Servicemen and their families stationed at one of the two US Air Force/Royal Air Force bases in East Anglia, RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath can find lots of off-base things to do, less than an hour from their temporary home. You don't have to go far and you don't have to spend much.
Thousands of US Air Force personnel at RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall (and their families) make Suffolk, England their home. The men, women, and families of the USAF 48th Fighter Wing, the Liberty Wing at RAF Lakenheath, and the units of four different major USAF commands at RAF Mildenhall have created a settlement as big as a medium-sized American town within the two military bases.
If you're one of them, consider yourself lucky to be in one of the most beautiful regions of the UK. Don't miss the chance of exploring the fairytale villages, gorgeous beaches, wonderful shopping, and fun attractions practically on your doorstep.
Step Into the Middle Ages in Castle Acre
The quiet village of Castle Acre, about 30 miles northeast of Lakenheath, is a very rare survival of a complete Norman settlement begun nearly 1,000 years ago. The Castle Acre Castle and Bailey Gate includes a motte and bailey castle, a bailey gate guarding the entrance to the castle precincts, a parish church, defensive earthworks around the whole village, and Castle Acre Priory, one of the best surviving medieval monasteries in England. The castle ruins are free, and kids and pets love the grassy earthworks and incredible cross-country views. There's a small admission charge for the priory, but it is really worth it. Break the day with lunch at The Ostrich, a good 15th-century country pub with a child-safe walled garden, good burgers, and other hearty, family-friendly choices, in the heart of the village facing the village green.
Stock Up at a Market
Norfolk is farm country. If you've driven even a few miles off base, you've already seen the extensive pig farms, flocks of ducks, and turkeys. There are also plenty of artisan makers supplying cheeses, baked goods, plants, and gorgeous vegetables. Some of the best markets in the UK are within easy reach.
Swaffham Market: A huge, fun Saturday market where you can stock up on fruit and veggies, plump English sausages, local cheese and game, plus crafts, housewares, flowers, and plain old stuff of all kinds. The market celebrated its 800th birthday in 2015.
Fakenham Market: It's a straight run of 35 miles northeast to this charter town with a market charter dating back to 1250. The Thursday Market spreads across the whole town from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There's food and produce, household goods, clothing, toys, pet goods, sweets, hardware, you name it. Look for a flea market as well.
Norwich Market: Norwich Market fills the entire city center with stalls under colorfully striped awnings. It's the largest Monday to Saturday open air market in Britain. You can buy anything from roast pork sandwiches to vintage vinyl LPs, and knitting yarns to biker leathers.
If you are wild about horses, you will love the chance to tour the National Stud in Newmarket. It's the only commercial stud farm open to the public in Britain. See behind the scenes at a working thoroughbred stud farm, including occasional access to the stallions area. Daily tours cost £11 per person, children under 5 are free, and booking ahead, through the website, is essential. Later, head over to the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, located in Charles II's five acre Sporting Palace and Stables. Besides exhibits and paintings, you can see former race horses being retrained in the center's arena and meet retired thoroughbred heroes stabled at the center.
Experience treetop level tests of strength and coordination for adults and older children (at least 10 years or older) on the high ropes at Go Ape in Thetford Forest. This forest adventure park has rope ladders, rope bridges, treetop platforms, ziplines, and more challenges in a somewhat modified boot camp for the fit and daring—with harnesses and safety ropes, of course. Try the Tarzan Swing, where you jump into thin air and swing onto a cargo net you have to climb up. A session on the rope walk costs £25 for kids ages 10 to 15 and £33 for those 16 and older. Every two children under 15 must be accompanied by an adult over 18. The Go Ape center is about half-hour from either base.
This 15th-century, moated hall was built by a Catholic family who had to survive through the English Reformation and the Civil War. There are all sorts of secret doors, rooftop escape routes, and a tiny priests' hole to hide visiting clergy. Most of what you see, though, is Victorian Gothic, the creation of the 6th Baronet who created a romantic view of the house's medieval past. Look for embroideries by Mary Queen of Scots in the house's collections. This house is handy if you are visiting Swaffham Market or Castle Acre, but it is just one of many National Trust properties within an hour of the air bases. Check the National Trust website to find more places in Norfolk and East Anglia.
