I'm right at home in Suffolk towns

IN the third of his series looking at what makes Suffolk so special, PAUL GEATER profiles how the county's towns each have their own special character.

By Paul Geater

IN the third of his series looking at what makes Suffolk so special, PAUL GEATER profiles how the county's towns each have their own special character.

ALTHOUGH I've lived in Ipswich for more than 20 years and now think of this as my home town, my real roots are 25 miles to the north east.

The area around Leiston, Aldeburgh and Saxmundham still feels like home when I visit there - and it's an area of great contrasts.

The three towns each have very different characters. Saxmundham is a traditional market town which grew up because of its position. It is on the main road from Lowestoft to Ipswich and London - and grew up because it was the mid-point and the ideal place to change horses on stage coaches.

The Bell Hotel is the local landmark, and next to that is the market place which has always been the busiest in the area. In days gone by farmers would bring their produce there. Now it is a magnet for market traders.

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Saxmundham retains it role as a busy transport hub into the 21st century. Although it has now been by-passed, the A12 remains very close to the town and Saxmundham remains one of the busiest stations on the East Suffolk passenger line - being used by passengers from Leiston, Aldeburgh and Framlingham as well.

I have a confession to make. I've never been a great fan of Aldeburgh. It's a bit too twee for its own good and I've never quite understood the attraction of it.

The beach has never seen much sand, it's the coldest spot on the coast and it's been somewhat taken over by posh incomers who have priced native Suffolk people out of the town.

Having said that, it does provide a cultural magnet for the area - especially during the summer - as the spiritual home of the Aldeburgh Foundation and home to a fine cinema.

But of all the towns in the area, the one that I feel most comfortable in is Leiston - an honest, workmanlike place that has no pretensions of being a tourist trap but which has been at the forefront of new technology for two centuries.

Leiston has been described as a northern mill town transplanted into the middle of Suffolk. I know what the person who came up with that description means - it really doesn't fit in with the character of other towns and villages in the area but yet it somehow manages to be a focal point.

For more than a century it was home to Richard Garrett engineering which in its time made everything from implements which hastened the agricultural revolution, to steam engines which powered Victorian and Edwardian farming to industrial washing machines that you could find in launderettes across the country in the 1970s.

When Garretts fell into decline, the power stations at Sizewell provided jobs for people. Although it does have a few market stalls, Leiston has never been a traditional “market town” like its neighbours yet it still attracts residents from nearby villages as the main shopping centre for the area.

WHEN I was a child a visit to the north east of Suffolk was always an adventure.

The resorts of Southwold and Lowestoft are heaven for young children who love digging sandcastles.

Unlike the shingle beaches further down the coast, these resorts can provide hours of free fun on the beach - all you need is a bucket and spade. Ok, a packet of flags and enough cash for a couple of ice creams helps as well!

Southwold has a new landmark in the shape of its wonderful pier - it's given the whole town a new lease of life and made visits there a real delight over recent years.

What's more Southwold is home to the brewery which makes the best beer in the world!

So why do I have slightly mixed feelings about the place? The problem is that Southwold has become too fashionable as it's been discovered by the wealthy London set and transformed in the summer into Chelsea on sea - the same thing can be said of Walberswick on the other side of the River Blyth.

But if you do want to get away from Jocelyn and Persephone on the beach in mid-August it is still possible.

Drive through the town towards the harbour and park there. The sand is as plentiful. There's a single kiosk selling inflatables, ice cream, tea and coffee . . . and I guarantee you that no one from outside Suffolk will have discovered it!

If Southwold is the posh sand of Suffolk, then Lowestoft has the kiss-me-quick atmosphere of a large traditional seaside resort.

It has amusements and sand - all set in the large town that's worth a visit in its own right.

The big question about Lowestoft, though, is it really in Suffolk? The maps say it is - but like most places along the Waveney Valley it tends to look north rather than south.

I'm really doubtful about anywhere that has more Norwich City fans than Tractor Boys!

ALTHOUGH Ipswich is by far the largest town in Suffolk, when the county's own diocese was set up immediately after the First World War it was decided the cathedral should be in the county town of West Suffolk, Bury St Edmunds.

In fact before St James' church was chosen as the new cathedral other possibilities were considered including St Mary's church in the town - which was actually larger and was also built as a chapel for the huge abbey which was destroyed by Henry VIII - and Long Melford parish church.

But now Bury feels the right place for Suffolk's cathedral which has grown over the last 40 years and has recently been finished by a superb tower which really does provide it with a crowning glory.

But Bury has much more than just a very attractive cathedral - it is a wonderful place to shop, and to shop.

When my children were smaller it was a great place for a day out when the weather was fine. The Abbey Gardens form a splendid park with a wonderful playground - and like Christchurch Park in Ipswich are right next to the main town centre.

I lived and worked in Bury for 18 months back in the early 1980s and came to really love the place - the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays is the largest in Suffolk and it's always worth visiting in search of a bargain.

West Suffolk does have a different feel to the coastal side of the county. Its residents have always considered themselves more cosmopolitan, less isolated than those on east.

And although it hasn't been a county town for more than 30 years, it has the feeling of a civic centre.

As the home of East Anglia's biggest brewery it's hardly surprising that there is no shortage of pubs and restaurants to break a hard day's shopping.

FELIXSTOWE is a town I've rediscovered over recent years - and found a whole new side to.

As a child it was a favourite destination for a day out with rides on the seafront and Charlie Manning's funfair with its wonderful rollercoaster.

The rollercoaster is long since gone, but Mannings is still there and has evolved. The seafront is still a popular destination in our household - especially a trip to the great swimming pool in the leisure centre.

I've always been slightly puzzled about why Felixstowe became such popular resort in the early years of the 20th century.

By the time I was old enough to start visiting it during the 1970s it was the funfair and amusement arcades that made it such an exciting place.

But the beach itself has never been that exciting. Sand has always been a rarity there and while the promenade and seaside gardens are worth a visit I've never sat around for hours on Felixstowe beach.

Nowadays what keeps bringing my family and me back to the town throughout the year is Felixstowe's second hand book shops.

Quite why a relatively small town with no great educational tradition has two superb shops at Treasure Chest and Poor Richard is not obvious - but they're a great hook to attract book lovers to the town.

ONE part of Suffolk that has always been a bit of a mystery to me is the south west corner of the county - I only recently paid my first real visit to Sudbury and having visited Haverhill on business a couple of times early in my career, I have to say it is not somewhere that I feel a great urge to return to!

Stowmarket is a town that has grown significantly over recent years. But its main attractions for visitors have remained constant, the Museum of East Anglian Life and the leisure centre with its Ocean Adventure Playworld - a godsend for parents with young children who need to let off steam on cold, wet days!