Unfurling gently eastwards to the sea, the vast flatlands of East Anglia are a rich web of lush farmland, melancholy Fens, and sparkling rivers. The area is justly famous for its sweeping sandy beaches, big skies, and the bucolic landscape that once inspired Constable and Gainsborough. It’s not all rural idyll though: rising out of the Fens is the world-famous university town of Cambridge, with its stunning classical architecture and earnest attitude, and to the east is the cosmopolitan city of Norwich. Around them, magnificent cathedral cities, pretty market towns and implausibly picturesque villages are testaments to the enormous wealth amassed here during medieval times, when the wool and weaving industries flourished. Meanwhile, the meandering coastline is peppered with pretty fishing villages and traditional bucket-and-spade resorts, while inland is the languid, hypnotic charm of the Norfolk Broads, an ideal location for serious relaxation.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Many visitors to Cambridgeshire never make it past the captivating university city of Cambridge, where august old buildings, student cyclists in academic gowns, and glorious chapels await. But beyond this breathtaking seat of learning, the flat reclaimed Fens, lush farmland, and myriad waterways make perfect walking and cycling territory, while the extraordinary cathedral at Ely and the rip-roaring Imperial War Museum at Duxford would be headline attractions anywhere else.
Abounding with exquisite architecture, exuding history and tradition, and renowned for its quirky rituals, Cambridge is a university town extraordinaire. The tightly packed core of ancient colleges, the picturesque riverside ‘Backs’ (college gardens), and the leafy green meadows surrounding the city give it a more tranquil appeal than its historic rival Oxford. Like ‘the Other Place’, as Oxford is known locally, the buildings here seem unchanged for centuries, and it’s possible to wander the college buildings and experience them as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done. Sheer academic achievement seems to permeate the very walls: cyclists loaded down with books negotiate cobbled passageways, students relax on manicured lawns and great minds debate life-changing research in historic pubs. First-time punters zigzag erratically across the river and those long past their student days wonder what it would have been like to study in such splendid surroundings.
A small but charming city dominated by a jaw-dropping cathedral, Ely makes an excellent day trip from Cambridge. It takes its name (ee-lee) from the eels that once inhabited the surrounding undrained Fens. From the Middle Ages onward, Ely was one of the biggest opium-producing centers in Britain, with high-class ladies holding ‘poppy parties’ and local mothers sedating their children with ‘poppy tea’. Today, beyond the dizzying heights of the cathedral towers, Ely is a cluster of medieval streets lined with traditional tearooms and pretty Georgian houses; a quaint quayside adds extra appeal.
The county’s inhabitants have been the butt of snobbery and some of England’s cruelest jokes for years, thanks to pop-culture stereotypes. But beyond the fake tans and slots ‘n’ bumper car resorts, the county’s still-idyllic medieval villages and rolling countryside provided inspiration for Constable, one of England’s best-loved painters. Here, too, is the historic town of Colchester, while even Southend-on-Sea, the area’s most popular resort, has a softer side in the traditional cockle-sellers and cobbled lanes of the sleepy suburb Old Leigh.
Dominated by its sturdy castle and extensive Roman walls, Colchester is Britain’s oldest recorded city, dating from the 5th century BC. In AD 43 the Romans came, saw, conquered, and constructed their northern capital Camulodunum. It was razed by Boudica just 17 years later. In the 11th century, the invading Normans built a mighty castle; today it’s set amid narrow streets that are home to a striking new arts space and some half-timbered gems.
The 12th-century market town of Saffron Walden is a delightful knot of half-timbered houses, narrow lanes, crooked roofs, and ancient buildings. It gets its name from the purple saffron crocus (source of the world’s most expensive spice), which was cultivated in the surrounding fields between the 15th and 18th centuries. If you can, time a visit to Tuesday or Saturday morning when markets stalls fill the center of town.
Full of flashing lights and fairground rides, Southend is London’s weekend playground, replete with gaudy amusements and packed-out nightclubs. But as well as all that, there’s a glorious stretch of sandy beach, an absurdly long pier, and, in the suburb of Old Leigh, echoes of a traditional fishing village.
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 the area’s 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.
BURY ST EDMUNDS
In Bury, the past is ever-present. A center of pilgrimage for centuries, its history-rich features include an atmospheric ruined abbey, handsome Georgian architecture, and tranquil gardens. The chance to visit two breweries proves pretty tempting too.
Big skies, sweeping beaches, windswept marshes, meandering inland waterways, and pretty flint houses combine to great effect in Norfolk. They say the locals have ‘one foot on the land, and one in the sea’ and you’re never far from water here, whether it’s beside the windmill-framed rivers of the tranquil Norfolk Broads or the wide, birdlife-rich sands of the shore. Inland, the bustling city of Norwich offers a fine castle and cathedral, a lively market, and some truly excellent places to sleep and eat.
The affluent and easygoing city of Norwich is a rich tapestry of meandering alleys liberally sprinkled with architectural jewels – spoils of the city’s medieval wool boom. A magnificent cathedral and impressive Norman castle bookend the city center; in between, crooked half-timbered buildings line quiet lanes. Thriving markets and a large student population enhance the city’s relaxed vibe. Add quick access to the Broads and Norfolk’s beaches, and you have an excellent base from which to explore.
Once one of England’s most important ports, King’s Lynn was long known as ‘the Warehouse on the Wash.’ In its heyday, it was said you could cross from one side of the River Great Ouse to the other by simply stepping from boat to boat. Something of the salty port-town tang can still be felt in old King’s Lynn, with its cobbled lanes, vibrant weekly markets, and narrow streets flanked by old merchants’ houses.