Good old-fashioned seclusion, wide open spaces and lungfuls of fresh sea or forest air… As a destination for family holidays and breaks, Suffolk is hard to beat. Its coast is refreshingly wild and bracing – erosion has always prohibited the building of a coastal road, and the need to drive inland then back out to reach the water has helped it remain one of the least-developed parts of south-east Britain’s shoreline. Indeed, much of it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or ANOB where wildlife, especially birds, flourish. There are, however, some classic English seaside towns – most notably Southwold and Aldeburgh – in which eccentricity rather than kiss-me-quick tackiness holds sway, and one of the country’s most important archaelogical sites. Venture inland, meanwhile, and you will find various charming market towns, dramatic castles and quirky windmills, as well as vast swathes of forest where kids can run riot.
Start in the north of the county, where Suffolk shares The Broads with its northern neighbour Norfolk. See our feature on sailing on the rivers and lakes of The Broads. Oulton Broad is the southernmost of the Broads and a lively tourist and watersports centre with plenty of cafés and pubs.
Oulton Broad is close to the town of Lowestoft, in the suburbs of which you’ll the themepark Pleasurewood Hills, with thrill rides and rollercoasters, and an adventure playground. Massive investment is expected to help the park recover from neglect suffered during the 1990s. With younger kids, visit the town’s seafront glass East Point Pavilion, with its ocean-themed softplay centre Mayhem. There’s also Africa Alive (formerly the Suffolk Wildlife Park African Adventure) just outside town, where you can make a walking safari or take a road-train around the park to see lions, cheetahs, giraffes, rhinos hyenas and hundreds of other African animals and birds, as well as pet and feed farm animals, be educated in the Discovery Centre and go mad in the Wild Zone indoor play area.
Other northern Suffolk attractions are the East Anglia Transport Museum at Carlton Colville, with working trams, trolleybuses and a miniature railway, and, north of Lowestoft, Somerlyton Hall & Gardens. This Tudor-Jacobean house offers lots of activities around its estate and around Fritton Lake just north of it (actually in Norfolk), including an adventure playground, a maze, a Viking fort, a children’s farmyard, pony treks, a cycle trail and ‘wellie walks’.
Head for Southwold and its part-shingle, part-sand beach and colourful beach huts. On a holiday weekend or in school breaks you’ll be fighting for space with boho Londoners and their mini-Boden-clad offspring, so try to come off-season to fully appreciate its considerable charms. They include the recently renovated Pier with its traditional amusement arcade and wacky handbuilt machines such as the Quantum Tunnelling Telescope, which allows you to see mermaids, shark attacks and even nuclear explosions out at sea. The Pier also has a traditional toy shop, a lifestyle store, a gift shop, and family-friendly dining, from full English breakfasts and fish and chips to cream teas and ice cream. Kids also love Southwold’s Gun Hill with its 16th-century cannons once used for warning off potential attackers and for local celebrations. After sitting astride them and looking out to sea, they’re ready for their own raid – on Squier’s, the old-fashioned sweet shop.
Linked to Southwold’s harbour by ferry (otherwise, you have to drive inland then back out to the coast), Walberswick is similarly trendy with London media types (director Richard Curtis has a house here), as well as being a great place for crabbing (take bacon, squid or fish bait on string and a bucket to collect the crabs before throwing them back in). Indeed, the British Open Crabbing Championship, open to kids, is held here each August.
The next spot along the coast is Dunwich – a tiny village that is all that remains of what was once the capital of all of East Anglia. There’s nothing to see, beyond a shored-up shingle beach, fenced-off crumbling cliffs a whole mile inland of where they were a few centuries ago, weather-worn fishing boats and a family-friendly tea-room (see below). But kids are enchanted by tales of what lies out to sea – the remains of one of Europe’s largest medieval ports, home to 3,000 people, 8 churches (with bells, according to local legend, that may still be heard at certain tides) and two hospitals. And it’s an interesting way to introduce them to the topics of climate change and coastal erosion. The results of a hi-tech project to reveal the secrets of the Dunwich underwater world will be shown in the little Dunwich Museum.
