Suffolk coastal break at The Crown & Castle, Orford

The Crown and Castle - our room with a view

There’s nothing quite like a medieval castle to go with your champagne, so when my husband and I walked into our Garden Room at The Crown and Castle in Orford, I knew instantly that this would be a lovely alternative weekend. Outside the window, the 12th century keep of Orford Castle rose impressively beyond the garden wall, whilst inside, an ice bucket with champagne awaited us on the window table, a present from our two children and partners.

Orford was not our first choice for our Ruby Wedding celebration.  We had hoped to have a family party before touring Jordan with Silver Travel partner Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours – both events, like so many others this year, lost to the pandemic. Jordan would have been a trip beyond our usual comfort zone; Suffolk was more like a much-loved comfort blanket. But old friends are often the best friends.  Since first visiting this southern corner of Suffolk as a child, I have returned many times, with friends, with family, and now once again as an empty-nesting couple. 

Orford Castle from outside the Crown and Castle We had strolled around Orford on many occasions, but never stayed in this historic river port. A short walk from our hotel, the Alde morphs into the Ore behind the shingle spit of Orford Ness, before flowing into the sea at Hollesley Bay, north of Felixstowe. On the first weekend of the autumn half-term, Orford – with a population of around 700 promised a quieter and more relaxing option than the nearby resort destinations of Aldburgh and Southwold. 

In the Middle Ages, the quayside at Orford was busy with fishing and merchant boats. Today, a stroll along the riverside dykes reveals mostly pleasure craft. Boats also ferry passengers across to Orford Ness, now a nature reserve, but once used by the Ministry of Defence for military testing and home to a Cold War radar station.

St Bartholomew’s Church is a good starting point for exploring the village. I picked up an Off the Beaten Track leaflet inside that ensured we didn’t miss any of Orford’s many historic houses.  Orford is popular too for its independent food retailers – oysters, hand-made chocolates, speciality meat, local fish, and a bakery. 

The Crown and Castle In the middle of this quintessentially English scene, The Crown and Castle occupies pole position, just off the short road between the market square and the medieval keep. The castle was commissioned in 1165 by Henry II as part of his coastal defences and is now in the care of English Heritage. Advance booking required during Covid-19 precautions.

The hotel management had certainly done everything to make guests feel safe in the current health crisis. Whether you have a room in the main house or, like us, one of the garden rooms with its own semi-private terrace, you will enter this modest hotel by the back door and leave by the front. Hand sanitiser was prominent in all public areas and staff wore masks at all times. Amongst the various accommodation offers is a Flexible Rate that offers free cancellation until 2pm, 48 hours prior to arrival. 

Vanilla panna cotta The bar area around reception is small, but guests can have drinks brought to their rooms or can go straight to their table, having chosen either the 6.30 or 8.15 sitting. A few tables had been taken out, ensuring guests were kept well apart, and we enjoyed the atmosphere of the cosy dining room with its friendly staff. At £26 for two courses on the Set Menu, or £8 extra for three, we felt dinner was good value for money. Fresh local produce was imaginatively served and always piping hot. Desserts were showstoppers and a month later, I’m still dreaming about the creamy vanilla panna cotta with apple crumble and apple sorbet. 

There’s plenty to do within a short drive of Orford so with gentle autumn weather, we decided to combine daily circular walks with short visits by car. Our first ramble began from the door, looping through farmland to the north of Orford and back to the south to join the marshland and river defences. For our second, we drove to Leiston, inland from the distinctive outline of Sizewell power station, and followed a circular trail to Thorpeness. Built in the early 20th century as a private fantasy holiday village, Thorpeness is peppered with eclectic buildings including the famous House in the Clouds (a small ‘house’ on top of a water tower), a white clapboard windmill, and properties built in Tudor style.

River Alde at Snape Maltings Nearby Aldburgh is a period gem, best visited outside school holidays when parking is at a premium, and shops and restaurants humming. Better still to approach on foot, taking the marshland walk from Snape Maltings concert hall, which also boasts a wealth of retail temptation with its crafts, interiors and cook shops. 

Inland from Aldeburgh and Orford, Framlingham is widely known to the younger generation as the home village of singer Ed Sheeran, but I always remember it for the castle that fired my imagination as a child. Unlike Orford, there’s no central keep but instead, a 12th century curtain wall with thirteen towers. English Heritage again, this medieval gem is best seen from the top of the battlements or from the dyke that surrounds it, especially against a backdrop of blue sky.

Sutton Hoo, replica funeral helmet And you can’t come to this part of Suffolk without stopping at Woodbridge, another river port on the Deben. Just outside the town is Sutton Hoo, an awe-inspiring royal burial site from Saxon times that was excavated just as World War II broke. Today the treasure is on display at the British Museum in London, but the National Trust do a good job on site with their new visitor centre and marked trails. A viewing tower overlooking the burial mounds has been completed and should open in 2021. 

Finally, we stopped off for another slice of traditional Suffolk at Hollesley between Woodbridge and the coast. Here, The Suffolk Punch Trust farm is home to nearly 20 of these magnificent chestnut heavy horses, England’s oldest breed of working horse and also its rarest. Meet the stallions, mares and foals; tour the agricultural heritage museum; and discover more about why we need to preserve these beautiful animals.  

So although John and I substituted the Red Sea for the North Sea, the desert sands of the Middle East for England’s east coast shingle, our long weekend in Suffolk turned out to be the perfect way to celebrate 40 years of marriage. A happy memory from our most extraordinary year so far.

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Gillian Thornton

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