Mark Bibby Jackson returns to the East of England for a UK Staycation, visiting the seaside resort of Aldeburgh Suffolk and nearby Orford to encounter a local experience.
It seems somehow appropriate in this crazy world that my 2020 travels finish where they started in the county of Suffolk. Back in February when COVID was still called coronavirus and a lockdown was reserved to prison dramas, I visited Bury St Edmunds, fast forward to October, and as a second lockdown is about to be imposed upon England, I retrace my steps slightly further up the coast to Aldeburgh Suffolk.
In the meantime so much has changed. UK holiday makers have neglected the fields of France, towns of Italy and beaches of Spain to discover their own green fields. However, the surge in UK staycations has not necessarily led to an increase in local travel. Products can still be homogenised and produce imported. This is a great pity as the Covid pandemic has afforded people the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint while on holiday, not just in the manner in which they travel but in the extent of local produce they purchase while at their chosen destination.
Fishers Gin – a Local Experience
Which is why I am pleasantly surprised upon entering Fishers Gin Distillery on Aldeburgh’s seafront. Initially I feel as though we have entered a Channel 4 programme on modern design classics. However, there is nothing calculated about our welcome, as we are immediately offered a gin and tonic as we await our tour to commence, and take our seats on the comfortable sofas. This is how experiences should begin.
Fishers Gin was started by Andrew Heald in 2016. However, youthful the distillery, the bond its creator has for the surrounding area is lifelong, as Andrew is Suffolk born and bred. He conveys his passion for the estuary close to Aldeburgh as he shows us drone footage of the estuary from Orford Castle to the distillery, which is located on the seafront at Aldeburgh next to the Brudenell Hotel.
The video could easily be used by the tourism department to promote the area, but it also shows how Andrew and his distiller Ben harvest the botanicals from the surrounding countryside that go to create Fishers Gin. This really is a local product.
After the video our tin cans of gin – that is how Andrew prefers to serve them – are replenished before we attempt to concoct our own gin tea from a selection of botanicals. Letting it brew, we are shown the small still which churns out all the local gin before returning upstairs.
I am not left to drink my own tea – which I believe could be used as a cure for Covid – as Andrew presents us with three gins to taste; Fishers Original (44%), Limited Edition Fifty (50%) and Smoked Gin (60%). The last is still in its final throws of production and is likely to be slightly less potent by the time it is released to the public around Christmas time. It is inspired by the local Pinney’s Smokery, located in Orford, but more of that later.
Brudenell Hotel and a True Local
Fortunately considering the generous quantity of gin I had ‘tasted’, I do not have too far to stagger, as we are staying at the Brudenell Hotel next door, where I had already parked my car, safe in the knowledge that I would not be driving anywhere this evening.
Arguably Suffolk has some of the best beer in the UK. On my trip to Bury St Edmunds I tasted the Greene King bitter that is brewed in there. The other main Suffolk brewery Adnams is located just along the coast in Southwold – and Aldeburgh is very much an Adnams rather than a Greene King town.
Before dinner I decide to brave the wind which is rising to a gale, and walk into town settling on the White Hart Inn for my pre-prandial pint – well two.
Sadly, the typical British local was something of an endangered species even before Covid struck. As we tenderly tread inside the White Hart we are fortunate to discover two guests are leaving, otherwise there would not have been sufficient room for us, such has been the impact of Covid on the British local’s compact space.
The White Hart is a great example of an English boozer. The wood panelling on the walls and the red cushioned sitting invite us to stay almost as much as the great beer. As I sip my beer and endeavour to engage in a conversation with the landlord I wonder how many places like this can survive, especially when, like with the White Hart, no food is served. Here at least you can sit in the heated garden and eat take out from Aldeburgh Fish and Chip Shop next door, which judging by the queues the next day, is well worth the visit.
Dining at the Brudenell Hotel
My thirst stated I return to the Brudenell Hotel for dinner in its excellent Seafood & Grill restaurant that overlooks the beach.
The menu, created by Head Chef Darran Hazelton, focuses on sustainably sourced fish and seafood as well as local Suffolk produce. The interior has a coastal yet contemporary feel in keeping with the menu.
We start with a tasty crab tian, which I follow with a marvellous mackerel as the catch of the day while my companion opts for the partridge, which she claims is excellent. We conclude with a shared plate of Suffolk cheeses. The do not disappoint.
Our wonderful waiter, Rudy, who hails from Honduras, is keen to stress that the restaurant’s policy is to source produce locally. Only the wine, a robust rioja seems imported.
A Stroll along Aldeburgh Beach
That evening I fall asleep to the sound of the waves crashing in on the coast, and the following morning after breakfast I take advantage of a break in the weather to stroll along Aldeburgh’s beachfront.
The long, pebbly beach is great for strolling or watching kids skimming stones into the waves.
With its big skies, wide beaches and colourful cottages Aldeburgh has been a favourite holiday destination since Victorian times. It has also attracted musicians, artists and writers, including the composer Benjamin Britten.