The next coastal attraction is the odd village of Thorpeness, which began as a fishing hamlet but was bought in its entirety in 1910 by a rich Scot to be transformed into a fantasy holiday village. As well as many mock Tudor and Jacobean houses, it has a large shallow boating lake (the Meare) with features inspired by Peter Pan (JM Barrie was a friend of the investor), including a life-size model crocodile on an island. You can also hire canoes to go out on the water, and there’s a vast, uncrowded shingle beach. The House in the Clouds, a former water tower, is both a local tourist attraction and one of Britain’s most unusual family holiday accommodations.
Stray into the Minsmere RSPB Reserve, great for families as well as twitchers, with its birdwatching hides, nature trail, beach, visitor centre with wildlife displays, family explorer backpacks, seasonal events and tea-room.
Proceed to Aldeburgh just to the south, another characterful seaside resort well worth a stop, not least for its fish and chips (some of the best in the UK; see below) and fishermen’s huts selling fresh fish on the Blue Flag shingle beach. Actual sights are low-key: the RNLI lifeboat station is open to visitors and has a fund-raising giftshop, while the little Aldeburgh Museum in the well-preserved Tudor Moot Hall has displays on local shipbuilding, fishing and witches – and also on the Napoleonic-era Martello defence tower that stands just outside town (available to rent for up to 4, from the Landmark Trust). Kids also like the giant (4m-tall) stainless-steel Scallop sculpture on the beach, dedicated to Benjamin Britten, who founded the Aldeburgh Festival (see below). You’re allowed to climb and sit on the sculpture. Before you come here, read Katherine Hale’s classic Orlando the Marmalade Cat: a Seaside Holiday, set in Aldeburgh (renamed ‘Owlbarrow on Sea’).
Dip back inland and then out to the coast once more, for the chocolate-box pretty village of Orford. As well as a great place to eat (see below), it’s home to the imposing Orford Castle, Henry II’s polygonal tower-keep; kids get an activity sheet to bring it alive. Boat trips run from Orford’s harbour around Orford Ness, a spit that was formerly a secret Ministry of Defence military testing site and is now designated a National Nature Reserve.
Orford is just east of Rendlesham Forest, Britain’s most famous UFO site – in 1980, unexplained lights were seen here by servicemen at nearby military bases. Capitalising on this history, the Forestry Commission has created a UFO Trail taking in the main locations of the incident, including the clearing where a spacecraft is alleged to have landed. The Rendlesham Forest Centre also has other walking and cycling trails, a cycle park, a picnic area, and – best of all – the Out Of This World play area made up of large wooden play structures dotted throughout the trees, including a crashed bomber and a UFO landing zone. For the Orchard Campsite with its UFO themed events, see below (Stay).
Inland but boasting a pleasant marina and boatyard and an 18th-century tidal mill, Woodbridge is a market town with good family amenities, including the Young Browsers kids’ bookshop (the town hosts a children’s book festival in October). Woodbridge is best known, however, as the nearest town to Sutton Hoo, where fabulous royal treasures were unearthed in the massive ship grave of an Anglo-Saxon warrior king. Though the various artifacts were taken to the British Museum in London, the exhibition hall here borrows things back for its changing displays, and there’s a full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber and grave goods. The grassy mounds themselves are atmospheric, while the surrounding 99-hectare estate of woods and heather is a great place for wildlife/nature walks with estuary views. Other offerings are themed, living-history and family events, behind-the-scenes tours, open-air theatre, and kids’ activities and trails.
You can find out lots more about life in Roman Suffolk in the Ipswich Museum in the county town just south of Woodbridge. The museum is also home to the Suffolk Wildlife Gallery, a gallery of British birds, a mammals gallery with foxes, hares, rabbits and seals, plenty of local fossils, rocks, and minerals from the region, and an Egyptian gallery with deities and mummies. There are plenty of history- and wildlife-based activities, such as making a Saxon torc, fossil identification, and reptile- or insect-handling sessions, on offer both at the museum and at Gallery 3 at the Town Hall Galleries.
