simple living Suffolk: Aldeburgh Covehithe Dunwich frugal holiday Minsmere Southwold
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This post is about something which is about as unfrugal as you can get, gratuitous travelling. Maybe it’s the mad dogs and Englishmen sort of thing and summer is breaking out…
The county of Suffolk is charming and pretty, and DGF and I though we might try going away at home so to speak. A long time ago she had stayed in a B&B in Southwold and was surprised at the number of weekenders from London who were up there, and also how well they seemed to know the county. We were trying to work out why, and came to the conclusion Suffolk is is quite a rural and tranquil county reasonably close to London and easy to get to from there. The relative isolation in the bulge of East Anglia such that nobody goes through it to get anywhere else, there are no motorways in the county for instance.
We haven’t been away for a fair old time, but the weather looked good and there’s no point in living in a beautiful county if you don’t make use of it every once in a while So I thought I’d share some of the local treats.
We started off near Aldeburgh on Friday night with some fish and chips from Aldeburgh Fish and Chips. This place has a seriously good rep, because the fish is fresh.
You do have to put up with a fair old queue, this next photo was taken on a chilly December day and there was still a long line.
Then if was off to find a suitable spot to eat next to the long shingle beach with the roar of the sea as a background. The beach at Aldeburgh is very long, and though of course at the town itself there will be enough other people, but it was easy enough to find seclusion here. We went a little way along the coast road north of the town towards Thorpeness, past the Maggi Hambling shell sculpture to more isolated parts of the beach.
Our fish was very fine indeed. If you’re into self-catering instead and want really fresh fish then Aldeburgh beach is a good place to get it at one of the local fish stalls selling fresh fish just in
This area is a nature reserve and as the dawn broke there was birdsong against the crashing of the waves, including this flock of linnets that appeared in the gorse bushes on the landward side of the road.
This part of the coastline is a haven for birdlife, and there is a whole chain of nature reserves strung along the coast, including the renowned RSPB Minsmere bird reserve.We travelled up past the ruins of Leiston Abbey before stopping off at Middleton Farm Shop.
One of the big financial killers on holidays is the cost of eating out. Individually, the cost for a particular meal isn’t so outrageous but unfortunately it does all add up. Aldeburgh fish and chips was our main eating out experience, and Suffolk is graced with a fair number of farm shops where for a little bit of effort you can eat well for not too much extra cost, despite the occasionally aspirational prices. We’re talking Waitrose rather than Aldi pricing, however, most of the food is good, and unlike an awful lot of supermarket fare, even the premium ranges, it tastes of something, rather than the blandness of industrial growing.
How do they do it? They shorten the time between field and fork, rather than trucking it to regional hubs, packing in nitrogen a.k.a. modified atmosphere, and in many cases, not growing using artificial fertiliser, which produces bulk but all too often blandness. We used to have this – even in London in the 1970s my family would buy fruit and veg from the markets stalls where the traders got their produce from Covent Garden Market in the early morning.
We got some smoked mackerel which was sourced from Pinney’s smokehouse in Orford. Orford is a great place for fresh fish, and it also has two smokehouses. we usually go to Richardson’s smokehouse, but in this case Pinney’s served us very well. On the way out from the farm shop is a piece of ground with a pair of fine ugly hogs.
I’m still basically a city boy as I grew up in London so if the hog’s obviously a her then fair enough, my bad. I wasn’t going to get down low and check it out.
After a stop for lunch Minsmere was the next stop. We were lucky enough so see three spoonbills which had settled for a while on the Scrape. That’s reasonably unusual, and spoonbills are striking for the great big spatulate bill, hence the name. There was no point in trying to take a picture, for birds you can’t easily observe unaided you need at least a 400mm lens, bird photography is one of the cases where it does matter what camera you use, though it still matters how you use it, otherwise you get a load of bland pictures of birds.
