The ultimate Suffolk road trip
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Suffolk is the county of horse racing, fine art, fine dining and beautiful coastline.
It can sometimes be overlooked for places like Cornwall and the Lake District — and while both those places are, of course, fantastic to visit, why not do something a little different and try East Anglia this summer?
Aside from the very mild weather, Suffolk is only a few hours drive from London. It’s dotted with beautiful Tudor villages, some of the smartest hotels in the U.K. and lots of family-friendly days out. And of course, it’s the home of some of the U.K’s most well-known painters such as Constable, Gainsborough and Munnings.
From visiting the National Stud at Newmarket to crabbing at Walberswick and lots more, here’s our guide to making the most of your trip to the U.K.’s greenest county. Seeing as this is a road trip suggestion, your best bet is to start up the M11 from London then turn on to the A11 to get to Newmarket to begin, then each place is a nice easy spin away.
Newmarket is considered to be the birthplace and global centre of thoroughbred horse racing and has the largest racehorse training centre in the U.K. It’s also a thriving market town, so if horses aren’t your thing, there are some other things to do, but the focus is all things equine.
Either way, the National Stud — the world-famous horse-breeding farm — is worth a visit. Spread over 50 acres, it’s one of the only studs open to the general public. Guided tours of the stud are run by Discover Newmarket, and, depending on the time of year, visitors can expect to see mares with their young foals in the paddocks, yearlings and stallions. You could see some future champions. Tickets are from £15 per person and it will reopen in the coming weeks. Other horsey activities include visiting the racecourses — the Rowley Mile and the July Course — and various horse racing museums.
Where to stay: The Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa is an upmarket former 18th-century hunting lodge. It’s set in three acres of secluded gardens and is a lovely blend of old and new. Rooms start at about £135 a night.
Bury St Edmunds
From Newmarket, it’s a short drive to the cathedral town of Bury St Edmunds. It’s immensely beautiful with 1,000 years of history to explore. If you’re after a bit of horticulture, Bury has some fantastic grounds to wander around — great for social distancing, of course — and none are more lovely than the Abbey Gardens. In spring, 12,000 plants are bedded along with a whopping 20,000 bulbs in the autumn — so it’s a magical place for a picnic. Bury is also a bit of a culinary hot spot.
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Meander through the streets lined with Suffolk-pink 16th-century cottages and find somewhere for a delicious dinner — we recommend Maison Bleu. Bury also has loads of great independent shops and a restored 200-year-old playhouse, the Theatre Royal — the last operating Regency theatre in the country (do check if it is open when you visit, though).
From there, make your way to the higgledy-piggledy historic wool town of Lavenham. It’s known for its half-timbered medieval cottages and circular walks, and you truly feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Lavenham is full of olde worlde shops and scenes in “Harry Potter” were filmed there.
Where to stay: The Swan in Lavenham is superb. There are 45 rooms, all with timber beams, leaded windows and medieval wall hangings. It also has one of the most luxurious boutique spas in Suffolk — perfect for “swanning around” in a robe. Rooms start at about £127 per night and it opens again on 1 August.
Sudbury and Long Melford
From there, the town of Sudbury is about 15 minutes away by car. It’s located in the Stour Valley in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Belle Vue Park is a lovely spot for kicking back and watching the world go by, and you might recognise Sudbury from TV shows such as “Lovejoy”. For art buffs, Gainsborough’s House is also there — the birthplace of the leading English landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough. It’s now a museum and gallery but is currently being redeveloped to become the “national centre for Gainsborough” — do check the website.
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Nearby Long Melford is another quintessentially English village with the county’s longest high street — two-and-a-half miles long. It’s full of independents shops, tea rooms, antique centres and, of course, galleries. There are two stately homes within close proximity to each other that are worth a visit. Kentwell Hall, one of England’s finest Tudor houses, is completely moated. The gardens and grounds cover 30 acres and it’s been described as “magical with a surprise around every corner”. Kentwell is also featured as the outside of Toad Hall in the 1996 film “The Wind in the Willows”.
