ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
Many visit the famous university town of Cambridge, but few travelers venture beyond to explore the bulge of England’s eastern coastline with its sky-wide landscapes, stunning sunsets, lofty windmills, and unspoilt villages. This itinerary takes you from the vast fenlands, drained by the Dutch in the 17th century, along the pancake-flat Norfolk coastline with the sea often just out of sight beyond fields and marshes, into Norwich with its ancient streets and vast cathedral, through sleepy Suffolk villages full of quaint cottages to “Constable Country” where John Constable painted so many of his famous works. Be sure to visit Cambridge, but expand your trip to explore this quiet corner of Britain.
Recommended Pacing: Spend one night in Norfolk, two if you have the luxury of time, and two in Suffolk, which gives you ample time to explore its quaint villages.
Leaving London, navigate yourself onto the M11 for the fast, two-hour drive to Cambridge, a city with much new building, but at whose heart is a fascinating university complex whose history spans over 700 years. Park your car in one of the well-marked car parks near the town center, buy a guidebook, and set out to explore, for this is a city for strolling and browsing.
At most times visitors can go into college courtyards, chapels, dining halls, and certain gardens. King’s College Chapel is one of the finest buildings in England, with Rubens’masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi, framing the altar. Be sure not to miss Clare College, Trinity College, and St. John’s College, which backs onto the enclosed stone “Bridge of Sighs.” Explore the various alleys and streets on foot, row, or punt, drifting under the willow trees that line the River Cam. Punts can be rented at Silver Street Bridge and Quayside.
Leaving Cambridge on the A10 towards Ely, you come to open countryside offering sky-wide horizons of flat farmland that are soon punctuated by the soaring mass of Ely Cathedral, a building so large that it seems to dwarf the little market town that surrounds it. Until the surrounding fens were drained, Ely was an island, surrounded by water, and the cathedral must have appeared even more magnificent than it does today. This awesome structure was built in 1083, awesome not only for its sheer size but because it is an amazing piece of engineering, its huge tower held up by eight massive oak timbers each more than 60 feet in length.
Leaving Ely, regain the A10, following it around Downham Market to King’s Lynn, a large, bustling town with a well-marked historic core. A market is held every Saturday and Tuesday and the port has several fine old buildings: the Customs House (1683) by the harbor, now the tourist office, the Guildhall (1421), and the adjacent St. Margaret’s Church. The father of George Vancouver, who explored the northwestern coast of North America and after whom the Canadian city and island are named, was a customs officer here.
Leaving King’s Lynn, follow signs for the A149 in the direction of Hunstanton. After several miles turn right for Sandringham, one of the Royal Family’s homes, and almost immediately first left to take you on a scenic drive through the woodlands that surround it. Edward VII, at that time Prince of Wales, bought this huge Victorian house in 1861 because he did not like Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. From mid-April to the end of September from 11 am (all week except Fridays and Saturdays) the grounds and several rooms in the house are open to the public-provided that the Royal Family is not in residence. (Tel: 01553-772675.)
Leave the car park to your left, and passing the main gates (the Norwich gates, a wedding gift to Edward from the city of Norwich), go left through Dersingham to regain the A149. In summer the air is heavy with the scent of lavender and the fields surrounding Caley Mill are a brilliant purple for this is one of the country’s centers for the cultivation of lavender. There is a gift shop selling every imaginable lavender product.
After bypassing Hunstanton, the A149 becomes narrower, pottering along through attractive villages of pebble-and-red-brick cottages (Thornham, Titchwell, Brancaster, Staithe, and Overy Staithe) as it traces the flat Norfolk coast with the sea often just out of sight beyond fields and marshes. This is not a coastline of dramatic cliffs and headlands-the land merely ends and the sea begins.
On the outskirts of Holkham you follow the wall surrounding Holkham Hall to its driveway. This magnificent, 18th-century Palladian mansion, the seat of the “modern” Earls of Leicester, contains paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Poussin, and Gainsborough; 17th- and 18th-century tapestry and furniture; thousands of items of bygone days, such as steam engines, kitchen equipment, smithy tools, ploughs, and fire engines; and Greek and Roman statuary. Detour into Wells-next-the-Sea, one of the few villages along this coast to have a waterfront. Leave the coast behind and turn inland following the B1156 into Holt then continuing in the direction of Norwich (B1354) to Blickling Hall (NT), a grand, 17th-century red-brick house set in acres of parkland. The house is full of fine pictures, tapestries, and gracious furniture.
Following signs for Norwich, join the A140, which takes you to the heart of this sprawling city. Norwich is rich in historic treasures including a beautiful Norman cathedral, topped by a 15th-century spire, with a huge close running down to the River Wensum. The castle, built by one of William the Conqueror’s supporters, is now the Castle Museum. , tel: 01603-223624 Elm Hill is a cobbled street with shops and houses from the 14th to the 18th centuries. Colman’s Mustard Shop in Royal Arcade is a big tourist attraction. Norwich has an interesting market and some very nice shops and restaurants.
From the ring road surrounding Norwich take the A146 in the direction of Lowestoft. Turn on the A145 through Beccles to the A12 where you turn left and first right on the A1095 into Southwold, a quiet, sedate Victorian/Edwardian seaside resort, with most attractive houses lining the seafront and narrow rows of shops forming the town center. Across the river estuary lies Walberswick, a pretty little fishing/holiday village of cottages and a pub, reached by a little ferry that plies back and forth (or the longer road route that traces the estuary).
