This post was most recently updated on March 15th, 2019
Situated on the east of England, the region of East Anglia is sometimes overlooked by visitors drawn to the better known beauty spots of the Cotswolds, Lakes or Peak District. Those ready to take a closer look, though, will find beautiful countryside, pretty market towns, wide sandy beaches and magnificent buildings. It’s also a must-visit location for wildlife enthusiasts, offering the best birdwatching opportunities in the country.
But where is it? The late English reality TV star Jade Goody once famously declared it to be “abroad…like, next to Tunisia”. She may have been a little off-the-mark, but the borders of the region are a cause of some debate. It takes its name from the sixth century kingdom of the East Angles which covered the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and at least part of Cambridgeshire. Today, the British Government has extended it for statistical purposes to cover the whole of Cambridgeshire, and other groups add Essex to their definition too.
Whatever the precise borders, East Anglia contains enough memorable locations for the most demanding visitor. Read on for our pick of the best.
1. The Norfolk Broads
Covering over 300 square kilometres, the inter-connected rivers and lakes of the Norfolk Broads are a haven for boating, fishing and birdwatching.
The “broads” themselves are lakes, formed from the flooding of pits dug in medieval times to extract peat, then used as fuel. Today, the waterways carry a variety of special designations protecting their unique wildlife and features.
The whole network is lock-free, making it easily navigable by every type of boat from racing yachts to motor launches, many of which can be hired in the area. While you’re there, look out for the Norfolk wherry, a traditional cargo boat dating back to the seventeenth century. Some specimens have been restored and still sail the broads today.
Norwich is England’s best-preserved medieval city with the Dragon Hall, Guildhall and Strangers’ Hall amongst its iconic half-timbered buildings. Historic cobbled streets, city walls and a majestic Norman castle and cathedral add to the sense of a modern city with an ancient heritage.
For shoppers, there are both high street names and independent boutiques, and the largest permanent covered market in the whole of Europe. After dark, lively restaurants and bars provide a bustling social scene for visitors and locals alike.
The only city in England to lie within a National Park (the Norfolk Broads), no visit to Norwich would be complete without a walk along the picturesque banks of the river Wensum, which winds through its heart.
Best known for its world-famous university, founded in 1209, Cambridge’s illustrious academic heritage lies behind much of the city’s striking architecture. King’s College Chapel and the University Library dominate the skyline, and a punt along “the Backs” – where several of the colleges back onto the river Cam – provides spectacular views.
Those looking for culture will be spoilt for choice: Cambridge is home to the largest concentration of internationally-renowned collections outside London, and many of its museums and galleries are free to visit.
A particular highlight is the University’s collection of arts and antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Here you will find exhibits dating from prehistoric times right up to the modern day.
4. The Fens
The Fens were once marshland and their draining in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries left behind a fertile soil that has made the area the breadbasket of Britain.
There is more to the Fens, though, than agriculture. From the early Christian period of Anglo-Saxon England, the isolation and wilderness of the area attracted many religious men and women and the large concentration of churches, priories and convents led to it becoming known as “The Holy Land of the English”. Many of the former monasteries are now churches and cathedrals including Ely, below) and can be visited to this day.
The cathedral city of Ely lies about 14 miles north of Cambridge and, despite its city status, is home to only 20,000 people. Situated on an island at the highest point of the fens, it is still only 85 feet above sea level – a fact that has seen it fall victim to flooding on many occasions.
There is an ancient history of religious settlement in the town. In 672 AD Saint Ethelreda founded an abbey church there and the present cathedral dates back to 1083. Considered an architectural gem on account of both its scale and stylistic details, the cathedral’s most celebrated element is the octagonal tower which dominates the surrounding landscape.
Today, the cathedral continues to hold regular morning and evening services, whilst playing host to some quarter of a million visitors each year.
6. Oxburgh Hall
Built around 1482 by Sir Edmund Bedingfield, the spectacular Oxburgh Hall has been the home of the Bedingfield family ever since.
Although always intended as a family home, the Hall has a fortress-like appearance, sitting in the middle of a square moat about 75 metres long on each side and with a grand, fortified gatehouse. Inside the building is a priest-hole, built in the sixteenth by the Catholic Bedingfields to provide a hiding place for any clergy on the premises when the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I’s henchmen came calling. The hole is hidden beneath a concealed trapdoor and, unlike most priest-holes, is open to visitors.
Oxburgh also provides plenty for lovers of the great outdoors: the grounds include a walled garden, parterre, meadows and extensive woodland.
Sandringham House in Norfolk is the country retreat of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The much-loved home of four generations of British monarchs since 1862, George V referred to it as “the place I love better than anywhere in the world”.
The house and its 24 hectares of glorious gardens lie at the heart of the vast Sandringham Estate. Including woodlands, farms, homes, businesses and a country park that is free to enter and open to visitors every day of the year, the Estate provides employment for over 200 people.
The house and gardens are also open to visitors. Whilst there, try and make time to see Sandringham Church: dating back to the sixteenth century it contains many royal memorials and is still regularly used as a place of worship by the royal family.
8. Constable Country
Located on the Suffolk and Essex border, Constable Country is named after the renowned artist John Constable, who lived in and worked in the area. The man himself credited the countryside along the banks of the river Stour with making him a painter, and today it is still recognisable from the scenes that appear in his work.
The open skies and meadows are best appreciated on foot or by bicycle, and there are numerous tours to help visitors plot their course. Alternatively, hire a rowing boat or take an electric launch on the river Stour to get a different perspective.
However you travel, be sure to visit Dedham Vale and Flatford to see the landscapes that inspired some of England’s best-loved paintings.
9. Sutton Hoo
Lying near the town of Woodbridge in Suffolk, Sutton Hoo is the location of two sixth and early seventh century cemeteries and one of England’s most important archaeological sites.
Excavation of the most famous part of the site, the ship burial of an Anglo-Saxon king, began in 1939. Among the artefacts to be unearthed were a ceremonial helmet, sword and shield, lyre and several items of silver plate.
Many of the artefacts are now on display at the British Museum in London, but visit Sutton Hoo itself and you can walk around the burial mounds, see a full-size reconstruction of the burial chamber, and examine both replicas and original finds from the excavation, including a prince’s sword.
10. Great Yarmouth
The ancient town of Great Yarmouth dates back to Roman times. Once a major fishing port, it has been a seaside resort since 1760 and attracts millions of visitors each year.
A great location for families with children, the town’s Pleasure Beach is one of England’s top leisure parks. Other attractions to keep the young and young-at-heart amused include crazy golf, trampolines, roller skating and seal watching.
History lovers will want to try one of the Heritage Walks, which run from April to October; and don’t miss the Tolhouse Gaol, dating back to the twelfth century and one of the oldest prisons in Britain.