East Anglia family road trip – through history
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With its endless fields of green, broken by splashes of bright yellow flowers in bloom, twisting country roads leading to shingle beaches and the sea, travelling through Suffolk can feel like rediscovering England of long ago.
And it’s not just the peace of a gentler pace of life. Because dig a little deeper – literally in one case – and you discover the country’s history in microcosm.
In one long weekend, we travelled around East Anglia, from Suffolk to Cambridgeshire, and through two thousand years – from the Roman invasion of Britain and the revolt by Boudicca and the Iceni through Anglo Saxon treasure, medieval life and on to Georgian times.
Fortunately our own chariot for this road trip through time was rather more comfortable than Boudicca’s must have been, in a new Hyundai Kona whose aircon and ventilated seats were put to the test on the hottest bank holiday weekend since records began, and whose satnav confidently directed us from coast to countryside and back again.
Lent to us for the weekend, we squeezed it down village lanes and cruised along the motorway, my husband’s iphone plugged into Apple CarPlay to provide our soundtrack – and audio books, for when my daughter got fed up of his playlist – along with plenty of high-tech options to warn us about speed limits, cars in our blind spot and unexpected hazards as we reversed into tight corners on single track passing places.
East Anglia family road trip: The Romans
Our goal was the sea: Aldeburgh to be precise, where our cottage sat minutes from the stony beach, from some fantastic fish and chips and from the town’s Tudor Moot Hall, still used for council meetings today.
Tucked away downstairs is Aldeburgh’s small museum, a treasure trove of assorted exhibits, from butterfly collections in specially made drawers to items from the town’s maritime past and a quirkily ancient Saxon claw beaker, complete with claws. Overseeing it all, with a blank-eyed regal stare, sits the head of the Emperor Claudius, ruler of the Roman Empire during the invasion of Britain.
This bust is actually a replica, the original is preserved in the British Museum after being found in the river Alde not far from Saxmundham – hacked from the head of a statue and thrown into the waters by Boudicca, according to the accompanying information.
Of course it might not have been the warrior queen herself, and the vicious dents and decapitation might not have occurred when the Iceni revolted and sacked modern-day Colchester… but it makes a good story, especially for a five-year-old who likes her royalty more proactive than princessy.
East Anglia family road trip: The Anglo-Saxons
For a true treasure trove, you need only look 15 miles down the road – to Sutton Hoo. The ancient Britons had been vanquished, the conquering Romans left, and across the narrow sea came the Angles and Saxons.
And if their royal capital at nearby Rendlesham has vanished over time, one spectacular find remains. Uncovered on the eve of the Second World War, a small team of archaeologists discovered “the find of a lifetime” in the mounds here.
Hidden under the grassy humps lay the final resting place of the King of the Wuffinga, Raedwald, King of East Anglia who ruled here in the 7th century. Renowned for his victory over the Kingdom of Northumbria, an early convert to Christianity (if not an entirely committed one), he was buried in 625AD with his boat and treasures.
The ghost of the hull could still be seen on the sandy soil, almost 1,400 years on, long after the wood itself had rotted away. But the precious items had survived, from a Byzantine bowl to a collection of 37 gold coins, golden jewellery decorated with tiny garnets and enamel, and a fabulously intricate metal helmet adorned with silver and gilt.
As I marvelled at the detail, complex patterns showing intertwined dragons, and wondered at the influence this ancient people still had on our English language and culture today, my daughter had started tracking down the first couple of clues on her kids’ treasure trail and arming herself with wooden sword and more lightweight replica helmet.
I couldn’t help feeling the spirit of Boudicca might still be at work.
But the exhibition hall at Sutton Hoo is only the start. Cleverly designed to give enough information for adults intrigued by the significance of what was unearthed, it’s also accessible enough for children, with music and poetry to listen to, a reconstruction of the burial mound to explore inside and animal spotting among the bejewelled decorations.
More gruesomely, there’s also the puzzle of the ‘sand men’, the remnants of multiple burials in a nearby site.
Then armed with our trail map, we headed out for the burial mounds. With enough time, there are several circular walks you can take around the grounds, but ours led us straight to the field where the treasure was found, past a couple of inquisitive sheep and a sculpture representing Raedwald’s queen surrounded by the grave’s treasures.
From the viewing platform, you can get a sense of what people must have seen for centuries, ripples in the field, once much higher, stretching off across the landscape.
One final stop in Tranmer House, itself frozen in the more recent past, around the Second World War when the excavations took place and when the house itself was used by the War Office.
After attempting to piece the shards of a shattered pot back together, we checked out the traditional toys in the living room and eyed up the glamorous clothes belonging to the lady of the house.
Then time for cicen and wyrtmete… alias chicken salad, in the café.
