As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Suffolk Coast and Heaths, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of castles, churches and nature reserves in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in south east England.
From beaches, wetlands and rivers to ancient castles, RSPB and National Nature Reserves, The Suffolk Coast & Heaths offers up a wealth of attractions for the whole family.
Suffolk has plenty of fascinating cultural and historical spaces to explore, from one of England’s most unusual keeps at Orford Castle, to the incredible story of an ancient Saxon burial mound being discovered on the Sutton Hoo estate.
There are also miles of beaches, wetlands, heaths and rivers to explore, in this serene landscape that has inspired countless artists from Constable to Turner. Spot wildlife amongst the reed beds at RSPB Minsmere, look out for porpoises and seals at Dunwich Beach, or enjoy some good old fashioned seaside entertainment at the ‘Under the Pier’ show at Southwold Pier.
At one time this venue was one of the largest flat floor maltings in the country, but in 1965, George Gooderham bought the Maltings and began the gradual conversion of the Victorian buildings into the lively mix of shops, restaurants and arts venues it is today. Located on the picturesque River Alde, you can just visit for the day to shop, stroll, eat, take in some live music or browse in the gallery, or book yourself in for a longer stay in one their luxury self-catering apartments. For families there are activities galore, such as chocolate making, pizza & pasta workshops, or creative activities such as printmaking, jewellery making and tutored art workshops. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle, then head out and explore the striking landscape of the tidal Alde estuary with its abundant wildlife and miles of meandering footpaths. snapemaltings.co.uk
Over the years this pier has certainly received a battering, from violent storms to drifting sea mines. Then eventually in 1987, it was privately bought and a succession of two owners have nurtured it back to its former glory and has since received the prestigious title of 'Best Tourism Experience’. It now boasts shops, restaurants, traditional amusement arcades, the world’s ‘cheekiest clock’ and an ‘Under the Pier’ show featuring Tim Hunkin's unique, hand-built machines which include 'Wack a Banker', 'Pet or Meat' and 'My-Nuke' where you can load plutonium rods into your very own nuclear reactor. As a company, they recognise the importance of preserving their environment and now recycle wherever possible from cooking oil to food packaging, and have even installed a solar powered sign at the entrance to the pier. southwoldpier.co.uk
Long Shop Museum
This 200 year old museum in Leiston provides a fascinating insight into the history of the town and the area. In the museum there is a wonderful collection of exhibits, ranging from full-size steam engines made by Richard Garrett & Sons to mementoes of the lives of local people such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who was the first female doctor in Britain. The Long Shop itself – at the heart of the museum – is a Grade II* listed engineering workshop, thought to be one of the earliest purpose-built production lines in existence. You can also find out about the history of the area, with displays about the nuclear power station at nearby Sizewell and Leiston's airfield, which was home to the American 357th Fighter Group, 8th USAAF, during World War II. longshopmuseum.co.uk
Southwold's tiny cottage museum houses an astonishing collection of objects, paintings, photographs, models and wildlife exhibits that document the town’s history. Follow the Southwold story from prehistoric times to sea battles, the development of the town's architecture, its industries and artistic life, the rise and fall of its railway, its famous land-locked lighthouse, its evolving coastline and finally the 20th century transformation of this busy fishing community into the prosperous seaside resort it is today. southwoldmuseum.org
Felixstowe Museum is well worth a visit for the fourteen display rooms of local social and military history on show, all housed within the 1878-built submarine mining establishment. Marvel at the part of a really woolly mammoth, dig around the reconstructed mine, and browse the general store stocked with fascinating products from a bygone era. If you make it round all fourteen rooms, there’s a lovely tearoom in the museum library where you can revive yourself. felixstowemuseum.org
This treasure trove of ancient British history was only discovered 70 years ago by local archaeologists Basil Brown and Edith Pretty, who owned the Sutton Hoo estate back in the 1930s. This beautiful 255 acre estate, surrounded by wheat fields with far-reaching views over the river Deben, turned out to be concealing an ancient Anglo-Saxon burial mound. Amongst the treasures discovered here were a magnificent helmet and sword, fragments of textiles, the remains of a beautiful lyre and even gold. Some of those artefacts are now displayed in the British Museum, but there is still plenty to enthral you here at the main site. A full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber has recently been opened, and there are stunning replica treasures on display as well as original finds from one of the mounds, including a prince's sword. You can also visit the Edwardian house with its beautiful period interiors, and enjoy the surrounding woodland and heath land walks. There are even Edwardian holiday flats available if you want to stay a bit longer and savour this incredibly atmospheric location.
