The county of Suffolk is a place of many treasures - some of them utterly unexpected
There’s a lane in Dunwich – Middlegate Street – that was once a main thoroughfare in to a thriving walled town, half the size of London, with palaces and even a mint. Now that same lane leads pedestrians straight over the cliffs above the North Sea. Surely, we thought, there can be no more stark a reminder of the relentless erosion of our coastline than this? Ah, but that was before we ventured into the tiny museum at the heart of what is now little more than a hamlet and stared in astonishment at a series of 90-year-old photographs. These monochrome pictures give a blow by blow account of All Saints’ Church retreating from the cliffs into the sea. They even had our daughters dumbstruck for a moment.
Welcome to Suffolk. A county, I had always believed, that epitomised everything that is great about Britain; a glorious landscape as much represented by its son John Constable’s masterpieces as by the summery images of the beach huts at Southwold. What I hadn’t realised was that Suffolk has such a fascinating wealth of history and heritage; a rich seam that I doubt we would have barely scraped had it not been for the weather, which threw everything it had at us, from hailstones the size of marbles, to snow blizzards. So, instead of spending their days frolicking on dune-backed beaches stretching for miles, as they had hoped, the girls got some of the most influential history lessons they are ever likely to get. And all in the name of keeping warm and dry. Did they complain? Not a bit! Such is the thrall of Suffolk’s treasures.
We’d based ourselves at the Camping and Caravanning Club’s Kessingland site – literally a ‘roaring’ success because you wake up to the sounds of the lions at Africa Alive next door. It was only a mile to the beach and a short drive to the long golden sands at Lowestoft.
But we wanted to explore the parts of the Suffolk coast that are just as famous for what isn’t there as much as for what is. Take Aldeburgh, for example; a town that has also lost a lot of its fine buildings to the sea. The striking 16th-century Moot Hall, once in the town centre, is now close to the beach, where the fishermen pull up their boats to sell their catch. Not even the snow could diminish the charm of its main street, lined with colour-washed cottages, smart small shops, galleries and restaurants.
We were in for a real treat the next day, though, at Southwold, as the sun deigned to make a rare appearance. But what were the candy-coloured beach huts doing in the car park on the north side of the pier? A chat with one of the owners revealed that the huts spend part of the year behind a wall for fear of being washed away by the high tide.
I was reminded by my husband of another Suffolk ‘claim to fame’ when driving along the B1084 from Woodbridge towards the landmark Orford Castle. Heavy snow was hitting us horizontally as we drove through a Rendlesham Forest eerily devoid of other people or traffic. Indeed, if it hadn’t been snowing we would have been scanning the sky. For it is here, in December 1980, that Britain’s most famous UFO was spotted over several days by US Air Force police from the nearby NATO bases. To add to the air of mystery, Orford Ness, the long shingle spit beyond the castle, was a testing site in the development of the atomic bomb.
Now the whole area is better known as a designated one of outstanding natural beauty, and quite rightly so. The estuaries are nationally important for wading birds and the heaths are home to rare insects, amphibians and birds, including the stonechat and Dartford warbler.
The biggest draw of this part of the country for me, though, was Sutton Hoo. This is where the richest burial was ever discovered in Britain, an Anglo-Saxon ship containing the treasure of one of the earliest English kings. We followed our enthusiastic guide, Robert Allen, on his mobility scooter, the only person allowed into the site on four wheels. “So you will see something historic anyway,” he joked. Apt words, because, foolishly, I had not done my ‘homework’ or I would have realised that most of the fabulous treasure archaeologists unearthed here is actually in the British Museum 85 miles away. I would have to be satisfied with replicas and photographs of the iconic helmet, breathtakingly beautiful gold and cloisonné shoulder clasps and gold and gem-adorned sword on display in the exhibition hall.
Later, back in the little museum next to the 16th-century Ship Inn, we were still mesmerised by the disturbing story of Dunwich. Much of the city was swept away by a fierce five-day storm in 1286, which also blocked the harbour with so much sand and shingle that it killed the port. Within 40 years the population went from 4,500 to 600. Now, with the cliffs eroding at the rate of 800 metres in 800 years - and still going - the population stands at 120, most of whom are retired.
Feeling suitably sobered by the thought of delightful Dunwich eventually disappearing altogether, we headed back to our camp site. As if right on cue, the sun came out, encircling us in a glorious rainbow. We had mostly failed to find that sun we’d hoped for, but instead we’d found so many ‘gems’ that it really didn’t matter.