The East of England is the land of the North folk and the South folk of the East Angles – this is where the name England came from!
So you know you’ll discover unexplored history when you’re here, including the first people ever to arrive in the British Isles, Neolithic flint mines, the earliest Christians, invasions by the Romans, Vikings and Normans and more stately homes than is possible to visit in one holiday.
Let’s trace our historical progress in the East of England…
Deep History Coast
The last land bridge to the Continent was on the north east corner of Norfolk at Happisburgh. This was where scientists found 850,000 year old human footprints, the earliest evidence of man found outside the Great Rift Valley in Africa. Yes, the East of England was host to the first tourists ever to visit these isles! Also found on this 14-mile stretch of coast was a 650,000 year old mammoth skeleton and a 500,000 year old flint axe – the Swiss Army knife of its day. This is the Deep History Coast.
Early man uprooted and burnt the woodland of The Brecks creating heaths for grazing. In Neolithic times they dug deep into the rock to find flint. You can go down one at Grime’s Graves. The Normans brought rabbits to the area and they were farmed here for centuries after.
Stand in the middle of Roman Burgh Castle near Gt Yarmouth and note the flint and brick walls on three sides. Stare straight ahead to Breydon Water and imagine that 2000 years ago when the fort was built what was in front of you was a huge expanse of water as far as the eye could see, with small islands of land. The fort guarded the mouth of an estuary that was a mile and a half wide. At the time boats could sail up to the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, near modern-day Norwich.
The Anglo-Saxons had a trading post at Gipeswic (modern Ipswich), created the port at Dunwich that was also the first Bishopric in the region, and a royal hall at Rendlesham, but it’s Sutton Hoo for which they’ll be best remembered (other than giving England its name).
Discovered in 1939, this Anglo-Saxon royal site of incomparable richness included the iconic helmet (there’s a replica of it – the original is in the British Museum) and the Great Ship Burial. It’s thought the grave was for King Raedwald of East Anglia, possibly the father of Edmund (we’ll come on to him).
There are lovely walks with views to the Deben river valley and Woodbridge below.
Experience more at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village.
Bury St Edmunds
It was the Vikings who came next, causing mayhem and mischief throughout the region. They captured the Anglo-Saxon King Edmund, possibly near Thetford, and told him to renounce Christ. He refused, so they beat him, shot him with arrows and then beheaded him. The martyr’s body is buried in Bury St Edmunds, which is named after him.
During the Middle Ages, Edmund was regarded as the patron saint of England and Bury and its magnificent abbey grew wealthy.
Castle on the Hill Framlingham
The all-Conquering Normans came next, building castles everywhere and generally being bossy. That said, they were good at building castles. The motte of their castle at Thetford, at over 40 feet high, was one of the tallest in England. Castle Rising at King’s Lynn has some of the most extensive earthworks of any castle. Norwich Castle, dominating the city, is impressive, but it was re-clad by the Victorians. So the best Norman castle is Framlingham, built in the 12th century by the Bigods and home to the Dukes of Norfolk for 400 years.
In medieval times, the East of England grew rich on wool and weaving, and in thanks the barons built grand churches. Oh yes, as well as lovely timber-framed homes for themselves.
Nowhere are these better seen than in the Wool Towns in the heart of Suffolk – Clare, Lavenham, Hadleigh, Long Melford and Sudbury.
These atmospheric and picturesque locations are wonderful to amble around, explore quirky independent stores, antique shops, award-winning restaurants and eateries. In the vicinity, don’t miss Kentwell Hall.
Hanseatic King’s Lynn
There’s a reason King’s Lynn has more Graded buildings than York – it forged links with Northern European Hanse trading ports and became very wealthy in its own right.
Today you can explore the merchants’ houses, the largest and best-preserved Guildhall in the country, the Custom House which Pevsner dubbed ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’, Minster, and the oldest theatre in England.
But we’ve chosen another country house, in Suffolk, for this blog.
Once described as a ‘huge bulk, newly-arrived from another planet’, Ickworth is a neo-classical Italianate palace in the heart of Suffolk. It’s now recognized as one of England’s most unusual houses set in parkland, and thanks to the National Trust (thank you National Trust!) open to the public.
South Quay, Gt Yarmouth
At the port’s historic South Quay you’ll find the Lydia Eva, a Floating Maritime Museum that pays testament to the town’s history as the capital of the early 20th century’s herring industry, a time when it’s said you could walk across the river by stepping from fishing boat to the next.
Also in this Historic Quarter is one of the finest buildings in the town, the Town Hall, built in the 1880s and classic example of Victorian Gothic architecture. Nearby is the Elizabethan House Museum and Tolhouse Gaol.
Norwich Cathedral Quarter
Norwich Cathedral Quarter is one of the most historic areas of Norwich bursting with fascinating history, alleyways, quaint streets and green space. Norwich Cathedral itself boasts the largest monastic cloisters in England, the second tallest spire in the country and an amazing 1,200 carved stone roof bosses – one of the greatest art treasures of medieval Europe.
Tombland was the location of the Saxon marketplace where in those early days merchant ships would bring in swords from the Rhinelands, furs from Russia and walrus ivory from Scandinavia; the market would also sell local farm produce, pottery and iron tools. You thought it would be a graveyard, didn’t you?
You can see The Great Hospital from the street and visit during the annual Heritage Open Days festival (each September). The Great Hospital dates back to 1249 and includes 15 listed buildings within the site as well as the smallest cloisters in England and the only surviving ‘swan pit’ in the UK.
Elm Hill is Norwich’s most complete medieval street. Elm Hill is considered a natural work of art with its Tudor half-timbered houses, medieval churches and cobblestones. Make sure to visit The Britons Arms coffee house (circa 1420).
And on the edge of the Quarter take a walk over Fye Bridge which dates back to 1153 when it would have been made of wood – it was rebuilt in stone in the early 15th century. It is here where the women of the city were tested to find out if they were witches using a ducking stool. An ancient ducking stool can be seen in the dungeons of Norwich Castle.
Please, before you travel to the East of England, Know Before You Go – ensure places you want to visit are open, see if you have to pre-book. We’ve supplied click-throughs to attractions for you to check.