The counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Bedfordshire occupy an exceptionally diverse area of land that pushes out into the North Sea. Seeming to exist in a time completely disassociated with the throbbing pulse of the rest of England, this restful region is a breath of fresh air and a step back in time.
Combined with the wide sandy beaches of Norfolk, the pebbled shores of villages like Aldeburgh, where fishermen still haul their boats up the steep shingle beaches, and the immense beauty of the Norfolk Broads, the east of England is a paradise of history, nature, food and knowledge.
One of the undisputed highlights is the ancient university city of Cambridge, with historic colleges, bewitching spires and an amusing populace that seems to forget the rest of the world exists. It’s easy to see why; this city will absorb you into its cobbled streets and quiet pubs with little effort.
Today, Cambridge embodies a certain genteel, intellectual, and sometimes idealised image of Englishness. The university and its 31 colleges dominate the city with hauntingly beautiful architecture, cobbled courts, chapels, peaceful gardens and bridges. Drenched in tradition, Cambridge resonates with dignity and ritual. The exquisite King’s College Choir defines the English Christmas when the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is broadcast live on Christmas Eve.
On top of all this tradition and history, Cambridge remains a lively city and an extraordinary centre of learning and research, where innovation and discovery still continue behind its ancient walls. Historic pubs, frequented at various times by some of the greatest minds in history, still ring with intellectual banter and rowdy merriment. The Cam continues to be the avenue of choice for the young and old alike to exert themselves with rowing or punting, and the water meadows and gardens still beckon amblers, picnickers, and cricketers as they have for centuries.
From the medieval period to the Industrial Revolution, Norwich was second only to London in terms of prosperity and culture. This affluence has left an indelible mark on the city, with some of the most impressive structures in the country found within the city bounds. Norwich Castle, the Cathedral Quarter and its lovely green spaces, Dragon Hall, Bishop’s Bridge and the Norwich 12 – a unique collection of individually outstanding heritage buildings spanning the Norman, medieval, Georgian, Victorian and modern eras – all speak of a richly preserved history.
Explore the Norwich Lanes, bustling with individual and quirky shops offering a range of vintage clothes and homewares, jewellery, antiques, coffee and tea shops, restaurants, pubs and entertainment venues. Elm Hill, the city’s most famous medieval street, was once home to wealthy merchants and craftsmen. It was completely rebuilt after a fire in 1507, and thanks to the dedicated work of some civic-minded individuals, its beautiful, ancient cobbled street was saved from demolition during the clearing of the slums in the 1920s.
This area is famed for having the most medieval churches in the world, and these ancient stone buildings are a legacy of hundreds of years of migration and settlement.
When the Saxons arrived on the eastern shores of the Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries, they began colonising the river valleys and east coast, setting up many small parishes as they slowly made their way south and west. Each of these parishes built its own church to service the local community, hence why there are so many of them in the area. In Saxon times, East Anglia, along with Essex and Kent, were the most populous places in Britain, and as the pioneers fanned out over the southern reaches of the country, the settlements and manors they established tended to be larger, but fewer in number.
The small wood churches tell a humble tale of England’s early settlement, while the Norman churches, built hundreds of years later, are impressive in their scale and Romanesque beauty, and boast of wealth and conquest.
Breathtakingly lovely, the Broads are a navigable network of rivers and canals that stretch more 200 kilometres across East Anglia. It’s a unique landscape of glassy waters, reed-covered marshlands, and impossibly photogenic windmills. At sunset, the whole area turns the colour of honey. Great Britain’s largest protected wetlands are home to a diverse array of native flora, fauna and birdlife. Keep your eyes peeled for playful otters, wading water-fowl and the rare fen orchid.
The extensive area of salt marsh, vegetated shingle and grazing marsh that makes up the Blakeney National Nature Reserve is home to Blakeney Point, a sand-and-shingle spit that is a paradise for wildlife, such as common and grey seals, and breeding terns. Open from April until August, you can reach the grassy dunes of the point on foot from Cley Beach, a round-trip of approximately 11 kilometres, or take a boat trip from Blakeney or Morston Quay.
A short boat ride beyond Orford Quay lies mysterious Orford Ness, Europe’s biggest vegetated shingle spit. An 8-kilometre-long path takes you through beaches and salt marshes to see migrating and native birds. There’s interesting history to discover here too, as it served as a military site from 1913 to the mid-1980s
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