Suffolk’s secrets

One of the oft-overlooked benefits of Britain’s EU membership has been European cooperation (and funding) for important nature conservation schemes.

One good example of the advantages of this cross-border collaboration is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) nature reserve at Minsmere, Suffolk in eastern England.

It promotes itself as “giving nature a home” and that’s an apt description of Suffolk’s most famous nature reserve and one of the finest in the UK.

A patchwork of lagoons, marshes and woodland,a superb variety of birds breed here or simply pass through on their long migrations.

You can chat to Minsmere’s volunteer guides as you wander around the huge reserve or even take a personalised tour in one of its 4×4 vehicles. If you happen to visit in October, these “deer safaris” give you the chance to witness the impressive red deer rut on the sprawling heath. From the comfort of a 4×4, the guide also explains how they keep the reserve, at present part funded by the EU, in top condition and also see parts not normally accessible to visitors.

Minsmere, home to the popular BBC Springwatch programme from 2014-2016, is situated near the coast of Suffolk which (for visitors from Belgium anyway) is a relatively undiscovered part of the UK and makes for an ideal break.

4×4 “safaris” of a totally different kind can be found not too far away at Elveden Hall Estate which offers 4×4 off-road driving with a highly-qualified guide, an informative and hugely enjoyable experience.

The 22,000 square acre site, the largest ring-fenced working farm in Britain, also has lots of other attractions, including field sports such as archery, crossbows and air rifle target shooting catapults (you don’t have to be William Tell to enjoy this!).

It’s all run by a very enthusiastic team who are all former members of the military or police so be  prepared for some tough training!

To get a feel of how catapults and assorted ancient weaponry were once used many moons ago another great place to visit is Framlingham Castle, once home to some of the most formidable names of Tudor England. It was behind its 2.3 metre-thick walls that Mary Tudor was mustering her forces when she was proclaimed Queen of England.

A walk along its ramparts affords great views of the beautiful Suffolk countryside while you can also discover more of Framlingham’s fascinating stories in its impressive exhibition.

After expanding all that energy you’ll have built up quite an appetite and, for sating any hunger, there’s no better place than Suffolk.

There’s a great choice of places to eat at what might be called the “Holy Trinity” of delightful Suffolk coastal villages/towns (Orford, Aldeburgh and Southwold).

First stop is the lovely Crown and Castle at tiny Orford, the most southerly of the three seaside gems.

Serving a mouth-watering mixture of traditional English dishes, including locally-caught fresh fish, and Italian-influenced cuisine, this smashing inn seats up to 46 people and offers relaxed dining in stylish surroundings. It has scooped several awards including Sawday’s “British Hotel Award for 2017 for Fabulous Food” and is also listed in Square Meal’s UK Top 100 restaurants.

Next up on the coastal culinary voyage of discovery is the White Lion in the very pretty town of Aldeburgh, known for its close links with culture, the arts and a growing number of festivals.

Located directly overlooking the shingle beach, this smashing place is one of four local hotel/restaurants owned by the same group, each with its very own identity and “theme.”

The Aldeburgh venue, called Brasserie Bleue, has (as the name suggests) a decidedly “French” concept and some lip-smacking food.

A bit further along the coast takes you to Southwold, another iconic Suffolk seaside town with an even more iconic visitor attraction – its famous pier, a wonderful example of Ewardian/Victorian heritage.What is now a particularly impressive place to while away an afternoon has, in fact, endured rather a chequered history.

Destroyed by storms in the 1950s it fell into serious disrepair before being totally rebuilt. It’s now privately owned by Robert Gough, a go-ahead local hotelier who is largely responsible for the pristine version now being enjoyed by a whole new generation of visitors.

It’s rather innovative too, being rebuilt partly with technology usually used on oil rigs and featuring some particularly inventive new features, the like of which you’re very unlikely to see on a pier anywhere else.

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This includes the “Under the Pier”, not the usual collection of tawdry slot machines but original and quirky automated machines (and water clock), all the work of local artist Tim Hunkin. There’s also nice shopping opportunities and look out too for a large mural of that great British author, George Orwell, who resided in Southwold for a spell during which he wrote The Clergyman’s Daughter.

