Strictly speaking, East Anglia is made up of just three counties – Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, which were settled in the fifth century by Angles from today’s Schleswig-Holstein – but it has come to be loosely applied to parts of Essex too. As a region it’s renowned for its wide skies and flat landscapes – if you’re looking for mountains, you’ve come to the wrong place. East Anglia can surprise, nonetheless: parts of Suffolk and Norfolk are decidedly hilly, with steep coastal cliffs; broad rivers cut through the fenlands; and Norfolk also boasts some wonderful sandy beaches. Fine medieval churches abound, built in the days when this was England’s most progressive and prosperous region.
Heading into East Anglia from the south takes you through Essex, whose proximity to London has turned much of the county into an unappetizing commuter strip. Amid the suburban gloom, there are, however, several worthwhile destinations, most notably Colchester, once a major Roman town and now a likeable place with an imposing castle, and the handsome hamlets of the bucolic Stour River Valley on the Essex–Suffolk border. Essex’s Dedham is one of the prettiest of these villages, but the prime attraction hereabouts is Suffolk’s Flatford Mill, famous for its associations with the painter John Constable.
Suffolk boasts a string of pretty little towns – Lavenham is the prime example – that enjoyed immense prosperity from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, the heyday of the wool trade. The county town of Ipswich has more to offer than it’s given credit for, but really it’s the north Suffolk coast that holds the main appeal, especially the delightful seaside resort of Southwold and neighbouring Aldeburgh with its prestigious music festival.
Norfolk, as everyone knows thanks to Noël Coward, is very flat. It’s also one of the most sparsely populated and tranquil counties in England, a remarkable turnaround from the days when it was an economic and political powerhouse – until, that is, the Industrial Revolution simply passed it by. Its capital, Norwich, is East Anglia’s largest city, renowned for its Norman cathedral and castle; nearby are the Broads, a unique landscape of reed-ridden waterways that have been intensively exploited by boat-rental companies. Similarly popular, the Norfolk coast holds a string of busy, very English seaside resorts – Cromer and Sheringham to name but two – but for the most part it’s charmingly unspoilt, its marshes, creeks and tidal fats studded with tiny flintstone villages, most enjoyably Blakeney and Cley.
Cambridge is much visited, principally because of its world-renowned university, whose ancient colleges boast some of the finest medieval and early-modern architecture in the country. The rest of Cambridgeshire is pancake-flat fenland, for centuries an inhospitable marshland, but now rich alluvial farming land. The cathedral town of Ely, settled on one of the few areas of raised ground in the fens, is an easy and popular day-trip from Cambridge.
Given the prevailing flatness of the terrain, hiking in East Anglia is less strenuous than in most other English regions, and there are several long-distance footpaths. The main one is the Peddars Way, which runs north from Knettishall Heath, near Thetford, to the coast at Holme-next-the-Sea, near Hunstanton, where it continues east as the Norfolk Coast Path to Cromer – 93 miles in total.