The scattered villages and towns of Suffolk’s heartland might seem sleepy and quaint today, but it wasn’t always so. In the 14th and 15th centuries, this area was at the centre of the flourishing wool and cloth trade and became the country’s industrial hub. Evidence of this distinguished past can still be seen in fine, timber-framed homes, grand churches and ancient, timbered guildhalls redolent of past wealth and frenzied trade.
In Bury St. Edmunds, you’ll find exciting contemporary shopping in elegant Georgian and medieval streets, while the Abbey Gardens with the ruins of a vast Benedictine abbey are testament to the town’s important pilgrim past. A circular ‘silk route’ meanders on via Needham Market down to Hadleigh, whose St. Mary’s Church has inspired the likes of Constable and Turner, across to Sudbury, where three mills still produce fine fabrics, through Long Melford to end at pretty Lavenham, once the 14th richest town in England.
Follow the scent of hops to the Greene King brewery and opposite you will find one of Britain’s few working Regency theatres. Built in 1819, it is now delightfully restored to its unique original scheme with cosy vermilion wooden-boxed seating and sky-painted ceiling. Guided tours available.
‘My granny taught me to knit when I was six,’ says owner Lyndsey Carreira, whose shop’s unforgettable name comes from her baby boy, known affectionately as ‘the wibbler’. Lyndsey stocks a diverse selection of wools from around the world – Rowan, Debbie Bliss, Noro, Kaffe Fassett, Cascade – with a sink-into leather sofa from which to browse patterns and colours in comfort.
The striking central rotunda, flanked by semi-circular wings, announces the eccentricity of this Georgian Italianate palace. The east wing is a hotel and restaurant, and the National Trust owns the rest. It’s surrounded by Capability Brown parkland and vineyards, and packed with Old Masters, from Velázquez to Titian, within.
The Leaping HareWyken Hall and Vineyards. 01359 250287
Five miles north of Bury St. Edmunds, at Wyken Vineyards, The Leaping Hare comprises restaurant, café and country store in a lofty 15th-century barn. Expect award-winning wines and beer for sale, plus choice selections of pottery, glass, books and home furnishings, all gorgeously displayed over three rooms. Visit on a Saturday between 9am and 1pm and you’ll discover the delights of the weekly farmer’s market, too.
Hens scuttle as goats bleat a welcome to this farm shop filled with mouth-watering deli treats such as homemade fruit ice-creams. Don’t miss the studios, including the Old Piggery Pottery, where Paddy Peters and Helen Brown produce colourful plates, mugs and dishes in distinctive glazes.
Occupying a large slab of Hadleigh’s lovely High Street, Partridges has that reassuring hardware shop smell, the telltale sign that simply everything of necessity, be it bathplug chain, lawn mowing aid, gardening gizmo or garage tool, will be found here. Every high street should have one.
46 Gainsborough Street, Sudbury. 01787 372958
Thomas Gainsborough, master of portraits and landscapes, was born here in 1727. Today, his works hang on the walls of the family home, which boasts a lovely garden, tearoom and gift shop, too.
The elegant linear display of this interiors shop, converted from a former stables, leads from garden space to hall, kitchen and lounge to bedroom. ‘We wanted to create the feeling of a contemporary home in an old building,’ say owners Ann and Owen Roberts. Products include Conran furniture, Biggie Best fabrics and Sibona bedlinen.
Making the most of Lavenham’s ‘woolly’ heritage, Elizabeth sells knitwear from around the British Isles. Look out for chunky jumpers by Sophie’s Wild Woollens of Yorkshire and Lorry Marshall’s knits using yarns from the Scottish borders.
Costume designers and couturiers Dougie and Annabel Hawkes are now enthusiastic tea importers. Their shop also boasts curiously English items such as Dents luggage, gloves, scarves and ties. ‘We made the costumes for A Rather English Marriage and the name just seemed appropriate,’ says Annabel.
WHERE TO EAT & STAY
The vibrant contemporary paintings and local photography on the walls of the bar and restaurant of this Georgian coaching inn (frequented by Dickens, it’s said) set it apart. The rooms are comfy and elegant, with some overlooking the Abbey Gardens.
For more information go to visit-suffolk.org.uk
FEATURE & PHOTOGRAPHS CARRIE FITTON