Salt pans and autumn sunshine: a car-free break on Suffolk’s Shotley Peninsula | Journeys by public transport

TThe bus runs right next to the Orwell Estuary. There are swans drifting between salt marshes red from autumn fennel and oystercatchers digging in the pebbles with their long orange beaks. It seems an unlikely place to be easily accessible by public transport, but I got off the train 10 minutes ago, having taken the train through Dedham Vale to Ipswich, an idyllic corner of rural Suffolk that is often was painted by Constable.

Behind me the cranes of Felixstowe vanish in a tawny mist and a smell of the sea rises with the sun from seaweed beaches. An elevated path leads for kilometers past reeds and meadows. I’ve been exploring East Anglia for decades and the Shotley Peninsula, where two mighty estuaries meet at the southern end of Suffolk, is perhaps my favorite spot.

There are waterfront cafes and cultural centers near Ipswich, so you can spend sunny days in the salty wilderness and rainy days in the city. I hope for a varied car-free long weekend with wildlife, hiking, culture and food.

Late autumn and winter can be great times to explore without a car, enjoy a stormy landscape through a train window, or make the most of the daylight on an invigorating station-to-station walk. And bus travel across England is set to get cheaper from January, when a £60m scheme aims to cap single fares at £2.

Bus 97 runs every few hours from Ipswich Train Station to Shotley Gate at the other end of the peninsula, where over 150,000 naval cadets trained on HMS Ganges over the last century. A small yellow ferry operates from Harwich Harbor (£4) from April to October. Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, moved here from the Lake District in 1935 and interwoven this landscape in later novels; The six mile walk to Pin Mill is marked with a boat logo and is called Arthur Ransome’s East Coast.

Leaves are brilliant gold and light burgundy on sloping rows of vines 10 minutes from the riverside walk. Shotley Vineyard has launched its first vintage in 2020 and is serving coffee, cake and wine on Friday, Saturday and Sunday (10am to 2pm). Next door, light falls into the Marienkirche with its painted altar screen and hammer-beam roof.

Back on the coastal walk, a two-hour hike leads up into autumn forests with views of boats, some of which are old wrecks that atmospherically blend with the sea’s purslane. I have time for a pint of Adnams and a plate of wild mushroom linguine at the 17th Century Butt and Oyster before boarding a bus at the end of the alley.

Being able to drink is a perk of car-free travel, and linear walks like this are easier when you don’t have to return to a parked car.

A maritime showcase near the waterfront shows that Ipswich has been a seaport since the seventh century. I stroll 10 minutes past boats and buoys, flint-walled churches and half-timbered houses to Christchurch, a Tudor mansion. The historical rooms in this free museum contain intricate dolls’ houses, giant globes and paintings by local boys Constable and Gainsborough. The most recent exhibition, Landscape Rebels (until April 2023), includes Turner’s Walton Bridges, newly acquired and believed to be Turner’s first painting based on outdoor oil paint sketches.

Ipswich waterfront
Ipswich waterfront Photo: Phoebe Taplin/The Guardian

Not far away, the Willis Building, an early dark glass cliff designed by Norman Foster, reflects the evening sun and seagulls. I hop on a bus back to the waterfront and head to the city’s first vegan pub. Hank’s cooks up tasty plant-based versions of pub grub and is opening a fast food joint at Norwich’s new street food joint, Castle Social, this autumn.

There are plenty of budget hotels in Ipswich, including the easyHotel which opened in 2019 near Christchurch Park (doubles from £36 room only). I’ve stayed in most of them over the years, but today I’m at the luxurious Salthouse Harbor (doubles from £113 B&B), a 20-minute riverside walk from the train station. The decor is cheerful and crazy; my balcony overlooks the Neptune Marina, and even the bathroom, with its deep, free-standing bath, overlooks the harbor.

The next morning, after a breakfast of apple juice and jam from Tiptree in Essex, I drive to the wild Shotley Peninsula and catch the 92 bus to the village of Holbrook. From here a riverside footpath leads to the Stour Estuary and I walk six miles along the sandy beach of Harkstead past the wooded foreshore with its shell carpets and weather-bleached fallen trees eerily entwined with federal genes. The estuary has an otherworldly feel at this time of year when thousands of migratory geese and shorebirds flock to the mud flats.

Grassy path by the water
The Shotley Peninsula near the confluence of the Rivers Stour and Orwell. Photo: Phoebe Taplin/The Guardian

I catch a bus back from the Bristol Arms at Shotley Gate and pull up beside the huge, rumbling Orwell Bridge for a tea at the Suffolk Food Hall, a farm shop-cafe complex, a five-minute walk down a signposted lane from away from the bus stop. It smells like freshly baked scones with a view of the autumn forests beyond the Orwell. And yes, George Orwell, who lived in Southwold, took his pen name from the river.

There are no buses on Sundays, but Suffolk also offers scenic train journeys. Local Community Rail Partnerships, volunteers who turn branch stations into flowery oases, have developed several station-to-station walks. My favorite is the 10-mile Fynn Valley Walk from Westerfield (one stop on the train from Ipswich) to Woodbridge, following sandy paths past Martlesham Creek, where little egrets watch the green water and plovers flit across the shingle.

Today, with heavy rain showers forecast, I’m looking for rainy day opportunities. Last time I was here in the wet, I took a cruise on the Orwell Lady, which runs April through October. The cruise begins at the harbor and sinks through a shell-encrusted lock to meet the tidal river. Barges with brown sails pass by and the changing weather makes it even more atmospheric: silver-green waves and diving terns and furled sails in the sea mist (cruises from £14).

This time I explore more museums. The Hold, the University of Suffolk’s new heritage center is almost adjacent to the hotel. A stylish building which opened in late 2020 and currently houses a free exhibition about Cowell’s Ipswich printers who produced the first UK edition of Babar the Elephant and helped launch Puffin Picture Books.

In Stowmarket, 15 minutes by train along the Cambridge line, a huge country life museum has rebranded as the Food Museum (£12) this year. It’s a five minute walk from the train station and I’m meeting up with a food historian friend there to have a look around.

Cakes, pastries and tea at Stowmarket Food Museum.
Cakes, pastries and tea at Stowmarket Food Museum. Photo: Phoebe Taplin/The Guardian

The hedge exhibition shows poems, photos and samples from the newly fitted kitchen: blackberry jam, rosehip syrup, hawthorn ketchup, nettle tea. Surrounding the grounds is a medieval barn, a walled orchard, goat paddocks and a restored watermill with weatherboards, which was rescued from the Shotley Peninsula when a reservoir was built. Eventually, the threat of rain showers hold out until after lunch, and we sit outside the museum’s Feast cafe among tubs of French marigolds to eat spinach lasagna with a pile of crunchy lettuce and freshly-baked cinnamon carrot cake.

Accommodation was provided by the Salthouse Harbor Hotel. Rail travel was provided from Greater Anglia; direct trains to Ipswich take about an hour from Cambridge (£24 return) or London Liverpool Street (from £10 each). Day bus tickets for Ipswichincluding the Shotley Peninsula cost £8.50

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