Surrey and the Cotswolds might lure more tourists but Suffolk rivals both of them for chocolate box cottages and quintessentially English countryside: it boasts ridiculously pretty villages including medieval Lavenham and picture-postcard Kersey; and it is of course Constable country – the painter was born in East Bergholt in 1776.
Much of Suffolk remains largely unspoilt and unchanged since the days of Constable; vast tracts of the land have been privately owned for centuries. People often say that its landscape is flat and monotonous, but that isn’t really fair. It possesses plenty of variety, including salt marshes and sandy heaths, rich forest and fens, valleys and rolling hills, all hemmed by a romantically bleak coastline – home to the sleepy, ancient coastal town of Orford, genteel Aldeburgh and the traditional seaside resort of Southwold.
An artist’s haven
You only need to glance at Constable’s paintings to be convinced that the majority of the county lies in a time warp. Willy Lot’s cottage by the millpond at Flatford Mill, for instance, is still recognisable as the setting for The Hay Wain.
Constable and other painters such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Alfred Munnings – who, like Constable, all lived in the county – were greatly attracted by the villages and market towns, the endless medieval churches and the charming cottages painted in that distinctive ‘Suffolk pink’, which was originally supposed to have consisted of a mixture of oxblood and whitewash. Other artists entranced by Suffolk landscapes include Turner and Steer.
I may be in a minority, but I prefer its inland treasures to the coast, spurred on by living near Kersey, perhaps Suffolk’s most picturesque village, as a child. Its perpendicular church, so typical of this part of England, towers over the old weavers’ cottages, merchants’ houses and cosy country pub lining the main street, which plunges down a hill to a ford that’s a magnet for ducks and a watersplash for cars to navigate.
Other sleepy villages worth exploring include Boxford, Bildeston, Cavendish, Clare and Monks Eleigh. Another, Polstead, may be restful today, but in years gone by suspected witches would be dipped in its central pond. Dedham, so beloved by ex-resident John Constable, is another to tick off your list, being an attractive mix of medieval timbered buildings and Georgian townhouses.
And Lavenham, with its impossibly wonky wattle and daub cottages, is often described as England’s most complete and perfect medieval town. It sports curving little streets, a late Gothic church emblazoned with the arms of the merchants who built it, elegant Tudor, Georgian and Victorian houses, and a spectacular Guildhall on the pretty market square.
Suffolk does culture too. The charming seaside town of Aldeburgh has a timeless quality and is home of an arts festival each June that was founded by Benjamin Britten. Fishermen can still be seen hauling their catches on the Blue Flag shingle beach, brightened up by the colourful boats, and the high-street is full of interesting shops and restaurants, as well as a 16th-century, half-timbered Moot Hall.
Smaller Southwold possesses a lighthouse, fishermen’s cottages and Georgian town houses and has a pier rebuilt in 2001 that has a collection of surprisingly amusing and inventive coin-operated novelty machines designed by engineer, cartoonist and writer Tim Hunkin. Southwold lies at the mouth of the River Blyth within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths area of Outstanding Beauty. There’s plenty of shops to browse in and a good range of eateries including restaurants at The Crown and Swan Hotels, pubs and tea rooms. However the London effect can especially keenly be felt here – a 2012 housing report concluded that 49 per cent of homes here are used as second homes and let to holiday-makers.
And then there’s Orford. Orford boasts a 12th century castle and 14th century church, pleasant pubs and celebrated restaurant, the Butley Orford Oysterage. Buy fish and oysters smoked in the traditional smokehouse at Pinney’s and freshly baked bread and other goodies from the Pump Street Bakery.
The walk along ex-military testing site Orford Ness Nature Reserve (start the walk at Orford Quay) is delightful. Wild and remote, marshland and rare coastal vegetated shingle provide important habitats for many mammals, bird species and invertebrates here. And in high summer a couple of inebriates too, who may have sampled rather too much of the local delicious Adnams and Abbot ales.
The 45-mile wild and unexploited coast is slowly eroding, so visit it while you can. Especially Dunwich: this port that in Henry II’s time was of national importance is now no more than a quiet little village with a pub, a little museum and the ruins of a 13th century monastery.
Where to stay
The Swan at Lavenham (01787 247477; theswanatlavenham.co.uk)
An historic, very comfortable hotel with comfortable rooms, excellent food and a good spa.
Purton Green (01628 825925; landmarktrust.org)
Surrounded by fields, this delightful thatched and timbered house boasts a hall dating back to 1250.