Sandringham is one of the Queen's private homes, and it is where the Royal Family spends Christmas. It's a faux Jacobean mansion built for Queen Victoria's oldest son, who became King Edward VII. The house was first opened to the public by the current Queen in 1977. You can visit the house, museum (vintage royal cars and personal collections of four generations of royals), and 60-acre gardens every day from the end of March until the October 21. Adult admission in 2018 is £16.50. If you'd like to bring home a royal souvenir, you can stop by the Visitors' Center every day except Christmas and Good Friday, year-round. There's a gift shop, a plant shop, an outdoor clothing shop, and access to the country park, play area and sculpture trail, a tea shop, and a restaurant.
Jump Into the Sea
East Anglia, where the military bases are located, is surrounded by glorious beaches. It is the North Sea though, so if you're planning on swimming, you'll want to wear a wet suit.
The beaches along the north Norfolk coast have the widest stretches of empty golden sands backed by sand dunes and pine woods. The last scene of "Shakespeare in Love" was filmed on Holkham Sands, pictured here.
The Sainsbury Centre is a combination art gallery and museum on the campus of the University of East Anglia, in Norwich. The building, the first major commission of British architect Sir Norman Foster, was built to house the eclectic collections of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury. The permanent exhibitions, which are free, include work from Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Americas, and Europe, spanning 5,000 years. The layout allows visitors to get up close an personal with the works of Degas, Picasso, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Jacob Epstein, and Modigliani. There are some beautiful pieces from the Kingdom of Benin in Africa. The center also has a spacious, light-filled cafe with views over lawns and the campus.
If you've always dreamed of racing a horse across a white sand beach as the surf rolls in beside you, this is the right place. Pakefield Riding School, near Lowestoft takes riders from as young as 4 years old, and from beginners to old hands, for hour-long rides along the beach. Absolute beginners are lead along by a staff member, but if you know how to ride, you can walk, trot, and canter to your hearts content.
BeWILDerwood on the edge of the Norfolk Broads bills itself as "The Curious Treehouse Adventure Park." It's an adventure playground similar to the treetop adventures at Go Ape parks, but for families with much younger children. It's a kind of Hobbit-sized version with child-sized zip wires, jungle bridges, family-sized slides, wobbly wires, and lots and lots of tree houses. Your kids may already know about BeWILDerwood. It's based on a popular series of children's books, The Boggles at BeWilderwood by local author Tom Blofeld who created the park. It's open April through September with some additional opening times in February, March, and October. Prices are based on height.
Mess About in Boats
The Norfolk Broads National Park, along the eastern side of East Anglia, is a series of shallow, interconnecting navigable channels and lakes. The Broads look natural, but actually they are man-made, created when peat bogs were deliberately flooded in the Middle Ages. Today, these channels, rivers, and lakes provide hundreds of square miles of calm waters for canoeing, kayaking, boating, and fishing.
If you like messing about in boats, you can hire rowboats and small motorboats by the hour at The Waterside, Rollesby Broad, Great Yarmouth; go canoe or kayak trekking at the Fritton Lake Outdoor Centre, in the Broads between Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth; or try some stand-up paddle boarding, (SUP to those in the know) at Martham Boats, where a two-hour lesson costs £30.
In England? Yes. Winbirri Vineyard was the best in show, Platinum winner of Decanter World Wine Award in 2017. And despite its Australian sounding name, the vineyard is in Surlingham, south of Norwich on the edge of the Broads. It's less than an hour away from both Lakenheath and Mildenhall. Vineyard Tour and Tasting Experience days are held throughout the year and cost £20 per person. Check their online shop to find out when the next tour is scheduled.
Discover the England of Dreams in Lavenham
Head south into Suffolk, and you'll find the England of your children's storybooks and your travel fantasies. Pastel painted cottages tilting crazily under their thatched roofs, cottage gardens overflowing with colorful flowers, and ancient pubs full of local character.
When World War II American servicemen stationed nearby discovered Lavenham (a village that has often been the tourism "poster child" for this county), they could hardly believe the place was real. It is, and their families have been returning year after year.
Head up the A47 to Norwich, the capital of Norfolk, for some of the best shopping, sightseeing, and dining in all of East Anglia, plus the daily market mentioned above. The city, off the beaten path for years, has a unique vibe—part modern and part medieval.
The nearly 1,000-year-old Norwich Cathedral is the most complete Norman cathedral in England and a fascinating place to visit. It's surrounded by a huge Cathedral Precinct, full of cobbled streets and ancient houses. Add to that a pedestrian shopping precinct of tiny lanes and independent shops and pleasant riverside walks along the River Wensum, and you have a very nice day out or a short getaway about and hour's drive.