Published on August 23rd, 2018 | by James Drew0
Suffolk – a trip back in time
Suffolk is one of England’s less touristy regions yet its links to Belgium go back further than you might think – all the way to 1327, in fact, writes Martin Banks.
Back in the 14th century, one Abbot Richard, who ruled the roost in these parts, was kidnapped and smuggled to Brabant in Belgium.
It’s an event that’s recalled on a plaque in the very pleasant Abbey Gardens in Bury St Edmunds, a historic market town which, today, still finds itself connected to Belgium, being twinned with Huy in Wallonia.
It’s hard to know why the county is not the tourist magnet as other areas as it is easy to reach from London and is chock-full of beautiful English villages, gorgeous countryside dotted with thatched cottages and sweet churches, plus some impressive ancient abbeys and forts.
Horse lovers in Belgium might also like to know that the country, or to be more precise, Newmarket, is the home of horse racing.
This is where horse racing, as we know it today, really began back in the 17th century when the kings of England brought their courts to Newmarket to hold races across the heath. Everywhere you go in Newmarket there are racehorses. Over 30,000 are trained here, exercising each day on the heath from dawn onwards.
A great place to discover the area’s “horsey history” is via a tour of the National Stud, the only commercial farm in the UK.Here, you get the chance to see “behind the scenes” of a working thoroughbred stud farm.
The lively and informative tours last 90 minutes and explore the beautiful 500-acre site. Another “must-see” place nearby is the National Heritage Centre, located in the remains of Charles II’s sporting palace and stables. The centre comprises three complimentary attractions, including a great collection of sporting art in Palace House and also gives you the chance to get “up close and personal” with retired racehorses.
This is one of the undoubted highlights of the country, situated close to Bury St Edmunds, known as “cradle of the law” because of its links to the Magna Carta.
If you like “horsing around” another nice local place to try, especially if you’re travelling with children, is Red Lodge Karting,located just up the road from Newmarket, which boasts a 700-metre circuit and is the first, purpose-built track in East Anglia (you can also drive at night, under floodlights).
Participants get a full safety briefing and the karting, split into 15-minute sessions, is great fun for young and old alike.
A truly wonderful base for exploring the immediate area (and another highlight) is the Angel Hotel, owned by a go-ahead local entrepreneur Robert Gough and his wife Claire. Even here, there’s a Belgian connection in the form of the beautiful Flemish tapestries which adorn its walls.
Robert and Claire’s company is a long established and well-respected family business that, in 2015,celebrated its 50th anniversary. Robert is originally from the South West but moved to Suffolk some years ago and has made it his home.
After five decades the Goughs remain dedicated to serving great food and wines and providing some of the best bedrooms in the UK.
Having established the company with her late husband Mary Gough (Robert’s mother) received an MBE for her very admirable and long standing services to the hotel industry in 1990.
Since taking over the business, Robert and Claire’s love of art and passion for contemporary design have transformed the fabric of the ivy-clad, 80-room Angel hotel. This historic Georgian building is a fine example of historic charm with a twist of urban chic and really does commands this lovely town centre with its winding cobbled streets and ancient architecture. The main bulk of the hotel is 18th century but the oldest part, dating to the 12th century, used to house tunnels used by monks and roundheads.
Overlooking Bury’s historic and pretty Abbey Gardens, the interior is a curious mix of eccentric oddities (look out for the copper baths and phones in the newly refurbished guest rooms), vintage furniture and warm, leathery sofas. Irrespective of whether you’re staying or not (and you really should if you can!), you should certainly consider dining at its restaurant, a popular destination for locals and a culinary treat.
There’s an express 3-course lunch and terrific a la carte featuring recently introduced “Angel classics.” Little wonder it was awarded 2 AA Rosettes for fine dining and is also in the Good Food Guide.
If you stay here you’ll be in good company as no less a historic figure than Charles Dickens also did (twice). Dickens gave readings from Nicolas Nickleby and David Copperfield from the building and was also pleased with the neat little town which he described of “cleanly and thriving appearance.”
Before leaving town, try to squeeze in a visit to the cathedral opposite where local volunteers are rebuilding this fine building from 200,000 lego bricks. They’ve used less than 50,000 so far so have a long way to go!
The go-ahead and amiable Robert and Claire also run The Salthouse Harbour hotel at nearby Ipswich, England’s oldest continuously settled Anglo-Saxon town which is also well worth a visit. Set in a wonderfully-restored salt etched brick warehouse overlooking the town’s historic and impressively renovated waterfront, the 70-room, 4-star boutique hotel is an oasis of calm and relaxation in an otherwise bustling town. Like its sister hotel, it has plenty of nice quirky touches (like the taped audio of comedians in the loos – so funny you hardly want to leave!). It is these sort of things that in a funny sort of way set it apart from lots of other hotels.
The hotel’s lovely “Eaterie” restaurant offers a superb, award-winning cuisine with an array of fresh, locally-sourced food. This is excellent cuisine which is very satisfying and affordable too. While the menu is mostly British, seasonal inspirations feature on the daily specials list. The tranquil setting, on the crescent-shaped Neptune Quay harbour, makes for a delightful backdrop for some fine dining.
Each of the couple’s properties were chosen for its own unique character and location and Claire’s love of art and contemporary design has transformed the historic interiors of both The Angel and The Salthouse Harbour. The individuality (and friendliness of the staff) at each venue makes staying at either a real delight.
The most recent addition to the family portfolio is Suffolk’s famous Southwold Pier. The Gough family have already stamped their mark on this iconic coastal structure with the aim, possibly,to build a hotel on the pier itself. With or without a hotel, it’s a “must-visit” place on any trip to this part of England.
Getting to Suffolk from Brussels and the rest of Belgium couldn’t be easier with the leading ferry operator DFDS a popular choice for travellers from here and mainland Europe.
Northern Europe’s largest shipping and logistics company, DFDS is an award winner (the world’s leading ferry operator in the 2015 World Travel Awards) and has enjoyed a huge rise in freight traffic and passenger volumes on the Dover-Calais and Dover-Dunkirk routes.
DFDS offer daily cross channel ferry services and operates 30 daily sailings from Dover to Calais all year round and 12 a day from Dover to Dunkirk.For a small extra charge you can upgrade to enjoy the delightful and peaceful on-board lounge and the very useful priority boarding.
With its great horsey heritage, historic and quirky places to stay and fabulous food this year, surely, is the time to visit Suffolk.
It may be a relatively undiscovered corner of England but it’s one you’ve probably already imagined in your travel fantasies and is well worth (re)discovering.