Another great reason to visit, and satisfy one’s hunger from the bracing sea air, is the lovely pier restaurant serving some great local produce and seafood, including calamari (it’s a little-known fact that most of the Europe’s calamari is fished in UK waters).

From here you can sample the lovely food while admiring the town’s famous  beach huts, some of which cost an amazing €100,000.

Robert,who lives nearby, always had lots of fond childhood memories of the pier and town and that was one of the reasons he bought it when it came up for sale. He’s done a wonderful job restoring it to its former glories and it’s easy to see why it is, once again, one of Suffolk’s top tourist attractions.

A great base for exploring the whole county is Theberton, a quaint hamlet nicely situated at the heart of Suffolk and home to Lime Tree Cottage, one of over 440 lovely properties managed by Suffolk Secrets, a  leading holiday cottage letting agency. Suffolk Secrets properties, all Visit England quality assessed, range from ‘big bold’ party houses to romantic cottages for two.

A delightful, pet-friendly property (very close to Minsmere) and full of character with exposed beams, the 3-bedroom cottage (which is available all year round and costs from €500 pw), boasts two open fires and pretty garden.  Self-contained, it sleeps six and offers easy access to the Suffolk Heritage Coast with Dunwich and Southwold to the North and Aldeburgh to the South. Numerous footpaths are on the doorstep which makes it ideal for anyone wishing to take a pet on holiday. After a bracing ramble in the nearby lovely countryside a nice spot for lunch is the historic Westleton Crown, a traditional coaching inn with origins extending as far back as the 12th century. Located just a few kilometres from the coast,it retains the character and rustic charm of its heritage while offering diners delicious food in a contemporary setting.

Be it a hearty breakfast, trying its new lunch menu or formal meal (it’ll be offering game specials from November-January), its 2 AA Rosette-awarded restaurant serves varies and innovative food together with an extensive wine list.

One of the many charms of this area are the relatively quiet and uncluttered roads (a pleasant change from Belgium) which means you can explore even more of the county in no time at all.

That’s one good reason for venturing North towards Lowestoft and another “must-see” attraction – Africa Alive!

Like RSPB, it too has close EU links as, together with the Zoological Society of East Anglia, it works close with its European partners on conservation issues.

Whether it’s getting up close and personal with ring-tailed lemurs or enjoying its very own “Plains of Africa” –an impressive recreation of the African savannah – this is a nice place for young and old alike.

While in the area try not to miss another perennially popular, albeit unusual, local “attraction”.

Sgt Peppers is an informal restaurant in Lowestoft – the most easterly part of the UK – which is a shrine to the Fab Four’s Sgt Pepper’s album which marks its 50th anniversary this year.

The restaurant, first opened in 1982, celebrates its own landmark in 2017 (its 35th birthday) and, with its walls covered in Swinging 60s memorabilia (including a replica guitar of one used by Paul McCartney) it’s easy to see why it’s still so popular with locals.

If you’ve time, it’s worth also trying Suffolk’s newest attraction, the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, over at Newmarket. This exciting museum tells the history of horseracing and exhibits the finest examples of sporting art in the world.

Getting there from Brussels and Belgium is relatively easy with the leading ferry operator DFDS being the most popular choice for most mainland Continental travellers.

Northern Europe’s largest shipping and logistics company, DFDS is, like many of Suffolk’s attractions and restaurants, an award winner, being named Europe’s and the world’s leading ferry operator in the 2015 World Travel Awards (an accolade it’s won for 5 years running).

Last year, it welcomed its second new ferry, Côte des Flandres, on its Dover-Calais service which increased its daily schedule of sailings between Dover and Calais to up to 30 per day. When combined with DFDS’ three ferries on the Dover-Dunkirk route, it now operates six ships in total on the Dover Strait, with up to 54 daily sailings to the two French ports.

For a small charge you can upgrade to get priority boarding and/or enjoy the pleasant club lounge.

The softening in the pound post-Brexit and recent rise in spending by tourists has further underlined the UK’s appeal for tourists from this side of the Channel.

So, with so much to lure visitors from Belgium, is a fantastic spot to consider, not least if you’re thinking of a Christmas or New Year getaway this year.

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