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Lavenham cottages against blue sky

You.Unplugged: This Autumn

History, Heritage and Crooked Houses

Explore Suffolk this autumn for a tantalising glimpse into the county's past. Meet the cooks, butler and other staff at Ickworth House and experience what life was like 'below stairs' in the 1930s; explore a royal burial site at Sutton Hoo and see some of the treasure that was uncovered during the find of a lifetime. Learn about some of the wonderful architecture – magnificent churches, crooked houses with exposed beams, intricate plasterwork and wood carvings - that is found in our towns and villages.

This and more is all around you as you start you time-travelling adventure in Suffolk...

Suffolk's Woolly Past

Many Suffolk towns and villages have a plenitude of crooked, half-timbered houses which hint at the fascinating stories that lie behind their picturesque facades. The county prospered in the medieval period, when the woollen cloth industry flourished, and some towns and villages, known as Suffolk Wool Towns, were at that time among the wealthiest in the country.

The hallmark of these wool towns and villages are the large, timber-framed houses which were once owned by wealthy cloth merchants. They also tend to have excessively large churches relative to the size of town or village, which the merchants helped to finance in the hope of ensuring their place in heaven.

Lavenham, in the Heart of Suffolk, epitomises a Suffolk wool town and is thought to be one of the best preserved medieval towns in England. During the reign of Henry VIII, it was the 14th richest town and today has more than 300 buildings listed as being of architectural and historic interest. Visit the Lavenham Guildhall of Corpus Christi to learn about the area's history.

The Crooked House in Lavenham, Suffolk ©ShowCapture
The Crooked House in Lavenham, Suffolk ©ShowCapture

Bringing History to Life

History comes to life at Ickworth House near Bury St Edmunds during the National Trust's Living History events. Visit the house on Saturday, 18th November to see the hustle and bustle of a house preparing for a grand dinner during game season. Costumed 'staff' will be cooking and chatting amongst themselves about the (1930's) gossip of the day and visitors can soak up the sounds, sights and smells of what Ickworth House would have been like during that time period.

Visit the country's first English village at nearby West Stow. The wooden homes that make up the Anglo-Saxon village are made using traditional methods of the time and the village is in the exact spot where the original settlement was. An exhibition centre houses some of the finds from the site and an archaeological 'mini-dig' is currently underway weekends and school holidays from 11am-4pm.

Christchurch Mansion is another great place to get a feel for the county's history. This multi-layered museum has period rooms filled with history from the 16th through to the 19th century as well as wonderful works of art from some of Suffolk's finest artists. To go back still further, visit Ipswich Museum to learn about (and see!) the woolly mammoths who are thought to have roamed the area up until 11,500 years ago. Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich ©ShowCapture
Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich ©ShowCapture

Suffolk's Hidden Treasures

Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge is a fascinating place to spend the day. The 255 acre estate is home to an Anglo-Saxon burial site where local archaeologist Basil Brown unearthed treasures in the late 1930s, which would transform our understanding of the Dark Ages.

It was sheer luck that saved the treasure from being stolen by 16th century grave robbers. The edge of the mound where the treasure lay hidden had been ploughed away by a farmer, and without this reference point, the robbers miscalculated where the central part of the mound was. They dug where they thought the treasure should be, missed it by just 15 inches and left empty-handed.

Fine Architecture

When exploring Suffolk's towns and villages, make sure you look up near the tops of the buildings. This is often where you can see beautiful pargeting, or plasterwork, and elaborate wood carvings. The 15th century Ancient House in the Buttermarket in Ipswich is one such building and four panels of pargeting depict the world as it was known at the time. The continents of Africa, America, Asia and Europe are represented, but not Australia, which had not yet been discovered. Take a walk along Tavern Street, looking above the shop fronts as you go, and don't miss the ornate decorative work above what is now the Jack Wills store.

While in Ipswich, make time to explore the stylish waterfront area where many of the old buildings have been refurbished. There's the elegant Salthouse Harbour Hotel, which was once a malt house and has been sympathetically modernised, and the Old Custom House which dates back to 1845. Compare this with the ultra modern design of the Jerwood Dancehouse to see how old and new can sit comfortably together.

Bury St Edmunds Cathedral ©ShowCapture
Bury St Edmunds Cathedral ©ShowCapture

Little Hall in Lavenham is a fine example of a late 14th century Hall House and one of the oldest buildings in the town. Half-timbered and a beautiful shade of ochre, it's filled with collections of artwork belonging to the Gayer-Anderson brothers. One of the brothers (Robert) was a well known Egyptologists and both were avid collectors of art, books, china and antiques.

Do visit the Georgian, Grade 1 listed Theatre Royal near the town centre in Bury St Edmunds. Built in 1819, it's the only surviving example of a Regency theatre in the country and it retains many of its original features. The theatre is much loved by theatre-goers and the actors who perform there. As Dame Judi Dench CBE says: “Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds holds a unique place in the history of theatre in this country as well as a special place in my heart.” Guided tours take place throughout the year where visitors can explore behind the scenes of this atmospheric playhouse.

Close by the theatre is St Edmundsbury Cathedral and the abbey ruins. Originating in the 11th century, the cathedral is a wonderful building to visit with elegant cloisters and a light and airy interior - make sure you look up at the exquisite vaulted ceiling under the tower.

Palace House in Newmarket
Palace House, part of the National Heritage Centre for Horse Racing

The Sport of Kings

Newmarket is the home of British horse racing, the sport of kings, and the town now boasts a magnificent new visitor attraction which celebrates its equine history and current horse racing industry. The National Heritage Centre for Horse Racing and British Sporting Art opened its doors recently after more than a decade of planning and preparation.

There are three parts to explore: a museum dedicated to horse racing, a gallery of sporting art and a live horse experience where visitors can meet retired racehorses and learn about their training for their lives after racing. You can even have a go at riding on a simulator to see how good you might be as a jockey!

Suffolk's Musical Heritage

Born in Suffolk in 1913, Benjamin Britten achieved international recognition as one of the 20th century's great composers and his home on the Suffolk coast is open to the public from April to end October.

The Red House is where he worked and lived with his partner in life and work, singer Peter Pears. Visitors can look around an art gallery (built on top of Britten's open-air swimming pool, which is still beneath the floor of the gallery), see Britten's studio where he composed some of his masterpieces, visit his spacious library and explore his much-loved gardens.

Snape Maltings ©Rod Edwards
Snape Maltings ©Rod Edwards

Combine this with a visit to Snape Maltings, where Britten and Pears moved the Aldeburgh Festival to in 1967. Built in the 19th century as a place to malt barley for brewing beer, Snape Maltings is now a concert hall with a lively programme of events and world-class music. There are also independent boutiques, cafes and galleries in the atmospheric Victorian buildings, all set against a beautiful backdrop of the River Alde.

Explore more of Suffolk's heritage by browsing our blog articles and list of visitor attractions.

Where are your favourite places to learn about Suffolk's history?

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