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Hyrst’s Hidden Suffolk – 5 Secret Places to Visit on the Suffolk Coast

To really find hidden Suffolk, you need an insider’s guide. A chaperone who knows Suffolk’s best kept secrets. We reveal the top 5 places for escape in our patch of the county, out by the coast where we live and work. So, fill a thermos, rouse the dog and set forth, it’s time to explore undiscovered Suffolk.  

Suffolk has a pleasing degree of anonymity. Despite being relatively close to London (the train from Liverpool Street to Suffolk’s largest town, Ipswich, takes around one hour), the county isn’t busy with visitors.

At Hyrst, we’re fortunate enough to live in one of the quieter parts of this already quiet county, in an area known as the Deben or Wilford Peninsula. The North Sea borders one side of the peninsula, the wide expanse of the Deben Estuary lines the other. Between those natural boundaries, it’s a land of heath, forest and saltmarsh. It comprises a good chunk of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The countryside near our studio and workshops on the coast has a big influence on how our business operates and on the design of the things we make. We work with the resources on our doorstep, such as the locally sourced timber in our solid wood furniture or the workshop at a local prison, HMP Warren Hill, where our homewares are made. And we try to retain a pared-back aesthetic in our design, inspired by the elemental nature of the world outside our studio.

So, it’s with some hesitancy that we write this blog, inviting you in to visit our corner of hidden Suffolk! We’ve focussed on the places in the natural world that we enjoy most, choosing our top 5 places to visit for inspiration. They’re some of Suffolk’s best kept secrets. When you’re finished with the outdoors, there are plenty of villages (with pubs and cafés) in which to warm up or recharge, and delightful Suffolk towns nearby, including Woodbridge, Aldeburgh, Orford and Southwold. Not to mention the lost city of Dunwich…

Timber yard in Suffolk with sawn timber air drying in stacks

Butley Ferry

Butley Ferry’s solitude is born, in part, of its distance from any road. Straddling the Butley River at Gedgrave and Capel St. Andrew, two miles south-west of Orford and ten miles east of Woodbridge, it can only be reached on foot or on a bicycle (or via the water).

The place is known as ‘Butley Ferry’, but the actual vessel doesn’t operate continually, only running on weekends and bank holidays between Easter and October. It’s a rowing boat, staffed by dedicated volunteers. The last time we crossed, our pilot was a former GP who, despite retiring to Devon, still devotes a week of his year to rowing the ferry. It’s a place with that kind of draw. The only other souls in view were a couple of Common seals, lying on the shingle bank a short distance upstream. Often, when the ferry isn’t running, the seals sunbath on the crossing’s wooden jetty, posing patiently for walkers with cameras.

Butley Ferry forms an optional shortcut on the Suffolk Coastal Path and is also on Regional Cycle Route 41. Indeed, making use of the ferry when walking or cycling along the coast will shave several miles off your route.

The Suffolk countryside here, with its creeks, saltmarsh and tussocks of grass, can feels like a remote, untamed environment, populated mainly by wading birds. And yet, the landscape around the ferry has been shaped and maintained by people for centuries. The neatly contained river only really took shape in the early sixteenth century, when Augustinian monks drained the surrounding land and built the river walls. They too established the ferry, which, for several centuries, operated mainly as a means of transporting livestock to market in Orford. The original ferry service finally ran aground in the early twentieth century (apparently in part because the ferryman was regularly in and out of prison), to be resurrected and restored in the early 1990s.

Hidden Suffolk – insider top tip

If you’re in the mood for a longish walk, around eight miles in total, park at Capel St. Andrew and follow the footpath to Ferry Farm. When you arrive at the ferry, you have the option of turning right and following the banks of the River Ore (into which Butley River flows) around to RSPB Hollesley Marshes. Here, stop for coffee and cake at the café staffed by prisoners at Hollesley Bay Open Prison. The prison is one of two based in Hollesley; the second prison, HMP Warren Hill, is where Hyrst works with prisoners to produce small items from the home, as part of a programme of rehabilitation. After the café, the walk wends back across the marshes a mile inland. Even in the height of summer, you will have most of the walk to yourself.

