Salt flats and autumn sun: a car-free break on Suffolk’s Shotley Peninsula | Travelling with public transport

The bus runs close to the mouth of the Orwell. There are swans floating between salt marshes, red with autumn samphire, and oystercatchers digging into the pebbles with their long orange beaks. It feels an unlikely place to get to easily on public transport, but I got off the train 10 minutes ago, after a train journey to Ipswich through Dedham Vale, an idyllic corner of rural Suffolk, often painted by Constable.

Behind me, the cranes of Felixstowe disappear in tawny mist and a scent of sea rises with the sun from seaweed-strewn beaches. An elevated path runs past miles of reeds and meadows. I’ve been exploring East Anglia for decades and the Shotley Peninsula, where two mighty estuaries meet on the south side of Suffolk, is perhaps my favorite corner.

Nearby Ipswich has waterside coffee shops and cultural centers 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 full of wildlife, walking, culture and food.

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

suffolk map

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

The leaves are glossy gold and light burgundy on sloping rows of vines 10 minutes from the waterside trail. Shotley Vineyard launched its first vintage in 2020 and serves coffee, cake and wine on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (10am-2pm). Next to it, the light streams into the Church of Saint Mary, with its painted altar screen and hammer-beamed roof.

Back on the coastal walk, a few hours’ walk leads uphill into autumnal woodlands with a view of boats, some of which are ancient wrecks atmospherically melting into the sea purslane. I have time for a pint of Adnams and a plate of wild mushroom linguine at the 17th-century Butt and Oyster before catching a bus from the end of the lane.

Being able to drink is a benefit of car-free travel, and linear walks like this one are easier when there’s no need to get back to a parked car.

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

Ipswich waterfront
Ipswich waterfront Photo: Phoebe Taplin/the Guardian

Not far away, the Willis Building, an early Norman Foster-designed cliff of undulating dark glass, 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 will open a fast food outlet this autumn at the new Castle Social street food restaurant in Norwich.

Ipswich has plenty of budget hotels, including the easyHotel, opened near Christchurch Park in 2019 (doubles from £36 room-only). I’ve stayed in most of them over the years, but tonight I’m in the luxurious Salthouse Harbor (doubles from £113 B&B), a 20-minute riverside stroll from the station. The decor is fun and crazy; my balcony overlooks Neptune’s marina, and even the bathroom, with its deep freestanding bathtub, has a harbor view.

The next morning, after a breakfast of local apple juice and jam from Tiptree in Essex, I head to the wild Shotley Peninsula and take the 92 bus to the village of Holbrook. From here a footpath leads along the stream to the mouth of the Stour, and I walk six miles along Harkstead’s sandy beach, along the wooded foreshore with its carpets of shells and bleached fallen trees eerily cloaked in spring algae. The estuary has an otherworldly feel at this time of year when thousands of migrating geese and waders flock to the mudflats.

Grass path through 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 stop next to the huge, rumbling Orwell Bridge for tea at the Suffolk Food Hall, a farm shop-café complex five minutes’ walk down a signposted lane from the bus stop. There is the smell of freshly baked scones with a view of the autumn woods across the Orwell. And yes, George Orwell, who lived in Southwold, took his pseudonym from the river.

There are no buses on Sundays, but Suffolk also has nice train rides. The local Community Rail Partnerships, volunteers who turn siding stations into flowery havens, have come up with several station walks. My favorite is the 10-mile Fynn Valley Walk from Westerfield (one stop on the train from Ipswich) to Woodbridge, along sandy paths along Martlesham Creek, where little egrets watch the green waters and plovers scurry across the pebbles.

Today, with heavy showers forecast, I’m looking for rainy day options. The last time I was here in the rain I took a cruise on the Orwell Lady, which sails from April to October. The journey starts from the harbor and sinks through a clam-covered lock to meet the tidal river. Barges with brown sails float past and the changing weather adds to the atmosphere: silvery green waves and diving terns and furled sails in the sea mist (cruises from £14).

This time I explore more museums. The Hold, the new heritage center of the University of Suffolk, is almost adjacent to the hotel. A stylish building, opened in late 2020, it currently has a free exhibition on Ipswich printers Cowell’s, 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 museum of country life has renamed itself the Food Museum (£12) this year. It’s a five minute walk from the station and I meet a food historian friend there to have a look around.

Cake, scone and tea at Stowmarket's Food Museum.
Cake, scone and tea at Stowmarket’s Food Museum. Photo: Phoebe Taplin/the Guardian

The Hedgerow exhibit features poems, photos and spiced tasters from the newly installed kitchen: blackberry jam, rose hip syrup, hawthorn ketchup, nettle tea. Surrounding the grounds are a medieval barn, a walled garden with fruit trees, pastures with goats and a restored timber-planked water mill, rescued from the Shotley Peninsula when a reservoir was built. Finally, the menacing showers die off until after lunch and we sit outside the museum’s Feast café, eating between tubs of French marigolds, spinach lasagna with a pile of crisp lettuce leaves, and cinnamon-dusted carrot cake fresh out of the oven.

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

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