Great British Drives: Suffolk

Step back in time at Lavenham Guildhall (Picture © Lavenham Photographic)

Step back in time at Lavenham Guildhall (Picture © Lavenham Photographic)

Where: Suffolk

When to drive it: Autumn

Essential stop: Fishing for crabs at Southwold

Perfect stay: The Crown, Southwold

As our Indian Summer continues and the sun heads off the more typical grey autumnal days, Suffolk is the perfect destination for families who want to unwind and grab some precious, undivided time together. 

For a weekend visit, we’d start this Great British Drive in Lavenham. A step back in time to the days of Henry VIII, this medieval village is home to over 300 buildings that are listed as being of architectural or historical interest.

Mums and dads will wonder what it must be like to live in such a picturesque wool town, where half-timbered houses lean and bend like a set from a Harry Potter movie. Meanwhile the kids will marvel at taking breakfast in the Guildhall, the most visited of all the buildings in Lavenham’s historic market place.

Formerly a prison, workhouse, wool store and even a ‘welcome club’ for American servicemen during World War II, today Lavenham Guildhall is owned by the National Trust and does a mean selection of freshly baked cakes and scones.

After seeing the sights and taking enough snaps to fill a fair few Facebook albums, point the car in the direction of the A134 and Bury St Edmunds. Just to the south west lies Ickworth House, a National Trust landmark that’s described as a mix of Georgian Italianate and comes with an impressive Rotunda, built to house the 4th Earl of Bristol’s collection of treasures amassed as he travelled Europe.

A touch of Italian influence comes to Suffolk at Ickworth (Picture © National Trust)

A touch of Italian influence comes to Suffolk at Ickworth (Picture © National Trust)

Bury St Edmunds has its fair share of treasures too. You can take a guided tour by contacting the tourist information centre, or alternatively follow your nose and sniff out Abbey Gardens, home to the ruins of an 11th century Benedictine abbey, or put your head round the door of The Theatre Royal, said to be the sole surviving Regency theatre in the country.

After so much activity, a lazy lunch is called for. A famous spot is the Angel Hotel, where there’s more to the place than meets the eye. Under the hotel is the Wingspan Bar, which has been built into a series of ancient, once-secret tunnels that run beneath Bury St Edmunds. If that sounds quirky, wait until you see the bar, which has been crafted from a vast aircraft engine.

The quirky underground bar at The Angel hotel in Bury St Edmunds

If you lunch at The Angel hotel be sure to explore the quirky underground bar (Picture © The Angel Hotel)

After an enjoyable, long and leisurely lunch, a bracing walk is called for. Say goodbye to Bury St Edmunds and plot a route across country to Southwold. You’ll pass through countless villages typical to Suffolk, including Eye, Stradbroke and Halesworth. The roads are typically flat and the views of the countryside stretching far away with few interruptions are peculiar to Suffolk.

Try not to be too distracted, though. Southwold is tailor made for families. Its long promenade stretches out to the pier, and is flanked by multi-coloured beach huts. Get down on the beach and there’s soft sand – ideal for little feet – and small rock pools formed by the weathered beach breakers.

If you want to call it a day, book a room at The Crown. It’s owned by the Adnams brewery, so you can be sure of a fresh tasting pint of beer after a long day’s sightseeing.

Before the second day of exploring Suffolk begins, a tip: buy a pack of bacon. Then head west on the A1095, south on the A12 and then east again on the B1387. You’re heading for Walberswick, and once parked the local arts and crafts stores all sell crab fishing lines and buckets and nets.

Stroll out toward the sea and you’ll soon come to a series of footbridges over the Dunwich River. There’s always a crowd of excited children peering into buckets and shouting with glee as they wind up another catch. The crabs go back in the water unharmed and well fed…

The long, sandy beach at Walberswick is perfect for letting the kids run wild, flying a kite or just strolling along surf’s edge. Next up comes lunch at Aldeburgh, and the B1125 and B1122 run straight and fast over to the one-time home of Benjamin Britten, a composer and conductor who would establish the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948.

Stay at the Martello Tower in Aldeburgh

Stay overnight at Aldeburgh’s Martello tower – cannons not included (Picture © The Landmark Trust)

There’s no shortage of restaurants in Aldeburgh, but who needs those when there are two of Suffolk’s most popular fish and chip shops on the high street and plenty of benches on the pebble beach on which to perch yourselves and watch the seas roll in.

Be sure to walk the length of Crag Path and catch the Martello Tower at the southern most tip of Aldeburgh, just beyond the sailing club. The coastal defence building is now available for hire, via the Landmark Trust – the perfect option perhaps for the most intrepid travellers who wish to stay on and explore Suffolk some more.