Orford Castle is one of England’s best preserved castles, with a maze of rooms, chambers and passages to explore. This 12th century castle was built by Henry II, back when it was a thriving sea port, and now houses an impressive display of historical artefacts including Roman brooches, medieval seals, coins and borough regalia. Don’t miss climbing to the top of the highly unusual, polygonal keep from where you can admire the far reaching views to Orford Ness. Whilst you’re there, pay a visit to the Orford Museum which is permanently housed upstairs in Orford Castle and exhibits all sorts of interesting objects from local history, from Neolithic tools to Bronze Age and Roman jewellery. english-heritage.org.uk
It is believed that a church building has stood on this spot, overlooking the fields and marshlands of the Blythburgh Valley, since 630. In fact in the Domesday survey of 1087, it was listed as one of the richest churches in Suffolk. The village of Blythburgh went on to become even more prosperous in the 15th century and as a result the church was expanded to become what you see today, known locally as ‘The Cathedral of the Marshes’. It is now a magnificent place to visit and a hub for community life, often staging classical concerts and village events. The pretty village itself is also worth exploring, and stands within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty just inland from Southwold. It overlooks the tidal lagoon of Blythburgh Water, which is a great spot for wildlife lovers as it is visited by many mud-loving birds. holytrinityblythburgh.org.uk
There have been fortifications at this historic site since 1543 due its key strategic position at the mouth of the River Orwell, which made it a safe haven for large ships between the rivers Thames and Humber. Wander round with an audio tour and learn some of its long history, take in the superb views over the busy port of Felixstowe, or if you’re feeling brave then there are guided ‘ghost walks’ most Sunday afternoons. You could also combine your day out with a visit to the nearby submarine mining building that houses Felixstowe museum and explore the pretty nature reserve and beach area. landguard.com
Suffolk Coast National Nature Reserve
Suffolk Coast NNR is a vast 2500 hectare reserve made up of three different areas; Walberswick, Dingle Marshes and Hen Reedbed. They are looked after by a unique partnership involving Suffolk Wildlife Trust, RSPB and Natural England which reflects just how important this coastal area is to wildlife.
Walberswick is one of the most accessible and popular wildlife sites along this part of the coast, with lots of varied habitats to see including shingle beach, reedbeds, hay meadows, grazing marshes, woodlands and grass heath lands. One of the best ways to see as much as possible in one day is to attend one the daily guided walks on offer. Hen Reedbed was founded back in 1999 to create a new breeding habitat for bittern and other wildlife, and has proved so successful that it is now teeming with creatures to see. Follow the waymarked trails to the various viewing platforms and hides, where you can catch a glimpse of otters, marsh harriers, sandpipers, oyster catchers and even the colourful flash of a Kingfisher.
Lastly, Dingle Marshes is easily accessible by road and yet provides a peaceful, near wilderness experience. The reserve attracts wildfowl and wading birds all year round, including avocet, white-fronted goose, lapwing and redshank. gov.uk/government/publications/suffolks-national-nature-reserves/suffolks-national-nature-reserves#suffolk-coast
The Suffolk Coast is a real hot spot for birds, thanks to its geographic position, diversity of habitats and long list of expertly-managed nature reserves. Being adjacent to the North Sea makes the area ideally placed to receive migrant birds that are crossing to the Continent, and the variety of habitats is another key to the county’s impressive species diversity that attracts birdlife all year round. The RSPB’s flagship reserve in this area is Minsmere, and is a stronghold of the endangered bittern.
There's plenty to see and hear including lovely woodland, wetland and coastal scenery, rare birds breeding and calling in on their migrations, shy wildlife like otters, the call of bitterns in spring, and beautiful bugs and colourful wild flowers in summer. There’s also a visitor and information centre, tea room, and guided walks available to help you make the most of this rich and varied reserve.
Other great RSPB reserves to visit include Boyton Marshes where you can spot Barn Owls hunting over the marshes, North Warren which is home to thousands of ducks, swans and geese in winter, and Snape which is an exciting new reserve where the RSPB are clearing birch, pine and gorse scrub to recreate rare Suffolk Sandlings heath land, with the help of sheep and Exmoor ponies. Havergate Island is a small island in the River Ore which is famous for its breeding avocets and terns during spring and summer, and definitely worth a visit. Access is by boat only and pre-booking is essential via RSPB Minsmere nature reserve (01728 648281). rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z
Orford Ness National Nature Reserve
This internationally important nature reserve was also once a top secret military testing site. The only access to this wild and remote shingle spit (the largest in Europe) is via a short boat trip. Then after a short safety briefing, you’re free to follow the trails and get up close to the unusual, often forbidding, buildings one of which even contains an atomic bomb! Due to its years of isolation, the spit is now a haven for wildlife. Explore the airfield site which is home to marshland birds, and the rare shingle flats which are home to sea campion and yellow horned poppy. Afterwards settle down on the beach for a picnic and try to spot a passing porpoise or two. nationaltrust.org.uk/orford-ness-national-nature-reserve
Dunwich Heath Coastal Centre and beach
Tucked away on the Suffolk coast, Dunwich Heath is a beautiful coastal lowland heath with sandy cliffs and beaches, an abundance of wildlife and beautiful views. From July to September, the heath is a riot of pink and purple heather and coconut scented yellow gorse. It is also home to many special species such as the Dartford warbler, nightjar, woodlark, ant-lion even adder. You can spend the day exploring the three way marked nature trails linking the beach and the heath, or visit the SeaWatch lookout to spot porpoises, seals and birds out at sea. There is also a free to use, solar-powered charging point for electric cycles. After all that, grab some coffee and cake at the cafe, or even stay the night one of the three National Trust cliff top flats or the village cottage. nationaltrust.org.uk/dunwich-heath-and-beach
Stour Estuary RSPB
This stunning bit of coastline can be enjoyed all year round, as it is one of Britain’s most important estuaries for wintering birds. Between September and March, head to Copperas Bay to witness the spectacle of masses of wading birds and wildfowl including internationally important numbers of grey plovers, knots, redshanks dunlin and Black Tailed Godwit. Further inland, Stour Wood has a stunning show of wood anemones in March and April, and the woods are a lovely spot to hear nightingales in spring and to see butterflies in summer. Walk the miles of trails, stroll through the woods and watch wading birds, ducks and geese on the estuary. rspb.org.uk/reserves-and-events/reserves-a-z/stour-estuary/
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