Over time I calculate that I have visited forty-seven of the forty-eight traditional (ceremonial) English Counties (often for pleasure but sometimes for work) but I am fairly certain that I have never visited the County of Suffolk and my travelling companion was rather astonished to hear this admission and saw it now as his personal responsibility to fill this glaring geographical gap in my UK travels.
We drove south almost as far as Essex and the plan was to start at Sutto Hoo and then work our way back north.
I don’t want to be accused of exaggeration but Sutton Hoo is perhaps the most important archeological site in the whole of England – an Anglo Saxon burial ship for King Rædwald of East Anglia who was in his day the most powerful chieftain/King in all of the South-East of England.
It is a great Indiana Jones/Howard Carter sort of story. The initial excavation in 1939 was privately sponsored by the landowner Edith Pretty and carried out by a local freelance archeologist called Basil Brown and a couple of estate workers who could be spared for the task. Unsurprisingly when the significance of the find became apparent national experts took over.
The most significant artefacts from the burial site are those found in the burial chamber in the centre of the ship, including a suite of metalwork dress fittings in gold and gems, a ceremonial helmet, shield and sword, a lyre, and many pieces of silver plate from Byzantium.
I was pleased to visit but I have to say that the story is a whole lot more interesting than the site.
There is a pleasant walk through the gentle Suffolk countryside to the site of the excavation but the reality is that there is very little to see except for seventeen burial mounds which look rather like giant mole hills. This is a place that requires some considerable imagination to appreciate it and it really doesn’t take long to view. The point I suppose is this, some places we visit to spend time and see things, a museum for example but some places we visit simply for the significance of the place and the Sutton Hoo burial mounds fall firmly into the latter category.
There is an interesting exhibition hall and interpretation centre but there are no original artefacts on display because these are all in the British Museum because although it was decreed that the treasure belonged to Edith Pretty she promptly presented it all to the nation which was at the time the largest gift made to the British Museum by a living donor.
It seemed somehow that we should be staying longer in such a significant place but two hours was quite enough and so just after midday we began the drive back towards Norfolk and Great Yarmouth.
More or less following the coast road we stopped first at the seaside town of Aldeburgh famous mostly for being the home of composer Benjamin Britten and which is a genteel sort of place where people of a certain age (my age, I confess) visit to walk along the pebble beach and pass judgment on the scallop sculpture which seems to be the most controversial thing about Aldeburgh (half the town love it, the other half hate it) and later find a tea shop for a cucumber sandwich and a slice of Victoria Sponge cake.
I rather liked the sculpture but we didn’t stop for cake and moved on intsead to nearby Southwold. Southwold is ridiculously picturesque and quintessentially English, a town of Tudor houses and thatched roofs, so English that it is high on the list of filming locations for English film and television.
The fictional Southwold Estate, seat of Earls of Southwold, is the country estate of the family of Lady Marjorie Bellamy in the drama Upstairs, Downstairs and the town and its vicinity has been used as the setting for numerous films and television programmes including Iris about the life of Iris Murdoch starring Dame Judy Dench, Drowning by Numbers by Peter Greenaway, Kavanagh QC starring John Thaw, East of Ipswich by Michael Palin, Little Britain with Matt Lucas and David Walliam, a 1969 version of David Copperfield and the BBC children’s series Grandpa in My Pocket.
There isn’t much else to say about Southwold except that George Orwell once lived there and so after only a short stop and a drive around the busy streets we continued our drive planning to stop next at the Suffolk port town of Lowestoft.
I didn’t find Lowestoft that thrilling I have to confess, it looked much like Grimsby to me where I live, a run-down sort of a place urgently in need of some investment and a make-over but there was one interesting place to visit while we here – Ness Point, the most easterly place in the British Isles.
For such a significant place I would have expected it to be something special, a bit like Four Corners in the USA but not a bit of it. Rather like Sutton Hoo, I thought there should be more. There is no visitor centre, no souvenir shop and it is difficult to find located as it is on the edge of an industrial estate and close to a sewage treatment works and a massive wind turbine called Goliath (it was once the biggest in England). There is only a circular direction marker known as Euroscope, marking locations in other countries and how far away they are. Rather like Sutton Hoo I just enjoyed being there. I felt like an explorer about to set sail.
I was reminded that a couple of years ago I was at the most Westerly point in the British Isles on the Dingle Peninsular in Southern Ireland where we were staring out at two thousand miles of water and next stop Canada and the USA.
The ‘Visit Lowestoft’ web site proclaims that, “No trip to Lowestoft is complete without a visit to Ness Point, the most easterly spot in the United Kingdom” As far as I could see this is about the only reason to visit Lowestoft so with nothing to detain us longer we headed directly back now to Great Yarmouth and the Cherry Tree Holiday Home Park where we squandered the rest of the day in the unexpected evening sunshine.
I liked Suffolk but I have to say that I won’t be rushing back and this probably explains why it has taken me over sixty years to go there in the first place.