You Unplugged

Shortlist symbol Add to shortlist button.

Old books

Have a literature-themed holiday in Suffolk

If there’s anywhere in the world to be a reader, it’s Suffolk. It’s not just the literary events that fill its cultural calendar, the inspiring landscape, nor the hundreds of cosy cafés that invite you in to read (though all these things are great). Suffolk is a perfect place to be a reader because it’s a perfect place to be a writer, and has been so for centuries. Here you can tread in the footsteps of some of the greatest writers that ever lived (and even sleep in their beds!) on your own literature-themed holiday in Suffolk.
Southwold was P.D. James’ second home, and her inspiration for ‘The Children of Men’
Photo (c) John Fielding


Detective mysteries, dystopian futures, crimes set in sleepy seaside towns: these were P.D. James’ specialties. She earned her place in the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame with a series of mystery novels starring investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of Scotland Yard, whose murder solving twice brought him to a place that she dearly loved: The Suffolk Coast. Until her death in 2014, P.D. James was a regular face in Southwold, where she had a holiday home on the High Street near the Town Hall. This pretty coastal town is the perfect place to immerse yourself in P.D. James’ dystopian novel The Children of Men, large parts of which are set there. 
George Orwell at the BBCHad George Orwell never lived in Suffolk, he would never have been George Orwell


Another writer who spent many summers in Southwold was Eric Arthur Blair, though you may know him better by his pen name: George Orwell. One of the most important writers of the 20th century, Orwell’s powerful criticism of social injustice earned him a place in the English language, “Orwellian” now being a common byword for dystopian, totalitarian and authoritarian states. But before 1984 and Animal Farm there was A Clergyman’s Daughter, written while using his parents’ home in Southwold as a base between 1929 and 1934. (It was during these years and their long summers on the beach that Orwell fell for Brenda Salkeld, a gym teacher in Southwold and the daughter of a clergyman. Though she rejected his proposal of marriage, they remained friends for a long time.)

You can still see Orwell’s family home in Southwold, which is now Marks Fish & Chip Shop on the High Street. However, to get a better sense of how Orwell felt about The Suffolk Coast, we recommend sailing with Viking Mariners or aboard the Sailing Barge Victor along the River Orwell, a river Eric Arthur Blair loved so much he took its name.

Thorpeness Meare: a place for boys and girls who never grew up
Photo (c) Karen Roe


Down the coast from Southwold is Thorpeness, an odd little village that was created almost entirely from the imagination of a wealthy Scottish barrister, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, who wanted a place where his friends and family could spend indulgent, playful summers. In 1910, Ogilvie purchased Thorpeness and the surrounding land and set about creating a private, fantasy holiday village. Meanwhile, Ogilvie’s close friend J.M. Barrie was in the process of rewriting his play into a novel, Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The lost boys and magical islands of Peter Pan that would capture the hearts of millions of children over the next century also found their place in Ogilvie’s fantasy village, in the form of a beautiful lake. Thorpeness Meare is scattered with enchanting islands concealing forts, dens and even a dragon’s lair. You can sail on it from Easter to the end of October half term, mooring up at any of the islands, which J.M. Barrie named himself.
Grimes on the beach (c) Robert Workman

‘Peter Grimes’ was performed on Aldeburgh beach to mark Britten’s centenary
Photo (c) Robert Workman


Aldeburgh is famously associated with the composer Benjamin Britten, often cited as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, yet there is another figure in Aldeburgh’s history whose work was the precursor to Britten’s own. George Crabbe was born in Aldeburgh in 1754, and spent the first 25 years of his life in Suffolk. During that time he studied society closely and developed an intimate knowledge about Aldeburgh’s middle-class and working-class people, which would later inform his most famous work, a poem called The Borough. The Borough described a fictional version of Aldeburgh, and detailed the stories of the people that lived there, among them the tragic tale of the fisherman, Peter Grimes. It was this story above all others that struck a chord with Britten, who read it as a powerful allegory of homosexual repression. 135 years after George Crabbe published The Borough, Britten’s adaptation of Peter Grimes was performed for the first time at Sadler’s Wells. It would go on to become his most celebrated opera.

Visiting Aldeburgh today you can’t fail to feel Britten’s presence, especially in the world-renowned Aldeburgh Music institution he founded there. However, George Crabbe is there too, his story intertwined with Britten’s own. 

M.R. JamesM.R. James teaches us to be wary of strange whistles and lonely walks on Felixstowe beach


For fans of the ghost story, there can be none better than the Victorian ghost stories of M.R. James, who lived for much of his life near Bury St Edmunds. M.R. James set many of his stories in Suffolk, among the most chilling of them Whistle and I’ll Come to You, the tale of an academic who discovers a strange whistle while exploring a Knights Templar cemetery on the Suffolk coast, the sound of which summons a ghostly being first seen out of the corner of the eye, far away upon a lonely beach. The beach and town beside it are a fictional version of Felixstowe, and any reader who wishes to give themselves a fright should take a dusky stroll along it, a copy of M.R. James’ ghost stories under their arm. 
Would you share a bed with Charles Dickens?
Photo (c) Karen Roe


Another famous Victorian writer with connections to Suffolk is, well, the most famous Victorian writer of all: Charles Dickens. Dickens visited Bury St Edmunds several times to lecture at the Athenaeum, and during visits in 1859 and 1861 he stayed at The Angel Hotel, even mentioning it in his novel The Pickwick Papers. In the last 400 years the Angel has accommodated many illustrious guests, including royalty, writers and more recently, movie stars – but Charles Dickens is the only one who has his own bed. Room 215 still contains the old four-poster that Dickens slept in on his trips to Bury St Edmunds; however, if it’s booked during your time there, the Angel’s other rooms are rather nice, too (as is their afternoon tea).
H is for Hawk by Helen MacdonaldH is for Helen Macdonald's perfect description of The Brecks


Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk was a runaway success in 2014, winning the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction and the Costa Book of the Year Award. It tells the story of the writer’s decision to train a goshawk after the death of her father, interweaving autobiography, nature writing and a shadowy, disturbing biography of T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone and a misguided falconer. And it begins with a description of The Brecks: the strange landscape of forest, flint mines, rabbit warrens and human history that covers 400 square miles of the Suffolk-Norfolk border. Rather than repeat the description here, we suggest taking a copy of H is for Hawk with you to Brandon and exploring The Brecks for yourself, with Macdonald as your guide.
W.G. Sebald (c) Susan WyndhamTake a walk with the unclassifiable W.G. Sebald
Photo (c) Susan Wyndham


W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn follows a nameless narrator on a walking tour of Suffolk. The story meanders through the flatlands and eroding coast as the narrator describes the people he meets, places he discovers, myths, fictions, histories and memories, in the stream-of-consciousness style that was typically Sebald’s. One way of walking in Sebald’s footsteps through Suffolk would be to literally do that, following the route the narrator takes, which software developer Barbara Hui has transformed into a digital map. The other way would be to simply let your thoughts and feelings guide you: to take your own walking tour of Suffolk, going wherever you please, with Sebald’s book for company.


If there's a Suffolk writer or a book about Suffolk that takes pride of place on your bookshelf, we'd love to know. Why not get in touch via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?