Suffolk is dotted with picturesque villages seemingly lost in time. The county made its money on the back of the medieval wool trade, and magnificent churches and lavish Tudor homes attest to its wealthy past. To the west are the picture-postcard villages of Lavenham and Long Melford. Further north, Bury St Edmunds ushers in historic buildings and a market-town vibe, while the appealing seaside resorts of Aldeburgh and Southwold overflow with genteel charm.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Suffolk.
Now a picturesque ruin in parkland behind the cathedral, Bury's once-mighty abbey still impresses despite the townspeople having made off with much of the stone after the dissolution of the monasteries. The walls are striking (especially on the west side), having crumbled and eroded into a series of fantastical shapes. Other highlights are the decorative Great Gate, the diminutive dovecote and the flower-filled gardens.
Somehow missed by plundering robbers and left undisturbed for 1300 years, the hull of an enormous Anglo-Saxon ship was discovered here in 1939, buried under a mound of earth. The vessel was the grave of Raedwald, an East-Anglian king, and was stuffed with Saxon riches, reflecting a sophisticated culture that’s conveyed in on-site displays. The site was due to undergo a dramatic £4 million redevelopment in winter 2018. Sutton Hoo is 11 miles northeast of Ipswich off the B1083.
The 45m-high tower of this cathedral was only completed in 2005 and is a vision in Lincolnshire limestone – its traditional Gothic-style construction conveys how many English cathedrals must have looked fresh from the stonemason's chisel. Most of the building is early 16th century, though the eastern end is post-1945. The overall effect is light and lofty, with a gorgeous hammer-beam roof and a striking sculpture of the crucified Christ by Dame Elisabeth Frink in the north transept.
Thomas Gainsborough's atmospheric birthplace is now home to the world's largest collection of his work. The 16th-century house and gardens feature a Georgian facade built by the artist's father. Inside, look out for Pitminster Boy in the entrance hall; the exquisite Portrait of Harriett; Viscountess Tracy, celebrated for its delicate portrayal of drapery; and the landscapes that were his passion.
Gorgeous, turreted Kentwell Hall may date from the 1500s and be full of Tudor grandeur, but it's still used as a private home, lending it a wonderfully lived-in feel. Kentwell is framed by a rectangular moat, lush gardens and an irresistible rare-breeds farm. During Tudor re-enactment events, the whole estate bristles with bodices, codpieces and hose. Opening hours are erratic: it tends to be open from 11am to 5pm during school summer holidays, plus other weekends; call to check.
Wind-whipped, remote Orford Ness is the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe and was once used as a secret military testing ground; now it's a nature reserve which is home to rare wading birds, animals and plants. Ferries run from Orford Quay: the last ferry from Orford leaves at 2pm, the last ferry back from the island returns at 5pm. Spaces are limited – arrive early to reserve a seat.
The coast near Dunwich draws ranks of birdwatchers, thanks to RSPB Minsmere. The reserve is home to one of England's rarest birds, the bittern, with hundreds of migrant birds dropping by in the autumn. Year-round, binoculars are available for rent from the visitor centre, while the hides along the reserve's trails are prime species-spotting sites.
A rare treat – Britain's only working Regency playhouse features ornate gilding, sweeps of boxes and a trompe l'oeil ceiling, all revealed on self-led (free) and guided (£7.50) front-of-house and backstage tours. These guided tours tend to be held at 11am on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, between February and November, but times vary – call to check.
Set in an impressive 12th-century undercroft, Moyse's Hall's rarities include a locket containing some of Mary Tudor's hair, finds from the town's ruined abbey and displays on the chilling Bury witch trials. They also run excellent talks and activities.