If you’re escaping the urban, the last thing you want is to be reminded of the familiar. You don’t want homogenised High Streets and the same-old, same-old. Then you’re coming to the right place. The East of England has a wide range of unique towns and cities, all in beautiful surroundings, some by rivers, waterfronts and the sea. Here we’ve chosen our nine gems that you won’t want to miss…
Home to 3000 horses, Newmarket is a must-visit if you’re interested in the equine. Set in rolling countryside on the Suffolk/Cambridgeshire border, it’s rightly considered the birthplace and global centre of thoroughbred horse racing, training and breeding, with royal connections stretching back to James I, who had a palace here. It was Charles II who popularized horse racing and it’s from his reign that it became known as ‘The Sport of Kings’. Queen Elizabeth II regularly visits the town to see her horses train.
But there doesn’t have to be a race meet on to enjoy Newmarket. Discover Newmarket run a series of fascinating, behind the scenes experiences including guided tours of the famed Gallops and The National Stud or visit the National Horse Racing Museum, housed on the former site of Charles II’s palace and opened by Elizabeth II in 2016.
Bury St Edmunds
The first thing you need to know is that the medieval town is named after the original patron saint of England.
Crowned King of East Anglia in 855 when he was 14, the latter Saint Edmund was captured by the Vikings aged 28 and offered the chance to remain a puppet king if he renounced his Christianity. He refused, so the Dames tied him to a tree, fired arrows at him and chopped his head off.
This and many more amazing things can be learnt on the regular tours of the town.
You’ll discover Bury’s role in the Magna Carta, Britain’s last remaining Regency theatre, Georgian squares, and literary links to Dickens and Shakespeare.
St Edmunds Abbey was one of the richest and largest Benedictine monasteries in the country, but Henry VIII put paid to that. You can visit the Abbey ruins, wondering at Suffolk’s only cathedral, and walk the Abbey Gardens.
As well as being the East coast’s top seaside resort, with myriad amusements, attractions and entertainment on its famous Golden Mile, Great Yarmouth has some fascinating history to explore.
Largest remaining wooden rollercoaster in the country and the only rollercoaster that doesn’t have automatic brakes? At the Pleasure Beach.
Only surviving total circus building left in the UK and only one of three in the world with a circus floor that sinks into a pool? That’ll be The Hippodrome. (And you have to take in a show there for that water spectacular.)
Award-winning museum that celebrates the days of the herring industry when you could walk across the River Yare simply by stepping from boat to boat? Time & Tide Museum.
Restored pleasure park that takes you back to Victorian days and Promenading? Venetian Waterways.
Oh yes, about the brakes on the rollercoaster – there’s actually a brakeman who does it manually. Phew!
England’s first UNESCO City of Literature, Norwich is a City of Stories! Take a peaceful walk by the River Wensum and you’ll see where Caen stone was brought ashore from France to build the stunning Norman Cathedral.
Explore the Cathedral’s precincts and see the statues of local heroes first world war nurse Edith Cavell, Sir Thomas Erpingham who at Agincourt led the Welsh archers (yes, Welsh!) and England’s greatest ever naval commander, Horatio Nelson.
This is Britain’s best-preserved medieval city. Made prosperous by the wool trade and links with the Continent, a lack of fast running water meant the Industrial Revolution bypassed Norwich. What a relief! It’s left intact historic cobbled streets, city walls, and the majestic ‘Box on the Hill’ Norman Castle.
Suffolk’s county town is the oldest Anglo-Saxon town in England, with a rich heritage. Not to be missed is its historic waterfront, now heavily punctuated with restaurants, bars and hotels. From here take a river cruise up the Orwell (which lent its name to author Eric Blair), under the magnificent Orwell Bridge and on to picturesque Shotley Peninsula.
With more Graded buildings than York, King’s Lynn was one of the country’s most important cities from the 13th century, righty proud of its links with the Hanseatic League, and its museums, medieval merchants’ homes along cobbled streets and by the atmospheric quays on the River Great Ouse that lead to The Wash and North Sea.
Don’t miss the 1683 Custom House, described by Pevsner as ‘one of the most perfect buildings ever built’, and the statue of explorer George Vancouver, the Georgian Hanse House, True’s Yard Museum, the Holy Trinity Guildhall or King’s Lynn Minster. At Lynn Museum discover the story of Seahenge.
Nestled between the rivers Orwell and Deben, Felixstowe is a charming seaside town with a vibrant town centre and a wonderful mix of attractions and activities to suit everyone. Stroll along the seafront taking in the fine Edwardian architecture, the newly restored Seafront Gardens, colourful beach huts and four miles of lovely sand and shingle beaches.
To the north is the charming fishing and sailing hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry. Walk along the banks beside the river Deben, hop on the little foot ferry for a trip to Bawdsey or pick up some fresh fish for tea.
Mix the old with the new by visiting the unique Landguard Peninsula with its 18th century Fort, one of Britain’s best-preserved coastal defences, alongside the fascinating collections of the Felixstowe Museum. Stroll along the boardwalk at the Nature Reserve, home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna. And while you’re there you’ll have spectacular views of the giant ships arriving and departing at Britain’s busiest port.
Hard to believe, but Cromer (named for a mere where crows congregated) used to be a mile inland. That’s the power of the sea in these parts. Now it has a magnificent Victorian promenade, from the days when steam trains first arrived and seaside holidays became popular, and a pier that is home to the world’s last end-of-pier theatre.
Eat fish and chips on the Prom or buy a fresh Cromer crab sandwich. Actually, you won’t regret doing both. Why is the Cromer crab so tasty and succulent? Because it feeds from the world’s largest chalk reef just offshore. Yes, really!
Nearby are The Runtons, where a 650,000 year old mammoth skeleton was found (you can pick up mammoth teeth on the beach… if you know what you’re looking for), strain your calves up Beeston Bump for vertiginous views, and the charming (but smaller) seaside town of Sheringham, where you can take the North Norfolk heritage steam railway, otherwise known as The Poppy Line, to Georgian Holt.
Broads National Park
125 miles of navigable, lock-free waterways that are set in stunning countryside, and home to more than a quarter of the rarest wildlife in the UK. How cool is that? But wait, there’s more…. the Broads are mostly man-made!
Yes, you read that right. It was only in the 1950s that Dr Joyce Lambert’s research revealed that the Broads weren’t bow-shaped like lakes but had straight edges. That, and evidence of phenomenal numbers of peat turves being burnt in medieval times, proved conclusively that the Broads were the result of digging for fuel.
Later, these huge pits became inundated as water levels rose and the Broads were born.
Now, the Broads National Park are internationally-renowned as a home for wildlife and popular destination for visitors. You’ll love it too!