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Including the counties of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
A radio disc jockey once did a dedication for someone living in Bury Street, Edmunds. Without wishing to offend the delightful town of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, perhaps this illustrates the fact that England’s eastern extremity is a little cut-off; you don’t go through it to get anywhere else, unless you’re catching a ferry at Harwich. Incidentally, for those that have no reason to know, St Edmund was a 9th century king of East Anglia who was shot full of arrows by the Danes and then beheaded. And to think we still buy Lurpak and Lego from them.
East Anglia is a term that’s still in use, to refer to the eastern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex – and there’s a University of East Anglia in Norwich. Two thousand years ago, this area was the home of the Iceni, Boudicca’s tribe, who defied the Romans. It was then an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, before being overrun by the Danes in the 9th century. It’s more peaceful nowadays, largely agricultural, growing crops and vegetables, meant to be the sunniest and driest part of Britain and has a 500 mile coastline. The East of England has long been associated with an independent spirit – hundreds of puritans left the area in the 17th century and settled in New England, and Oliver Cromwell was once MP for Huntingdon.
Each corner of the East of England has its characteristics. Norfolk just has another feel to it in places, a kind of otherworldliness. It can be lonely, strange, very flat – and a magnet for birdwatchers. The north Norfolk coast is wonderful, with some wide sandy beaches. Suffolk has some beautiful, gentle, countryside (John Constable liked it) and Cambridgeshire can present a seemingly endless vista of very large fields. Essex, the most populous county in the region, has some super villages and tends to be a bit of a London overspill for those that can afford to escape. Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, which don’t really seem to be particularly ‘east’, are relatively busy, with pretty villages and downland surrounding often unattractive towns.
The older buildings in Norfolk use flint in a uniquely decorative way; further south, through Suffolk and into Essex, timber-framed cottages, some with ornamental plaster-work called ‘pargeting’, sit neatly inside well-tended gardens. Oh – and spot the windmill – the region is famous for them – and is packed with heritage, from prehistoric times onward. There are castles – like Framlingham and Berkhamsted – stately homes like Blickling Hall (and the Royal Family has a favourite home at Sandringham), magnificent cathedrals – Peterborough and Ely, for example. There are some good nature reserves – and the unique Norfolk Broads. The Broads are lakes and waterways – mostly navigable – formed from flooded peat workings. Or you could take the kids to a very large zoo at Whipsnade. 10 places to consider:
The M1 hurtles through the east of the region, and the A1 to the east of that, passing by Cambridge and Peterborough. But you need to make a point of going to the heart of the area, East Anglia. If you look at a map of the UK you’ll notice a bulge on the right, just above London, sticking out into the North Sea; that’s where you go. There are trains – the major towns and cities are a relatively short hop from London. But, apart from the M11 creeping up its eastern edge, East Anglia has no motorways. The main trunk routes are the A12, A11 and the excellent east-west routes, the A14 and the A47. If you want an interesting drive, start at King’s Lynn, head north along the coast and pop into villages as you go.