Regaining the A12, turn left, towards Ipswich, for a short distance to the village of Blythburgh and visit its church, so imposing in size that hereabouts it is referred to as Blythburgh Cathedral. The size of the church is indicative of the community’s importance in years gone by when it was a thriving port, with its own mint, on the estuary of the River Blyth. Its prosperity declined and the church was neglected until it was restored this century. Carvings of the Seven Deadly Sins decorate the pew ends and the rare, wooden Jack-o’-the-Clock.
A short distance farther along the A12 you come to the left-hand turn for Dunwich-cross the heathlands and go through the village to the car park in front of the Flora Tea Rooms, which serves excellent fish and chips, beneath the pebbly bank which separates it from the sea. The fish comes fresh from the fishermen who draw their boats up on the beach. Along the headlands lie the few remains of the medieval port of Dunwich, which was almost completely swept out to sea in 1326 by a great storm. What was left has continued to be eroded by the sea. Local legend has it that before a storm the bells of Dunwich’s 15 submerged churches can be heard ringing.
A short drive brings you to Minsmere Nature Reserve, a celebrated place for birdwatching, and through Westleton to Aldeburgh, a charming town whose streets are lined with Georgian houses and whose High Street has antique and other interesting shops. The local council still meets in the half-timbered Moot Hall (1512). Benjamin Britten, who directed the Aldeburgh music festival for 30 years until his death in 1976, based his opera, Peter Grimes, on a poem by local poet George Crabbe.
Head inland on the A1094, turning left onto the B1069 into Snape to arrive at Snape Maltings, a collection of red-brick granaries and old malthouses, which has been converted into a riverside center with interesting garden and craft shops, art galleries, tearooms, and a concert hall, home of the Aldeburgh music festival every June. From here you can take a boat trip on the River Alde, which meanders through the marshes to the sea.
Continue inland and map a quiet country route through sleepy Suffolk villages and rolling farmland to Framlingham, a quiet market town where Mary Tudor was proclaimed queen of England in 1553. The town is dominated by 12th-century Framlingham Castle with tall, gray-stone walls linking its towers.
From Saxtead Green follow the A1120 towards Ipswich and the A14 as it skirts Ipswich and joins the A12 (in the Colchester direction) at a large roundabout (busy dual carriageways like these keep the small roads quiet and peaceful). Leave the A12 at the third exit, following signs to your left for Dedham, a pretty village settled along the banks of the lazy River Stour made famous by John Constable who painted its mill and church spire on several occasions. (Even though it is just a river bend away from East Bergholt, Constable’s birthplace, today you have to go between the two villages by way of the busy A12.) Sir Alfred Munnings, the painter of horses, lived in Castle House, which is now a museum containing examples of his work.
Retrace your steps to the A12 and return in the direction of Ipswich, following signs for Flatford and East Bergholt where John Constable was born in 1776, the son of the miller of Flatford Mill. The little hamlet of Flatford, now a National Trust property, is signposted in East Bergholt. A one-way lane directs you to the car park above the hamlet (it is not well signposted and you may have to stop and ask the way). The collection of cottages has been restored to the way it was in Constable’s time and a tearoom serves scrumptious afternoon teas and sandwiches. If the weather is fine, you can take a picnic, hire a rowing boat, or simply while away an afternoon on the river. The National Trust shop sells a packet that includes a map identifying where Constable painted some of his most famous pictures and postcards of the paintings so you can wander along the riverbank and pinpoint the very spot where he painted his father’s mill, Willy Lott’s cottage, or the boatbuilders at work. The scene has changed little since those times-apart from the tourists. Constable said of the area, “Those scenes made me a painter.”
Leaving the Constable complex, the road returns you to East Bergholt where you turn right to go through the village and take the B1070 to Hadleigh, a large market town whose High Street has some lovely old houses. On the edge of the town cross the A1071 and then take the first left and first right to bring you onto the main street of Kersey, the most picture-book-perfect of all Suffolk villages. Its narrow main street is lined with ancient weavers’ cottages, grand merchants’ houses, and old pubs, all jostling one another for roadside space and each colorwashed a different color. In the middle of the village a stream runs across the road and drivers must take care to avoid the local ducks.
Join the A1141 for a short drive through Monks Eleigh with its thatched cottages and large craft shop selling traditional corn dollies to Lavenham, which in Tudor times was one of England’s wealthiest towns. Now it is a sleepy village where leaning timbered houses line its quiet street. Continue into the market square with its 16th-century cross and Guildhall (NT), which houses displays of local history and the medieval wool industry.
Country lanes take you the 5 miles to Long Melford whose long, broad, tree-lined main street houses many antique shops and leads to the village green, which is overshadowed by the magnificent, 15th-century Holy Trinity Church. A short walk away, the redbrick, turreted Melford Hall (NT) contains a wealth of porcelain, paintings, and antiques and a display of Beatrix Potter’s paintings-she was a frequent visitor here.
Leaving Long Melford, you can go south to the A12 or west to the M11, either of which quickly return you to London.
* (NT) means that the property listed is under the care of the National Trust.