(Above: Barge moored at Snape Maltings Quay, Suffolk. Image courtesy of Vernon Leyton, Visit England)
There is no need of a Tardis for time travel in Suffolk, a car will do. Some 18 miles or so from Ipswich, Lavenham is perhaps the best example of a medieval English wool town, a place that wears its antiquity on its sleeve. Gabled shops and timbered houses of mustardy ochre, deep coral or pink render lean into its thoroughfares, strangers to a straight line, testament to a time of wealth when wool and cloth were very big business indeed.
Squeezing the car into a narrow gap off the High Street, I instinctively breathed in, as though that would help me negotiate such a skinny lane, before being deposited into the wide open space of the Market Square. Here, shiny 4x4s swallowed up parking spaces in front of the medieval Guildhall, its pale timbers silvered with time to frosty beauty. The centuries collided in a single scene.
The Swan hotel occupies a greedy stretch of the High Street, higgledy buildings which date, in parts, to the 14th century. Inside the warm embrace of what became, in the 17th century, an important posting inn, ancient and modern merge seamlessly, from tea in inglenook cosiness to memorable modern British food by head chef Justin Kett, and from period-drama views through leaded bedroom windows to a high performance Temple Spa facial in the Weavers’ House Spa, contemporary calm cleverly insinuated into a historic setting.
The Swan at Lavenham Hotel & Spa
The Swan’s Wool Hall, built in the Middle Ages as a guildhall, is now pressed into service as a private room but it is the hotel bar that will take centre stage this year when the RAF celebrates is centenary. Known as the Airmen’s Bar, dashing RAF and US Army Air Corps pilots based at RAF Lavenham socialised here during World War II. Their hasty signatures adorn the walls, alongside framed memorabilia. As hotel bars go, it is one of a kind.
A spin through the countryside next day took me to Long Melford, named for its lengthy high street, and a peep inside the magnificent parish church of Holy Trinity, then to Sudbury and the unexpected delight of Gainsborough’s House. Surveying masterpieces in the Georgian artist’s home felt a little like sneaking beyond the red rope in a museum — the simple surroundings as far a cry from the National Gallery as you could get. Change is afoot; to give this comprehensive collection of the artist’s work the space it needs, and funding being secured to create a multi-million-pound national exhibition centre in the heart of the town.
Long Melford (Image: visitsuffolk.com)
Oysters from the River Deben, pumpkin arancini and seared haunch of venison brought culinary pleasure at The Crown in pretty Woodbridge. The food hall at Snape Maltings sparkled enticingly but I was determined, also, to reach Emmett’s in Peasenhall. Truckles of cheese vied for attention with giant jars of chestnut honey and slabs of Spanish chocolate at this destination deli.
The Tide Mill at Woodbridge (Image: Alex Hare, Visit England)
Out the back, staff were busy packing orders, sending Emmett’s famous hams to all corners of the globe. Hams cured in ginger and spices, Earl Grey, or even rosebuds, and smoked in a tiny smokehouse on site are its main claim to fame, and the reason owner Mark Thomas is one of Rick Stein’s Food Heroes.
Culinary inspiration at Emmett’s in Peasenhall (Image: Hollis)
As darkness fell, I pulled into the driveway at Seckford Hall, the soaring chimneys and Flemish gables of this Elizabethan manor lit up enchantingly. Beyond a heavy oak door a full suit of armour stood to attention in the broad hallway.
In new hands, this hotel is on course for some TLC, the cheery manager told me, but it had been good enough for Elizabeth I (who stayed as a guest of Thomas Seckford whose father built it) and it was good enough for me.
Restored in the Forties by Sir Ralph Harwood, who had been financial secretary to King George V, the hotel has a wealth of intriguing details, the Great Hall’s five-arched screen and acres of panelling, carved beams, a curious row of period tiles on a landing and a 400-year-old mulberry tree in a walled garden which glistened, next day, beneath a hoar frost.
My bag back in the boot and replete from a sumptuous breakfast buffet, I stopped to take one last look at the top of the drive, then hit the gas and eased back into the present day.
For more short breaks by car in the UK, see hertz.co.uk/inspiredbritishbreaks.
Getting there: pick up your car from Hertz Ipswich, 549A Wherstead Road, Ipswich, IP2 8LR. Tel: 01473 760262. Or pick up your car from your local Hertz location. See hertz.co.uk for more details.
(Image: Alex Catt)
A Mercedes-Benz GLC Class SUV from the Hertz Prestige Collection would add elegance and grace to this short break.