This year, it's time to visit Suffolk, the undiscovered corner of England you've probably already imagined in your travel fantasies.
Fairy tale cottages tilting this way and that under their deeply thatched roofs, country gardens overflowing with colorful flowers, ancient pubs full of local character and local beer, soaring parish churches as big as cathedrals, loads and loads of history; it's all part of what makes visitors warm to this special county.
It's also the place to find miles of pristine, white sand beaches, tiny fishing villages where you can pick your supper from the day's catch, lively food, art and music scenes with two of the best music festivals in the world, great art galleries everywhere you look and wonderful shopping.
Did I mention castles, stately homes, scenic drives, the home of the USAF in Europe and the birthplace of the dastardly 17th century Witchfinder General?
And the best part of this is that you don't have to travel far to find it. It's all contained in one small county about two hours - or less - from central London.
Fairy Tale Villages that Time Forgot
Suffolk has a remarkable collection of picturesque, Medieval villages and towns that are easy to tour because they're so close together.
Lavenham, with its 320 listed historic buildings, is positively awash in half timbering, ancient tiled or thatch-roofed houses and elaborate Tudor brickwork. Regularly featured on calendars, posters and the covers of guide books it's considered the best preserved Medieval town in England.
And it's not alone. Between the 1200s and the 1500s, Lavenham and the Suffolk "wool towns" in the heart of the county - Clare, Long Melford, Sudbury, Cavendish, Hadleigh and the cities of Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds - were the among the wealthiest in Britain. Most of their populations were engaged in the making and selling of fine woollen cloth. Seventy percent of the people of Lavenham made the town's famous blue broadcloth dyed with woad. The tiny, incredibly pretty nearby village of Kersey gave its name to a thick warm wool woven into blankets and coats.
Merchants and weavers, grown rich on trade with Europe built enormous guildhalls, soaring cathedral-like parish churches and substantial homes.
Saved by a Twist of Fate
And then it was all over. A new way of weaving cheaper cloth was developed in the Low Countries and almost overnight the economy of the region collapsed. That's why so many of the original buildings remain. Over the centuries, local people could not afford to replace the older houses with new developments. Every time it looked as though someone would tear them down to build something new, bad luck intervened - the Black Plague, European Wars, influenza epidemics.
Locals did what they could to simply keep the towns and villages standing up. Then, between 1943 and 1945, US Army Airforce Station 137 near Lavenham was home to the USAAF 487th Bombardment Group. The pilots fell in love with the towns with their ancient buildings. They drank at the Swan - where the Airmen's Bar still commemorates those days - and made long-lasting local friendships. When the war was over, the interest they generated led to restoration and preservation. Today, you can spend a few days touring these delightful towns, full of homes, inns, shops, and pubs that could have stepped off the pages of a story book.
Find out more about the Suffolk Wool Towns and download a map of the Suffolk Threads Heritage Trail
Enjoy pictures of Kersey in Suffolk.
Music Festivals in 2016
A Celebration of Classical and Contemporary Music
The Aldeburgh Festival, celebrates it 68th year of classical music, art, walks and talks in 2016. Founded by the late British composer Sir Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Sir Peter Pears, the festival fills a former barley malting house (once the largest in East Anglia and now a striking concert hall) with classical and contemporary music, choral music, opera and jazz for 17 days every June.
It all began in churches and local halls in and around the coastal resort of Aldeburgh, Britten's home. Today the festival takes place about five miles away at Snape Maltings a collection of Victorian buildings, barns and workshops covering seven acres beside the Alde estuary. In addition to music, there's usually an art show, some theater and guided walks in the beautiful Snape Marshes.
The schedule is not announced until after January but you can count on leading orchestras, soloists and chorales from all over the world taking part. In 2016, the festival will be held between June 10 and 26.
And a Wild Party for Flower Children on an English Estate
Latitude is a great big, weekend party in the woods...and beside a lake..and across dozens of fields and paddocks. There are more than 20 "stages" - four big ones and lots of little ones - ranging from giant,arena-sized marquees to intimate little gatherings in the forest.
It all began ten years ago and today it is one of Britain's biggest summer festivals, attracting top music acts of all kinds, theatre and dance performances, comedians and comedy sketch shows, hot local bands, Irish and international acts, established performers and curated showcases for up and comers. There's poetry and book readings, films and screenings, cabaret and art installations, hundreds and hundreds of performers. You have to love a festival that has a venue called Pandora's Playgound, and another called The Shed of Stories.
It all takes place over four days in July ( July 14-17 in 2016) in Henham Park, near Southwold in Suffolk.
Special Beaches and Seaside Villages
The east-facing Suffolk coast, stretching about 65 miles north from the ferry port at Felixstowe to the Victorian seaside resort of Lowestoft, is lined with miles of wild beaches. And, though they share the vast, steely presence of the North Sea, every one is different:
- Orford Ness, reached by National Trust ferry from from the castle village of Orford, is Europe's longest natural shingle spit. Today it's a nature reserve with plants and wildlife that can't be seen anywhere else in the world. But its history as a top secret military research area stretches from the Napoleonic Wars right through the Cold War. It's only open for a short season from late June to the end of September - and so hard to catch the very limited ferry service that if you actually get on it, you can have bragging rights for years.
