With its rural and agricultural background, life in the East of England used to centre around market places. While you may not see the livestock of yesterday, you’ll now find picturesque communities with bags of charm, lots of quirky, local, independent shops and eateries. And all will have their own distinct story to tell you…
Five rural market towns in mid-Suffolk make up the Wool Towns – Lavenham, Clare, Long Melford, Hadleigh and Sudbury. The five historic communities, all within an easy drive or cycle of each other, are some of the most picturesque you’ll find in the region.
Well-constructed and handsome, the towns were built on the back of the wool and weaving trade. Today, they stand testament to when the East was the wealthiest part of England outside London.
Explore higgledy-piggledy streets with timber-framed houses leaning at quirky angles, enjoy independent shops selling everything from gifts to antiques, award-winning restaurants and charming tea rooms.
A delightful market town on the River Deben, Woodbridge’s history is indelibly linked to the water and boatbuilding. Go boating, canoeing or take walks along the river into the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB.
The town itself has a fabulous array of charming independent shops, restaurants, pubs, delis and cafes with outdoor markets and places to relax.
By the waterside is the 800-year-old historic (and still working) Woodbridge Tide Mill where you can discover the life of a miller and his family.
Nearby is National Trust Sutton Hoo, the most important Anglo Saxon site in the country after the find of a 7th century burial ship.
This delightful market town in north Norfolk has become a mecca for discerning visitors looking for independent shops, from boutiques and antiques to the mecca of village stores that is Bakers & Larners. If it doesn’t have what you want for your house or your picnic basket, it’s not worth having.
The fact that Holt is a splendid Georgian town set around a lovely market place is down to fire – the entire town was razed in 1708 and completely rebuilt in the style of the day.
Genteel Holt is the terminus of the wonderful North Norfolk Railway, otherwise known as The Poppy Line, a heritage steam line that runs from Sheringham.
Also nearby is National Trust Sheringham Trust, where you can get magnificent views of the coast.
In the heart of the Waveney Valley on the Suffolk/Norfolk border, Beccles is a thriving market town with a growing community of local independent shops and eateries. It’s also one of the fastest-growing market towns in the country, with great rail links and close proximity to the seaside and Norwich.
It’s a great stopping point if you’re on the Southern Broads, or why not hire a canoe from here to do some exploring, maybe to Geldeston Locks. Or visit the famous riverside Beccles Lido – set in a geographical bowl it’s often reported to be the hottest place in the country!
Most people drive on the dual carriage A11 past this riverside town in the heart of Breckland but it’s well worth a detour. A prominent site for Boadicca’s Iceni and burnt down by Viking chief King Sweyn, there are lots of historical sites to explore, not least the Norman hillfort (you can climb up it!) and Abbey ruins.
The town is also know for three statues – one of Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army (it was filmed here and there’s a Dad’s Army Museum), Maharajah Duleep Singh who ‘lent’ Queen Victoria the Koh-i-noor diamond that sits in the Crown Jewels and lived at nearby Elveden Hall, and Thomas Paine, who was born in Thetford and helped inspire the Americans to gain independence from England. Discover more at Ancient House Museum.
Suffolk’s county town is the oldest Anglo-Saxon town in England, with a rich maritime heritage. Stroll along the historic waterfront and enjoy the restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Or why not take a river trip along the Orwell.
Visit Ipswich Museum and enjoy the parkland of Christchurch Mansion, as well as its collection of Constable paintings.
Getting towards north Norfolk from Norwich you’ll discover this quaint market town with lots of independent stores, particularly butchers and delis. It was actually the first Cittaslow, Slow Town, in Norfolk, which tells you a lot about the pace of life. The National Trust own the market place, which hosts twice-weekly markets and a monthly farmers’ market.
Nearby is the stunning National Trust Blickling Hall, which has magnificent grounds and gardens to explore. See if you can find Norfolk’s very own mausoleum pyramid.
Stop for refreshments at the Buckinghamshire Arms.
Often used as a stopping-off point on the way to the Norfolk coast, Swaffham is well worth spending time in. A beautifully-preserved market town this is a good place from which to explore the Brecks. Nearby is National Trust Oxburgh Hall, Gooderstone Water Gardens and English Heritage’s Castle Acre and Grime’s Graves.
Bury St Edmunds
You may have seen Bury (as its known locally) star in the 2019 film The Personal Life of David Copperfield with Dev Patel and Tilda Swinton. Scenes were shot at Georgian Angel Hill and in the country’s largest remaining Regency theatre.
The town centre is a lovely mix of eclectic independent stores, with the modern Arc Shopping Centre.