Minsmere is big enough to be all things to all people, and has a decent tea shop as well as a gift-shop selling birdy knick-knacks and things for kids all the way through feeding stations to telescopes that’ll take the shine off over a grand. if you’re a member of the RSPB entry is included in your membership, otherwise that’ll be five pounds, please. If you’re only ever going to visit one bird reserve then Minsmere is a good one to go for, there’s pretty much always a lot going on. For those that don’t feel up to a long walk the feeding stations round the tea shop and cafe bring some of the commoner birds to easy viewing distance.
It is a fair old yomp round the Scrape, which is a shallow lagoon filled by excavating some of the land and filling it with water, managing it so that it is kept shallow. Wading birds can therefore stand in the lagoons and access the critters in the mud floor with their bills, while in the lagoons there are some artificial islands that are used by all sorts of nesting waterbirds.
Hides are set around the Scrape. If you get there early you want to go clockwise from the visitor centre starting with North and East Hides otherwise you get the sun in your eyes, but we made a leisurely start so wandered round the lagoons in an anti-clockwise direction. Minsmere is a big place, and elsewhere away from the reedbeds there is habitat such as trees and scrub for other species.
This picture shows the Scrape. In the foreground are tank traps left over from the Second World War. Minsmere owes its existence to the wartime flooding of the low-lying farmland. The East of the country was the obvious landing target for any potential invading German army, and as well as making the ground boggy by flooding the farmland the chest-height concrete cubes were set in rows to impede any invading tanks landed on the beaches. Avocets first started breeding in the flooded landscape in 1947, after a break of nearly a century.
Next stop Southwold, which is a lovely town by the sea with a pier which is a whole world apart from the cheesy down-at-heel British seaside town. It’s either the influx of well-to-do London weekenders and their City bonuses or there’s old money slopping around the place, either way even the seaside attractions and the pier ooze class. The pier is unusual in that the entertainments aren’t just for kids, though by the looks of it they aren’t left out, with the amusements at the shore end of the pier and plenty of purveyors of trinkets..
Tim Hunkin’s madcap amusements at the Under The Pier Show, for instance, probably need the organ that senses irony to be developed in a grown-up mind, and are a great wry laugh. We had tea and cakes, well okay, coffee and cakes at the clock house cafe there (our second nod to eating out, though at £5 each we could live with the aspirational pricing). These cakes are particularly fine, and if you’re going to eat something that’s not good for you then you might as well eat decent stuff that’s not good for you, rather than industrially produced confectionery.
There’s of course the Adnams brewery and fine ale to be had in town, and it does seem to get better the closer it is to the source. I guess this local food lark also applies to beer. Adnams seems to be doing well – not only have they got a new distribution warehouse just outside Southwold with an eco-friendly grass-covered roof , they’ve also opened a huge retail place in the town itself. They also seem to run some of the hotels – we had a very good meal at the Swan on a visit some time ago and had a decent pint of Adnams or two. Hotels can sometimes butcher real ales so now we know their secret, and the fact they’re just a block away from the brewery! At the rate they’re going it’s soon going to be an Adnams company town.
There’s not much for the sophisticated traveller north of Southwold for quite a while, as the holiday parks of Kesingland and Lowestoft beckon, but some of the countryside before Kessingland is unspoilt if you are hard enough for the walking to get to it. We went up to Covehithe, which used to be a striking example of sea erosion – the road used to literally disappear off the end of the cliff. I hadn’t been here for a few years, and obviously ‘elf ‘n safety has got to it, so it is all fenced off, with major barriers across the road and warning signs and hedges built across. presumably too many people were staging The Italian Job there or something.
The other sad thing is that you can’t join the coast path here as you used to be able to – we met a couple in the midday sun who were looking for how to find Benacre Broad. I had known this as an English Nature bird reserve, but it apparently was also noted as a great location for swimming. However, even five years ago the coastal path had been blocked at high tide because the sea had broken through the defences. Then you were able to walk along a path from the church to get to the broad, but even that seemed off-limits now. Perhaps the occasional swimming human upset the birds or the other way round The church itself looks strange – the original church was too much for the smaller local population to support in the 17th century, so they constructed a smaller church against the massive tower of the church built in previous times of plenty.