- Aldeburgh, a small, arty and sophisticated resort, was once the bleak fishing village that inspired the opera Peter Grimes by local resident Benjamin Britten. Today, colorful antique fishing dinghies dot the steep shingle beach and the picturesque boats of working fisherman are towed up on the beach every night to unload their catches at beachside smoke houses and crab shacks.
- Dunwich Heath and Beach is a National Trust nature reserve of heather and gorse covered dunes and heathland, crisscrossed by subtly marked paths. The nearby village, with a population of about 100, was once a bustling port. In Anglo-Saxon times it rivalled London. Storms in the 13th and 14th century washed the town away. Now it's sometimes referred to as the English Atlantis and people say that on windy nights you can hear its drowned churchbells ring.
- Walberswick is a pretty hamlet with treelined streets and a wide beach backed by dunes. By the time you arrive at this stretch of the coast, the shore has changed from shingle to soft, golden powdery sand. While there stop in at The Anchor. The landlord is an expert on unusual beers and the food is great. Then take the tiny Walberswick ferry (it's a rowboat) across the Blythe estuary to Southwold.
- Southwold has a huge, soft sand beach lined with colorful - and highly prized - beach huts. It's an old-fashioned seaside resort for grownups, without all the usual honky tonk. So there are good seafood restaurants, a classy pier and a scenic lighthouse. And, if you catch a whiff of roasting malt on the sea air, you won't be mistaken. Southwold is home to Adnams, one of England's best independent brewing companies.
Artists and The Art Scene
Suffolk has inspired artists for generations. Both Constable and Gainsborough were native sons. At the Christchurch Mansion and Wolsely Art Gallery in Ipswich they have the largest collection of paintings by Gainsborough and Constable outside of London. Or head for Flatford Mill and Willy Lott's Cottage, next to Constable's home town of East Bergholt to see and photograph the real setting of Britain's favorite Constable painting, The Hay Wain.
The contemporary is well represented here too. Sculptor Maggi Hambling's Scallop, pictured here, graces the north end of Aldeburgh Beach. The beach faces east so if the weather is clear get up early to see the sun rise around this incredible outdoor piece.
Snape Maltings (also home of the Aldeburgh Festival) is another place to admire outdoor sculpture. Barbara Hepworth's The Family of Man is on permanent exhibition there, and there are regularly changing exhibits of monumental works by top British sculptors. If you are in a shopping mood, the Maltings art gallery has a good selection of work by highly regarded Suffolk and British artists and there's a craft shop for unusual work by local artisans.
Good galleries are scattered around the county too. Don't be surprised by the caliber of artists in the folksy looking galleries on Aldeburgh's main street. Most of these fine art galleries have London and New York branches as well.
And in Lavenham, stop at Lavenham Contemporary to enjoy artist-owner Paul Evans' wonderful landscapes. I couldn't resist myself, so I bought one.
Newmarket, The Home of Racing
Don't be surprised if you happen to see some rather special looking horses grazing in elegant paddocks around Newmarket. The town, near the northeast corner of the county, calls itself "The Home of Horseracing". That's because it is where thoroughbred flat racing began and it has been Britain's headquarters for thoroughbred breeding, training and racing for at least 350 years.
The Jockey Club, the private members club that regulates thoroughbred racing, is headquartered here. So is Tattersalls, established in 1766 and the oldest bloodstock auction house in the world. Discover Newmarket runs tours that take you behind the scenes of these rarified places and events.
The National Stud, a showcase for British thoroughbred breeding, offers reasonably priced, behind-the-scenes tours from mid February to the end of October. Tours can be booked in advance through their website. And the National Horseracing Museum has a huge collection of racing memorabilia, clothing, artwork and historic objects.
If You Go...
It is possible to visit parts of Suffolk on a day trip from London but, because the most interesting travel in the county is on small, slow country roads, at least an overnight stay makes more sense. Luckily there are quite a few lovely and reasonably priced places to stay. We've tried and enjoyed:
- The Salthouse Harbour Hotel in Ipswich is a stylish, luxury boutique and restaurant in a converted salt warehouse. The individually decorated rooms feature touches of exotic decor mixed in with the contemporary furnishings, a nod to the Ipswich Quays maritime history. Its windows overlook the city's marina on the Orwell estuary. (That's the view from my room, above). If you are lucky, you might spy the next America's Cup winner being built in the shipyard across the marina. While I was there, a £20 million J-Class racing yacht was under construction.
Compare prices and book the Salthouse Harbour Hotel.
- The Swan at Lavenham is the quintessential Medieval English coaching inn. The black and white, half-timbered facade has posed for so many guidebook covers, calendar pages and websites that it is almost as familiar an image of "Ye Olde England" as Big Ben. They've been welcoming guests there for 400 years and it is a magical - if haunted - place to stay.
Compare prices and book the Swan at Lavenham.
- The Brudenell in Aldeburgh offers spectacular views of the changing moods of the sea. It's a grand dame of a seaside hotel updated and refurbished as recently as 2014. Waking up here to sunrise over the North Sea is simply unforgettable. Rooms are spacious with salty seaside decor, and the restaurant is very accomplished. There's seaside dining on a terrace in good weather.
Compare prices and book the Brudenell in Aldeburgh
- The Martello Tower was built from more than a million bricks during the Napoleonic Wars. This mini-fortress housed soldiers but never saw action. Now it is a very unusual self-catering property on the edge of the sea at the southernmost end of Aldeburgh beach.It's just one of several unsual and historic properties in Suffolk that you can rent for your vacation through the Landmark Trust.