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Staverton Thicks

Unfurl the OS Explorer Map for our part of Suffolk (OS197 Ipswich, Felixstowe & Harwich) and, just north of the Woodbridge Road as it cuts through Butley, you’ll find a patch of green labelled ‘The Thicks’. Not a reference to the local inhabitants, for whom we’ll happily vouch. Instead, it’s a remarkable few acres of epic, gnarly, pollarded oak trees. A moody, magical plot that can evoke the landscapes of Tolkien or the menace of the Upside Down, depending on the season or the inclemency of the weather. We know it as Staverton Thicks, the remains of the medieval Staverton Park, which today falls within the bounds of the beautiful Wantisden Park.

Some of the oaks at the Thicks are well over 400 years old. Each has a wide trunk (or ‘bole’), topped by a low crown of twisting branches. It’s thought they were last pollarded 200 years ago, back when English oak was harvested for its timber; the trees truncated at a height that allowed for new growth above the attention of wandering deer. The harvested sticks were used in housebuilding and for firewood. The practice left behind a squat wide bole – perfectly shaped today for a restful hug. Several are hollowed out (but still alive), making perfect hidey holes for children. In places, the oaks are mixed in with holly trees, some of which are thought to the be oldest in Britain, a few growing inside the cavities of the decaying oaks. Here you’ll also find Rowan and Birch.

In more recent years, the Thicks and their neighbouring parkland have popped up on telly a few times. Most notably as the backdrop for Lance and Andy’s meanderings in The Detectorists, in particular the tree where they sit for a brew and a biscuit. We love that show. Watch it if you can.

Hidden Suffolk – insider top tip

Once you’re done with the Thicks, head a quarter mile down the road to the aged Oyster Inn at Butley, one of the nicest pubs in Suffolk. You’ve earned a pint, and the dog could use a drink too.

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East Lane, Bawdsey

East Lane is one of our favourite places for a bracing coastal walk. It’s in Bawdsey, an end-of-the-road village strung out between its centre and its quayside. At this end of the peninsula, the land narrows, as the North Sea curls around to meet the waters of the Deben Estuary. Eventually, the land ends in a pointy shingle spur, overlooked by the historic Bawdsey Manor.

But for East Lane, we turn left a couple of miles before the manor, following the narrow lane until it ends at a small, windblown car park that overlooks what pass for cliffs – low-rise and deeply crumbly – in this part of England.

There’s a lot of history to explore here, both ancient and modern. Turn right along the clifftop and after ten minutes you can scramble down the path on to Bawdsey Beach. The view here is always stunning, with large Suffolk skies over the brooding North Sea.

When the tide is out, the lucky searcher on Bawdsey Beach can find fossilised sharks’ teeth. The blackened or brown teeth emerge from the London Clay. Most finds are an inch long at best, but the very fortunate few will find the fossilised tooth of a three-million-year-old megalodon. A solitary Meg gnasher can be as large as your hand. After a storm, you might also find small lumps of amber washed up on the shoreline.

Up on the cliffs, the archaeology has more human origins. The Martello Tower, now converted to a house, dates from the early nineteenth century, built to repel a possible French invasion. It’s Tower W, one of the most northerly in a string of 29 forts constructed between St Osyth Stone in Essex and Aldeburgh in Suffolk between 1808 and 1812.

Back at the car park, the remnant buildings date from the First and Second World Wars. Directly overlooking the sea, the Emergency Coastal Defence Battery at Bawdsey came into service in 1942. It had two gun emplacements, repurposed from First World War warships, to be used in defence against hostile German shipping. Around 80 men would have been stationed here, housed in Nissen huts that have long-since been demolished. The battery, with its low-lying, waterfilled passageways and thick concrete walls, has been more resilient. If you can, go in early summer when the swallows are darting around the buildings.