The sea is harsh here – in a few decades hence this church too will be gone, Time to move on to somewhere where a lot of this has already happened – Dunwich, where all that remains of what was once a prosperous port is now a sleepy village, as most of the original town and numerous churches has been swallowed by the encroaching sea. The once mighty Greyfriars Franciscan friary is in ruins, but even the ruin is also living on borrowed time. A narrow path runs round the outside of the friary,with only a few tens to yards to the sea.
A really evocative green lane runs south from the friary, with the trees forming a living arch along the pathway. We stayed the night near Dunwich forest, where in previous years I have heard nightingales singing in the darkening evenings.
In the morning we heard the faint distant two-note ‘turr-turr’ of turtle doves calling, not audible on the clip because it is very faint. This migrant pigeon is increasingly rare, largely because it is persecuted as it crosses the Mediterranean sea by southern European hunters though also because industrial farming changes land use and biodiversity. I have heard these in several places in Suffolk over the years, but only once got to see one, at Minsmere. The sound is very low-pitched and maddeningly hard to locate, for me at least. It’s good to know some of them are still making it past the Mediterranean hunters’ guns.
On the way back to Ipswich we visited Snape Maltings, which is a great classical concert venue, a pretty decent nature reserve and a den of aspirational middle class retail therapy. There is either a lot of money about in Suffolk, or, judging by the accents, some of those London bonuses are being spent here. Most of the stuff on sale is good quality and mostly classy, if overly twee at times in a Cath Kidston-esque way. But it’s so overpriced. I had expected the retail places here to fall on hard times in the recession, but clearly the clientele is of the sort where “we just don’t do recessions, dahrlink….”
All in all we were pretty chuffed by our mini-vacation, and probably stayed within 40 miles of home and wiped the smile off about £70. There is something different about staying the night over in a region as opposed to visiting them on day trips, and most places are more appealing and quieter in the beginning and end of the day rather than in midday. We used our small camper van, if visiting the area you’d probably stay in Southwold or Aldeburgh. Darsham is a good alternative with a station, and cycle hire available nearby. The Suffolk coast is a designated Area of Natural Beauty and we stayed mostly in this area.
The key to a frugal holiday
I’ve never been a lie on the beach sort of guy.The holiday marketplace is optimised for this goal, so if that works for you then the key to a frugal holiday is probably getting two weeks in the sun at the lowest cost. I envy the richness and choice available, though I have to say that the last time I went through an airport I came to the conclusion that this was one of the circles of hell for me, and it was during school time. I won’t go as far as to say I’ll never do it again but I really will go out of my way to choose dates and times to avoid other people! I don’t know if I’ve been ruined like ERE by travelling reasonably widely in the 1990s for business, but I am amazed at some of the experiences that have to be tolerated for so-called relaxation!
Independently selecting travel and accommodation is un-frugal because you take big hits in several areas –
- accommodation costs
- eating out costs
- travel costs to the destination
- travel costs within the destination
- Attractions. We generally don’t do attractions, but those with kids seem to take this as another budget whammy
Overall our trip was a reasonable exercise in frugal holidaying. We took down 1-3 of these costs, by camping, self catering and using the local area.
Hitting accommodation costs – camping
Accommodation is very expensive in the UK, and I am not hard enough to go the tent camping route in the UK though it is what families used to do in Britain three decades ago. As a young and skint ermine I used to sleep in cars parking out in the wilds but there’s only so much of that you can do before you ache all over and the general lack of decent sleep gets to you, even if you’re young. A camper van or caravan gets round that and the cooking issue, but you have to remember that you can get an awful lot of B&B stays and pub meals for the cost of a caravan. I can see how a caravan works for the retired, who have the time to use it and really sweat the asset. For the working wage slave and his two or three weeks off a year, if the £10k a colleague paid for his caravan is representative, then over 10 years that’s accommodation to the tune of £1000 a year, which is more than say a self catering cottage for a couple of weeks each year for a decade. Plus you keep the financial resilience – if you lose your job or want to retire early, you can save money by not going on holiday.