Meanwhile, Melford Hall is the ancestral seat of the Parker Baronets and has been in use since 1065. Beatrix Potter was a regular visitor with her menagerie of animals. The Hall grounds host a number of events including the “Big Night Out” every November to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.
Where to stay: A short drive away is the fabulous Bildeston Crown in the village of Bildeston. This is a personal favourite, as it’s located very close to where I got married — lots of wedding planning happened there. It’s a 15th-century former coaching inn with 14 beautiful rooms and a menu to die for. Try the lobster Caesar salad with anchovies and bacon. Rooms start at £95 per night.
Dedham Vale and Flatford Mill
Dedham Vale is another Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Essex-Suffolk border. It is known as Constable Country as was made famous by the paintings of the English Romantic artist John Constable. The area straddles the willows and watermeadows of the Stour river and is a fantastic alternative to some of the U.K.’s National Parks, which may be quite busy at this time of year. Also nearby in the village is Munning’s House and studio — the home of Alfred J Munnings, another famed landscape and sporting artist.
Flatford Mill is a Grade I-listed watermill in the charming hamlet of Flatford and was the inspiration behind some of Constable’s most famous pictures including the Hay Wain. Rent a boat to drift through this beautiful countryside –you’ll feel like you’re in one of his masterpieces and visit the Flatford Tea Room for a snack before popping into the Book Nook — a delightful secondhand book shop.
Where to stay: Maison Talbooth is an upmarket boutique hotel with an outdoor heated pool, just on the border of Suffolk and Essex. The rooms are all quaint but spacious and it’s ideally located for all the nearby sights. Currently, the hotel requires a three-night minimum stay to keep the number of guests down. Rooms start at about £295 per night.
Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge
This one is for all the history buffs. Sutton Hoo is the site for one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time — two early medieval cemeteries. One cemetery had an undisturbed royal ship burial with a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts, which are now on display at the British Museum in London.
You can stroll around the 255 acres with far-reaching views of the River Deben, with three atmospheric circular walks to choose from. You’ll need to book your tickets by 3 p.m. the day before your visit though. From there, make your way to Orford, a delightful coastal village home to Pinney’s, a cosy traditional smokehouse that picks its own oysters at nearby Butley Creek. It’s a seafood lover’s heaven. After, walk off some of your lunch with a bracing walk along the water — it gets windy.
Where to stay: The Crown and Castle in Orford is a tranquil hotel perfect for recharging. The rooms are light-filled and airy, and there’s a cosy restaurant featuring locally caught seafood and reared meats. Rooms start at about £127 per night.
From Orford, it’s about a 40-minute drive to Southwold, a traditional seaside town full of unusual shops, decent restaurants and a fun-filled pier. Make sure to pop into the Under the Pier arcade — it’s seriously bonkers. Created by British engineer and cartoonist Tim Hunkin, it’s home to his rather unusual inventions. Southwold is also home to Adnams Brewery. The brewery itself is very much the focal point of the town with its brewing rooms set just behind the high street and adjacent to the town’s lighthouse.
Brewery tours are on offer throughout the year, but check its website. Make sure to sample Adnams gin too — it’s delicious. Once the delights of Southwold have been ticked off, head to nearby Walberswick, a pretty village perfect for a cream tea and some bucket and spade fun. It’s was also the home of the British Crabbing Championships. Crabbing is a fun and cheap activity to do for all the family — just remember to treat the crabs gently before popping them back to get bigger for next time.
Where to stay: Sutherland House is believed to be one of the oldest buildings in Southwold and is just a 10-minute walk from the promenade. A sleigh bed under a 1660 pargetted ceiling or a six-foot, double-ended slipper bath in front of a massive fireplace are two of the highlights from certain rooms. Rooms start at about £175 a night.
Suffolk is a great county for people who love art, history and good food. If you’re a family, it’s educational, too, and will most likely be a lot quieter than the usual summer big hitters. The above suggestions are our top picks but jump in your car — or a train — and discover even more picturesque pockets of lovely East Anglia.
Featured photo by Stephen Dorey/Getty Images
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