A short distance back from the cliffs is a Second World War battery observation post. This one’s actually for sale, if you’re in the market for a damp, grey concrete chunk of mid-twentieth century architecture. ‘Doer-upper’ doesn’t quite cover it. Finally, partially hidden by brambles next to the car park is a First World War pillbox, identifiable by its round shape.

Hidden Suffolk – insider top tip

When looking for sharks’ teeth, take a pad of the sort used by gardeners when weeding the flower beds. Do your knee caps a favour.

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Shingle Street

From the Hyrst studio, we can see Shingle Street, a mile away across low-lying farmland purloined from the sea centuries ago. It’s a stirring sight. A real inspiration to our work. The North Sea, ever-changing in colour, rolling against the large shingle beach with its ragbag row of assorted of houses sheltering behind. Even in summer, it can be a wild place, with the wind howling.

Today, the beach is relatively popular with swimmers (a tidal lagoon that comes and goes with the winter storms that pile up the shingle is great for an easy and safe – if bracing – dip), kite surfers, sea-anglers, artists and walkers, but never feels busy. Once you get out on the broad expanse of shingle, it’s easy to find space.

The settlement at Shingle Street grew up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, home to a hardy community of fishermen. In the Second World War, the village was evacuated and the beach was mined, with residents only returning in the late 1940s. The secrecy surrounding the site during the war has fuelled the rural myth machine. Depending on which local you talk to, Shingle Street witnessed a failed Nazi invasion and Barnes Wallis testing the bouncing bomb, apparently blowing up the village pub in the process.

Today, Shingle Street is home to an interesting community of artists, writers and musicians, and also regularly has a bit-part in films and TV series. Of particular note was its role in Danny Boyle’s film Yesterday (2019), in which Beacons bungalow played home for an aged John Lennon, living out his twilight years safe and sound having not quite hit the big time with his band. It also had a starring role in our own film, which tells the story our social enterprise here in Suffolk.   

Hidden Suffolk – insider top tip

If you’re arriving at Shingle Street by car, drive past the car park at the northern end of the hamlet and follow the road south, past the ‘World’s Windiest Tennis Court’, parking at the far end of the houses. This is as far as you can get in a car. From here you can walk out on to the shingle, down to the water’s edge, and then meander back north, along the shoreline to Beacons bungalow. Cut back inland here and then follow the footpath in front of the houses, including the old coastguard’s cottages, back to your starting point. It’s a good loop – maybe a mile or so – that gives a great feel for the beach and its beauty.

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Sutton Hoo

Perhaps Sutton Hoo doesn’t qualify as secret Suffolk. Indeed, its fame as the site of a royal Anglo Saxon burial ground is international. However, that’s not why we (at Hyrst HQ, five miles up the road) go to Sutton Hoo these days. We’d be lying if we said the awesome café doesn’t play its part, but really, we go for the setting – for the scenery that so beautifully evokes the epic endeavours of our Suffolk forebears. You can feel a real connection to the land here.

Comprising 255 acres of heath, grazing land, woodland, meadow and tidal mud, Sutton Hoo frames its celebrity burial mounds with some of Suffolk’s finest countryside, all expertly managed by the National Trust. There are several varied walks through the grounds, including a newly opened path down by the River Deben’s edge.

The ‘Hoo’ is actually a hill spur, up which the Anglo Saxons dragged the ship that was used as a burial chamber for (most likely) King Raedwald, heaving the vessel all the way up from the Deben.

A 17-metre-tall tower gives a fantastic vantage point from which to view the whole scene, including the burial mounds, river and Woodbridge beyond. On a clear day, you can see the cranes at Felixstowe Docks, Britain’s largest container port.

Hidden Suffolk – insider top tip

A public footpath bisects Sutton Hoo. If you want to see the burial mounds at their most ethereal, make an early start, ideally at dawn on a sunny day as the mist is clearing, and approach on foot along the designated path. However, please don’t stray from the footpath; to view the rest of the site, you will need to arrive during business hours, approaching down the long driveway.

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