Reduce eating out costs – prepare your own food!
Self catering is an easy win, though more compatible with camping than with B&Bs. The biggest headache with catering is heating food – you can avoid that if you’re prepared to simply make sandwiches or otherwise deal with cold food only. Americans seem to have a better approach to that – in several state parks over there I saw brick barbecue grills where families would BBQ and picnic.
On the farm we improvised the barbecue with a fire pit because we were too tight to shell out £150 at Waitrose. The low height is a drag but the price and scalability is right. This option is great but we have the advantage of owning the land, it’s not one for the general Great British countryside On the other hand, for a student barbie in the garden on a budget it’s not bad. The place to spend money to improve a barbecue is in the quality of the food, rather than the technology.
Using foil you can even manage fish, which would otherwise be wrecked by the uneven heat of a BBQ. We didn’t bother with charcoal, simply loaded the pit with plenty of dry wood and twigs and let it burn to glowing embers before setting up the grids
So heating your vittles up is a grade A pain for the frugal vacationer, and there aren’t any really good solutions. As a youth when I used to travel and sleep in cars I had a camping gaz stove to heat water for coffee, but this was an infernal device that hated wind, which was a drag as much of Britain’s natural beauty is also windswept, and was top-heavy just to add challenge. For just heating water for tea and coffee a Kelly kettle works reasonably well and actually works better in wind, but whoever invented the low-profile horizontal cartridge gas stove was a genius as wind effects drop dramatically with height.
Reduce travel costs to the destination
This was achieved by living in a pretty part of the country. I have to admit that this wasn’t particularly a decision I made, I moved for work over 20 years ago and at the time work needed to attract the best scientists and engineers so they chose somewhare that offered good middle class recreational activities and a good lifestyle. I recall that boats, sailing, diving, cycling and cars took up an awful lot of my colleagues’ salary in the early days – as an engineering facility it was a particularly male-dominated workplace, hence the emphasis on action activities involving expensive gear.
If the company were relocating now they would probably put it on the Slough Trading Estate. So reducing travel costs was an easy win there that isn’t easy to replicate.
It’s funny how you rarely take in the qualities of the place you live in. Obviously if that is the Slough trading estate then you’re S.O.L. I saw some of London’s tourist sights in my last couple of months of living there, when I figured I might as well do all that stuff as a resident rather than a visitor.
I had been to most of the sites I talk about here, but as a day visitor, and the natural world in particular takes on a very different mantle at the beginning and end of the day. The birdsong is more intense, and the low sun angle sculpts the landscape far better. Because this is the east coast it is at its best at dawn, and that isn’t really a part of the day I specialise in, but the morning mists were marvellous at Aldeburgh.
Holidays while working – why I gave it up
Obviously I cracked here, however, I didn’t take any time off work as it was Friday night to Sunday afternoon. However, it has been more than two years since I did take a long break away from home. Some of it is the feeling that I am better off using the time to build a better future, be that constructing things to improve facilities on DGF’s smallholding or reducing spending.
The time pressure is one of the worst things about holidays while working full-time, it is hard to take in a place or get to know an area in 10 days, and if you are further constrained by school holidays then you take both a financial hit and you end up with a more stressful experience going on crowded transport systems with other people’s kids. Your own, of course, are charming and don’t bother a soul…
I’ve always personally targeted outside school holidays, because, in general, other people’s kids don’t make for less stressful travel experiences, and of course everything goes up in price. If you extend the holiday then your travel costs can go down but accommodation costs go up. However, you then have long stretches of work without a break at all which ends up so you need a holiday, and so the cycle repeats.
I observed that most clearly in one colleague who, as soon as he had got back from one holiday in the sun, went on the Internet with his wife to book next year’s. Living from one 10-day block of time to another in a year’s time to get over the intervening 355 days struck me as strange, though it worked well enough for them.