet.
Climb to the top of the castle keep - now in the hands of English Heritage – for a commanding view over the shingle spit of Orford Ness and the RSPB reserve at Havergate Island. Try local oysters or fresh fish from the Butley Orford Oysterage on the main square. And if you fancy a catering-free day, drop in for a meal at the Crown and Castle, home of chef and Fat Girl Slim author Ruth Watson.
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Turn inland from Orford towards Woodbridge and you pass the turning to Sutton Hoo, scene of the greatest treasure trove find in British history. In 1939, archaeologists opened up an Anglo-Saxon burial mound to find the impression of a huge ship packed with treasures and thought to have contained the body of the great pagan king Raedwald, who died around 625 AD.
The estate has been owned and managed by the National Trust since 2002 and you can read all about the finds at the excellent visitor centre, before walking out to see the collection of restored burial mounds. They may look like heaps of earth to us, but 1400 years ago, this impressive hilltop site would have struck fear into the heart of any enemy sailing up the Deben valley below.
Woodbridge itself, which lies on the Deben, is another town with personality. A long curved high street lined with intriguing shops. A museum celebrating Suffolk Punch heavy horses. And a restored tide mill, open daily in the summer months. Try the fresh local produce at the Waterfront Café on the quayside - owned by the proprietors of The Woodbridge Fine Food Company of deli and meat pie fame.
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But don’t miss the charms of Suffolk’s landlocked villages either. Thatched cottages in pretty pastel colours; village greens with white, clapboard windmills; and some of the most impressive parish churches in Britain.
We particularly like Wickham Market just north of Woodbridge with its interiors shop, friendly tea room, and Aladdin’s cave for quilters, all neatly arranged around a traditional village green. Framlingham proved another favourite for its bustling market square, fine buildings and impressive 12th century castle. There are sweeping views from the rampart walk and you can tour at your own pace with the free English Heritage audio guide.
Further up the coast, between Southwold and Aldeburgh, we were intrigued to visit a waterfront community with a dramatic past, for modern visitors to Dunwich mostly marvel at what isn’t there, rather than what is.
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By the 11th century, Dunwich was one of the greatest ports on the east coast, the tenth largest place in England – a crusader port, naval base and religious centre with numerous churches and monasteries, hospitals, grand buildings and even its own mint. It had half the population of the city of London and two seats in the first Parliament at Westminster.
But in 1328, a great storm blew up and the sea came in to destroy more than 400 houses and churches. Today little remains beyond a couple of pretty streets behind the banked shingle beach – the lost town lying submerged beneath the cold North Sea.
Home to just 130 people and a few offshore fishing boats, modern Dunwich boasts a beach café, a 17th century pub and a small museum. View the atmospheric model of how the town once looked and marvel at how nature can change our fortunes overnight (open daily from 1200, April through October; weekend afternoons in March, admission free).
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Inland from Dunwich, lies the RSPB reserve at Minsmere where we followed one of two very different trails of 1.5 miles each (2.4 Km) through a network of lagoons, reed beds and woodland. Strategically sited hides offer the chance to get up close and personal with everything from warblers to woodpeckers, shovellers to sand martins, not to mention the elegant monochrome avocet, unmistakeable symbol of the RSPB.
You may feel a tad conspicuous without a pair of binoculars, a backpack and tripod, but don’t be put off by the groups of obvious enthusiasts who come from all over the country like pilgrims to Mecca. Minsmere is open to everyone – RSPB members free; non-members, £5 – and offers something different at every time of year, not least a pleasant walk with the fresh sea air on your face.
In fact our sortie to the Suffolk Heritage Coast proved a breath of fresh air in every sense of the word – a chance to slow down a gear or two and enjoy unspoilt countryside and great food, stimulating cultural activities and healthy outdoor pursuits. A 21st century stress-buster to rival any Victorian reading room!
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