East Anglia family road trip: The Plantagenets
Perched on top of its own grassy mound, Orford Castle towers 90ft high, a symbol of royal power to leave no-one in any doubt about just who was in charge: Henry II, Duke of Normandy and England’s first Plantagenet king, who returned law and order to the country after the Anarchy.
These days, the stone keep towers above the pretty village of Orford, home to the fabulous Pump Street Bakery (have a raspberry doughnut. And some focaccia. Have everything, in fact). Two lions hold up the castle on the sign but the only thing to disturb the tranquility was an occasional faulty car alarm on the other side of the village, and my daughter squealing with glee as she sprinted up the hill.
Built in the 12th century, in Byzantine style, within the stone walls we found the legend of the wild man of Orford who was caught in fishermen’s nets and held here, a chapel with unusual glass windows, a maze of passages leading down to the basement well and small chambers for VIPs.
Climbing the 91 steps of the spiral staircase, original tiles decorate the walls in the old bakehouse, kept isolated on top of the keep in case of fire. And some wonderful views stretch out across the river to the countryside and Orford Ness nature reserve.
East Anglia family road trip: medieval villages
Not long after Henry II was busy building castles, 70 miles away a small group were laying the foundations of something which has endured much longer… Cambridge University.
Leaving Suffolk for Cambridgeshire, we were staying in medieval times with a quick visit to the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university, founded in 1209 after scholars fled Oxford following trouble between town and gown.
Tempting though it was to stop and discover more of the colleges, including the oldest, Peterhouse, or delve even further back into history at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences with fossils and rocks dating back 4.5 billion years, we were headed into the countryside, along the historic Wimpole Way.
Stretching from Cambridge to Wimpole, a village mentioned in the Domesday book, it’s a 13-mile walk… or a rather quicker drive through some gorgeous little English villages.
From Coton, which was settled around the same time Raedwald ruled and whose church was founded not long before Orford got its castle, we headed on to Hardwick, once home to a Benedictine monastery. There’s still a lovely 13th century church, with overgrown gravestones around the front – I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t have changed much for centuries.
Then onwards to Caldecote with its pretty houses and Kingston, which would once have belonged to the king: from the road we could spy the signs for the Wimpole Way and toyed with the idea of me racing the Hyundai for one stretch, taking the shorter footpath as the car was diverted the longer way round.
With the temperatures soaring into the high 20s, I decided to enjoy the blue skies and scenery from the comfort of my seat though.
But the church at Kingston tempted me out. Stepping into the cool stone interior, you can still see medieval wall paintings – faded and eroded with time, it’s a reminder that once these simple country churches would have been decorated from floor to ceiling.
And for almost 800 years, the white winged angels – now just an outline – would have soared above the congregation.
East Anglia family road trip: Georgian grandeur
Owned by Earls and the daughter of a famous author, visited by a Queen – today, the only descendants of the 18th century inhabitants living on the Wimpole Estate have their homes in the farm.
This is where the Wimpole Way finishes, at Wimpole Hall with its fabulous 18th century mansion, gorgeous gardens and traditional farmyard, where you’ll find 18th and 19th century rare breed animals.
On a hot bank holiday weekend, the car park was heaving and the cafes had had a run on ice cream but once we spread out across the grounds, you’d hardly have guessed how many people were inside. Plus, as it’s a National Trust property, there were still scones… phew.
Tiny new rare breed lambs were curled up napping next to their mothers, in from the fields for the time being. At the other end of the scale, gigantic shire horses loomed high in their stalls at the stable.
After watching the mischievous goats play, we visited the piggery – with its variety of breeds and piles of piglets – at speed after my daughter discovered one timeless truth: pig poo smells…
Rather more civilised was the mansion itself, deliciously cool in the sunshine. Armed with another activity trail to follow, we trooped off animal spotting, before marvelling at the ornate bed which looked like it had taken inspiration from a chocolate box (and only just fitted into the room after being moved upstairs from its original ground floor home) and wondering how many people would have fitted in the huge plunge bath.
Contemplating a final wander in the walled garden, my daughter looked at me and whispered: “Mummy, I’ve had a lovely weekend… but can we go home now?”
So we did. But we followed in the footsteps of Emperor Claudius’ legions, and took the old Roman Ermine Road back to London to do it.
Discover the complete Ancient Route Road Trip series
- Gretta Schifano explored the Pilgrims’ Way by car travelling from Winchester to Canterbury
- Kirstie Pelling headed into the hills of the Lake District, on a scenic drive from fell to coast along the Hard Knott Road
- Ting Dalton hunted for fossils on a four-day trip along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset
- Nichola West travelled along the Great Stones Way in Wiltshire
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Hyundai, who also loaned us the Kona for our East Anglia road trip. The route and places we visited were our own choice, but we also received free entry into Sutton Hoo and Wimpole Hall courtesy of the National Trust. All opinions and sword-wielding mini warriors are my own. The post also contains affiliate links: any purchases you make are unaffected but I may receive a few pennies.
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