History and heritage at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk Coast & Heaths
Exploring Sutton Hoo and the surrounding area, our writer learns some fascinating archaeological and historical facts on the Suffolk Coast & Heaths.
Poor old Basil Brown. In 1938 this self-trained, local archaeologist was asked to examine 18 low grassy mounds on the land of one Edith Pretty, a wealthy heiress and widow. She claimed that she had dreamt about seeing ghostly figures marching about on the mounds and felt compelled to investigate. However, no sooner had word got out that Brown and his two assistant labourers had in fact found an undisturbed 90ft Anglo Saxon ship, then Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips rushed down to see the findings for himself. In turn he persuaded Mrs Pretty to appoint his own team instead, and Brown was politely but firmly sidelined on the project.
What this new team went on to discover astonished the world; a treasure chamber containing a iconic warrior’s helmet and shield plus many gold and silver treasures believed to have belonged to King Raedwold who ruled over most of East Anglia in the seventh century.
Fortunately, Brown’s name has since gone down in history as the one to have made that first, momentous discovery of the Saxon ship, and his detailed diaries have provided an invaluable insight into what happened as the dig unfolded. To make the most of your visit, book yourself on a guided tour with a National Trust volunteer who will take you right up and onto the burial mounds. Afterwards, take one of woodland and heathland walks trails around the 245 acre site which overlooks the Deben estuary. As you look down, imagine what kind of an undertaking it must have been for those sailors to manoeuvre the 90ft ship all the way up from the river to the burial site.
This extraordinary place is reason alone to come to this part of Suffolk, but there are plenty of other historical sites that are well worth a visit. On your way back from Sutton Hoo, pop in to the Tide Mill Living Museum at Woodbridge. It has recently been re-opened following a £1.25m renovation project to restore its four tonne oak wheel, which had been grinding corn for over 800 years right up until the 1970’s.
Also don’t miss the tiny village of Dunwich, now home to barely 120 residents with a few picturesque offshore fishing boats and a friendly 17th century pub, The Ship Inn. Despite appearances, it was once one of the greatest ports on the east coast and the 10th largest place in England, which you can learn all about the in the charming village museum. There’s also the Aldeburgh Museum, packed with local history and housed in a historic, timber-framed public building dating back to the 16th Century, and of course there’s the iconic Orford Castle. It sits overlooking the former port developed by Henry II, and has one of the most unusual and best preserved keeps in England.
>> For more details, see our list of family days out in Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB.
Where to stay
The Coach House B&B in Woodbridge is a great base for exploring the area, with a bus stop right outside and it’s well worth taking the slightly longer route into town via the National Trust’s Kyson Point walk with stunning views of the Deben estuary.
The house has three light and airy guest rooms, all decorated with sophisticated touches including stripped pine floors, warm oak furniture and crisp, fresh bed linens.
I particularly loved watching the birds feeding in the pretty courtyard garden, as I savoured a hearty, home cooked breakfast sourced entirely from local ingredients.
The owner, Rita James, has won a Gold Award from the Green Tourism Business Scheme and puts it down to the great thought and care she puts into every detail, whether it’s using low energy bulbs, harvesting rain water for the garden, offering fair trade tea and coffee or simply picking a fresh bunch of sweet peas every day for each guest’s bedroom.
In the evening, try dinner and a movie at the restaurant-cum-cinema, The Riverside on Woodbridge’s scenic quayside. All their bread and pasta is made in-house and the produce is as local and organic as it gets, whether it’s Blythburgh pork, Ketley Farm beef or wild mushroom taglietelle. Or you could pop across the road from the Coach House to The Duke of York, part of the Vintage Inn chain which serves seasonal fare in country pub surroundings.