At the far end of the beach lies Scallop, a tribute to Britten by local sculptor Maggi Hambling, with the words, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, etched on it. Judging by my visit which coincided with half-term, the sculpture has proved extremely popular with children who view it as an impromptu adventure playground.
Aldeburgh’s fame predated its emergence as a Victorian tourist destination. In Tudor times it was a bustling port with ships regularly sailing from here to as far as the Faroe Isles. The Golden Hind, the ship that took Sir Francis Drake around the globe, was built here in the 16th century.
The wonderful timber-framed Town Hall, renamed Moot Hall in Victorian times, dates back to the mid-1500s, and now houses the Aldeburgh Museum, which is open from 1pm to 4pm every day.
Although not as spectacular as the fish huts on Hastings Stade I visited late summer, small black-wooded stores sell fish along the beach near the Moot Hall, although if my visit is anything to go buy most visitors opt for the Aldeburgh fish and chips shops a couple of streets back in town.
One of the great things about Aldeburgh is the vast expanse of space along the beach. Even in these times of Covid, there is no sense of congestion.
Another attraction of a mini-break to Aldeburgh is the wealth of opportunities on your doorstep.
The walk from Aldeburgh to Snape Maltings through the Snape Marches near the River Alde is extremely pleasant and flat. I had walked it on my previous visit a couple of years ago. This time we dive there.
Snape Maltings is an arts complex that includes a concert hall as well as galleries, studios and workshops for artists and musicians, several eateries, shops and a sculpture park with works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
Sailors and smugglers used to moor on the River Alde at Snape Maltings to unload goods and, after finding their boats stranded at low tide, were forced to walk back home to their cottages in Aldeburgh.
Snape Maltings is also the host to the Aldeburgh Festival, which is scheduled for 11-27 June, 2021.
A few miles from Snape Maltings lies the small town of Orford. Its main draw is Orford Castle, built, as was the town’s St Batholomews Church in the 12th Century, when Orford used to be a major port. Unfortunately, Orford Castle was closed on our visit, as its opening days are restricted due to Covid measures, but we were able to walk around its tight grounds.
As we had plenty of time before our dinner, we chose to visit Orford Quay a mile or so outside of town where we bought some smoked fish from Pinney’s of Orford, which had provided the inspiration for the smoked gin we had tasted at Fishers Gin the previous day.
Afterwards we just had enough time, as the sun set, to walk along the estuary, which still had an eerie timeless quality especially with the occasional boat stranded in the mud.
The Crown and Castle Orford
For the final leg on our Suffolk staycation, we settled by the unlit fire in the restaurant section of the Crown and Castle, literally a stone’s throw from the castle. After ordering our food I admired the artwork including the mesmerising Lucrezia from 1503 by Swiss Italian graphic designer and photographer Christian Tagliavini, inspired by Renaissance artists particularly Agnolotti do Cision.
Keeping with the theme of using sustainable and local produce wherever possible, the pub sources its bread from the Orford Pump Street Bakery on the town square. This was served with a couple of spreads, one a marmite butter that was quite astonishing. On the big question of the day, I have always found myself on the Marmite hating side of the divide, so I was amazed to discover the butter quite irresistible; I could have found my conversion on the road to Aldeburgh.
My starter was a plate of smoked fish and shellfish, which you might not be surprised to learn was from Pinney’s. The smoked mackerel and the taramasalata, which had an amazing smoky quality, were wonderful, sufficiently so for me to regret not having picked up some of the latter when we visited the shop earlier in the afternoon.
I followed this with an excellent skate while my companion had the game pie. But if anything the best waited for last as we both chose the 12 handcrafted chocolates for dessert. The decadent chocolates, from Gorvett & Stone in Henley-on-Thames, came in a box. So, having tasted a couple I was able to take the rest home with me ensuring that the fantastic meal would stay in my memory for the next couple of days.
Our Suffolk mini-break complete, I reluctantly drove back home, narrowly avoiding a stag that posed for our headlights on the empty road ahead. While the Covid pandemic remains with us, the current trend for UK staycations will flourish, my advice is to ensure your mini-break has an authentically local feel to it as possible. You will not regret it, and it will also help to reduce your travelling carbon footprint.
Aldeburgh Suffolk Hotels
To make a reservation call The Brudenell Hotel on 01728 452071; details can also be found on www.brudenellhotel.co.uk.
Dining in Orford
To book dinner or a stay at The Crown and Castle in Orford call 01394 450205 or visit www.crownandcastle.co.uk. Rooms start from £140 per night for two sharing B&B.
Fishers Gin tours cost £30 per person and are limited to a maximum of six people. They must be pre-booked online in advance via the Fishers’ website www.fishersgin.com or call 01728 454201.
Things to Do in Aldeburgh Suffolk
For information about things to see and do in Aldeburgh Suffolk and nearby, visit: www.thesuffolkcoast.co.uk.