The Suffolk Heritage Coast – part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with unspoilt sandy beaches, shingle banks, estuaries and reed beds – is a coastline loved as much by seaside families as weekend sailors, bird-watchers and walkers.
The little town of Southwold is our family’s favourite Suffolk haunt. Park for free beside its common then find a spot on the sandy beach before wandering down to the quirky pier with its eccentric entertainments. There’s a free boating lake opposite it and occasional free Punch & Judy shows on the Promenade, plus the free Southwold Museum and the fascinating Sailors’ Reading Room with its nautical exhibits.
Neighbouring Walberswick comes a close second. We’ve spent many happy hours here with our crab lines hanging in the tidal stream that feeds into the River Blyth and out to sea, although we’ve never taken part in the British Open Crabbing Championship held every August. On the other side of the mudflats is a white-sand beach with crashing waves and great dunes for playing hide and seek. You can follow the Suffolk Coast Path markers from here through marshes and along the shingle bank to Dunwich village, where you can visit the free Dunwich Museum and find out how this medieval port was swallowed by the sea.
From here the Suffolk coast becomes much more shingly, but that doesn’t deter visitors to Aldeburgh, drawn by the arty atmosphere and a renowned chippie (Aldeburgh Fish & Chips on the High Street). Our children love the free boating pond and the walk north along the beach to see Maggi Hambling’s extraordinary stainless-steel Scallop sculpture.
But it’s not all about the sea. Suffolk has some of England’s last ancient sandy heathlands in its Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – a pink and yellow mass of heather and gorse in the summer, known locally as the Sandlings. The heaths are perfect for picnics, walks and cycling; the National Trust’s Dunwich Heath also provides access to the beach and a Coastal Centre – free except for the car-park fee.
Three forests were planted on the Suffolk heathlands in the early 1900s – Rendlesham, Dunwich and Tunstall. They are known as the Sandlings forests and were once thick with pine plantations, but the 1987 Hurricane felled huge swathes of trees to create woodlands that now have marked walks and picnic spots. Rendlesham has a Forest Centre where you just pay a car-park fee to use the cycle park and trails, circular walks and new wooden play area with its ‘UFO landing zone’ (one of Britain’s most famous UFO sightings took place in the forest; see also Georgina Allen’s feature on Orchard Campsite with its Alien Encounters Weekend). Dunwich Forest, not far from Dunwich Heath, and Tunstall Forest, near Wickham Market, are also good for picnics and walking .
Inland you’ll find countless pretty villages and small towns to explore. Lavenham is one of the most complete Tudor villages in England, with half-timbered buildings remaining from its years as a wealthy medieval wool town. From here there’s a 6km walk along disused rail and farm tracks to Long Melford, another picture-perfect wool village. Artist John Constable was born in the wool village of East Bergholt, in 1776, and you can still walk to Flatford Mill, made famous in some of his paintings. There are marked paths around the Dedham Vale and to Bridge Cottage, owned by the National Trust, free to visit and hosting exhibitions about Constable.
Beccles was also once an important market town, as you can find out in the free Beccles & District Museum, housed in a 16th century listed building. Afterwards, relax at the quayside on the River Waveney. Nearby at Flixton, the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum has an astonishing number of historic aircraft on show, all for free.
Lastly, don’t forget to visit Lowestoft with its fine sandy beach and traditional seaside attractions plus its free museums, the Lowestoft & East Suffolk Maritime Museum, a slightly chaotic boat-lover’s dream, and the more stately Lowestoft Museum in peaceful Nicholas Everitt Park on the banks of Oulton Broad.