Head north again, to Framlingham Castle inland of Aldeburgh and Thorpeness, where Mary Tudor waited to find out if she would become Queen. Though there’s not too much left of the structure, kids love exploring the steeply moated grounds and taking the vertigo-inducing walkway around the top of the curtain wall, peering through the slits used by archers in days gone by. Seasonal events such as Halloween trails are particularly good times to come, but year-round there’s a free activity sheet for kids, as well as a family audio-tour, chess and other giant games to play, and historical displays.
Close to Framlingham, Easton Farm Park has the makings of an excellent day out for those with younger kids, with pony rides, small animal petting and feeding sessions, an adventure playground, a mini-train, and plenty of seasonal activities. The farm also has six self-catering cottages to let, some on site, others in nearby villages, including Thorpeness.
There’s another animal attraction, the Oasis Camel Centre, north of Framlingham near Halesworth, with various camels and related animals (llamas, alpacas and guanacos), plus smaller creatures to pet, paddock walks to meet and pet pygmy, Saanen and Anglo-Nubian goats and other animals, two adventure play areas, a maze, a land train and other attractions.
Head an hour inland to get to Ickworth House, a National Trust neoclassical country house (in the East Wing of which lies the family-friendly Ickworth Hotel & Apartments, part of the Luxury Family Hotels group). Whether you stay here or not, the house is a great place to visit with kids, with waymarked walks through park- and woodland, a family cycle route, a play area, and seasonal events and activities.
Close by, the Tudor village of Lavenham with all its half-timbered buildings has a remarkably preserved Guildhall of Corpus Christi where kids can learn about medieval times by getting stuck into the dressing-up boxes. Combine a visit with a trip to the Baylham House Rare Breeds Farm, a working farm and cattle-breeding centre, with feeding sessions (there are also pigs, pygmy goats, poultry and sheep) and picnic spots by the lake and river.
Back north of Bury St Edmonds, the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village & Country Park displays items discovered in a village excavated here, within a reconstruction featuring Anglo-Saxon houses, sometimes brought to life by living-history events. There’s also a visitor centre and play area.
Lastly, back on the border with Norfolk, far to the west this time, explore Thetford Forest, home to Brandon Country Park, the High Lodge Forest Centre with walking and cycling trails and play furniture, and picnic and BBQ facilities, and a Go Ape! treetop adventure course.
Great seafood fresh off the boat is one of the highlights of family holidays and breaks in Suffolk, which is awash wth family-friendly restaurants and tea-rooms. Some that we can personally recommend are The Anchor and The Bell in Walberswick, both also offering accommodation, the Crown and the Lord Nelson in Southwold, the Regatta in Aldeburgh, the Butley Orford Oysterage and the Riverside Tearoom at Orford, the Flora Tearooms and The Ship at Dunwich, and the King’s Head in Woodbridge.
If you’re self-catering, good places to stock up on local treats include Nutters deli in Southwold and the fishermen’s huts at Southwold harbour and on Aldeburgh beach. Fish and chips are great everywhere but especially at the Golden Galleon Fish & Chips in Aldeburgh or the Aldeburgh Fish & Chips Restaurant, while the Royal Bengal in Woodbridge is highly recommended for its takeaways.
Suffolk’s beaches are more popular in the warmer months (Southwold can get overly busy with Londoners on any holiday weekend, earning it the nickname ‘Hampstead on Sea), but those romantic souls who love crashing waves and bracing walks will enjoy its charms during family holidays and breaks any time of year.
For culture-loving parents, the Aldeburgh Festival (mainly classical music) takes place at Snape Maltings each June, or there’s more musical fun – plus theatre, literature, comedy and more – for all the family at the Latitude Festival at Henham Park near Southwold each July.
Suffolk is easy to reach for family holidays and breaks, with regular trains to Ipswich and points north of it (inland) from London’s Liverpool Street Station, The coast is a 2hr/2hr 30min drive from London.
For those coming from further afield, Stansted Airport with its low-cost and other flights is only about an hour from Woodbridge and you do need a car to explore Suffolk.
Family holidays and breaks in Suffolk shouldn't leave you too out of pocket, especially if you choose self-catering accommodation, but you’ll pay a premium to stay (and eat) on the coast, especially in towns popular with weekending Londoners, such as Southwold. Cottages sleeping 4 can cost as little as £200 outside the high season.By Rhonda Carrier
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