Continue your survey of the great regions of England with a look at East Anglia. A rural district that has inspired nature lovers and scientists for generations, East Anglia is also home to stately country houses such as Blickling and Houghton Hall and country towns like Norwich. This quiet region warrants at least a day’s visit.
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The Fens of East Anglia
East Anglia comprises the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, and part of Lincolnshire. Large parts of it were once marshes and swamps, known collectively as “the fens.”
There are just a few patches of the old fen-land left. One is the Wicken Fen Nature Reserve, between Cambridge and Ely. This area is where, as an undergraduate, Charles Darwin came to gather beetles, one of his earliest biological enthusiasms.
Another of the great fen areas is the Norfolk Broads, much further east. This area is where, over the centuries, peat was gathered for fuel. As it was removed, the area gradually flooded, and became a maze of rivers, ditches, and dykes.
The Town of Ely
Ely is home to a beautiful medieval cathedral. Its most distinctive feature is the octagonal “lantern“ over the great crossing. There used to be a tower, but it crashed down into the body of the church, one day in February 1322. The lantern was built in its place, lighter in weight and admitting daylight, so that this central part of the cathedral is superbly beautiful, above all, on sunny days.
Religious Conflicts in Walsingham
Walsingham in Norfolk is an East Anglian site marked by religious conflict. There, in the Middle Ages, stood the house in which the Angel Gabriel told the Blessed Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of the promised Messiah.
Wondering how it got there? In 1061, a noble widow named Richeldis had a vision. In it, she was carried by the Virgin Mary to see the original house in Nazareth, and was encouraged to take its measurements, so that she could make a copy in England. After a night of prayer, Richeldis discovered at daybreak that the house had miraculously materialized on her land.
It became a shrine, and then a great Augustinian priory was built around it. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was second only to Canterbury as England’s leading pilgrimage site.
Britain is a far less actively religious country than the United States, but a visit to Walsingham, especially if it comes around Easter or around the September Feast of the Virgin Mary, shows that a fervently active Christianity is still alive and well.
Stately Homes of Norfolk
Three of the most interesting country houses in Norfolk, all from later eras, are Houghton, Holkham, and Blickling.Blickling was the home of Mary Boleyn, who became Henry VIII’s mistress, and birthplace of Anne Boleyn, her sister, who became Henry VIII’s second wife. The house now at Blickling was built in the early 1600s on the site of the older one; it’s a marvelous Jacobean structure. Houghton Hall, built in the 1720s and 1730s, was the home of Robert Walpole, the man usually regarded as Britain’s first prime minister. A fine speaker, shrewd manipulator of men and builder of political alliances, he dominated British political life from the late 17-teens almost until his death in 1745. Holkham Hall from the same era, owes a debt to the Palladian revival. The most interesting occupant of Holkham was Thomas Coke, who studied selective animal and plant breeding, corresponded with agricultural scientists, and showed that careful record keeping and systematic crop rotation could increase yields, improve crops, and generate a larger income.
The Medieval Remains of Norwich
Norwich itself, the county town of Norfolk, is full of medieval remains. It has a series of beautiful old medieval lanes, cobbled, and wandering across the quiet area near the river. They’re cleaner than they must have been 500 years ago, but otherwise not much changed.
Norwich Castle, standing on the highest land in the city, is a Norman keep, but a much larger block than those at Castle Rising or Dover. The Cathedral was built using stone imported from Normandy; it’s one of the most complete and impressive Romanesque buildings in England. In fact, it rivals Durham: equally impressive inside and out, and sitting in a calm and opulent close of old Georgian buildings.
Norwich officials had the very sensible idea of identifying and promoting all the town’s best heritage sites as a package, and they’re now known as the Norwich 12. Get a map of them when you arrive in the city and tour all of them, easy enough even on foot.
East Anglia’s Famous MusiciansRalph Vaughan Williams was one of several British composers to travel the countryside collecting folk songs that had never been written down and that were in danger of being lost. In the Norfolk port of King’s Lynn, about 1905, he collected the songs that he incorporated into the first and second Norfolk Rhapsodies, symphonic pieces that have become much-loved parts of the English orchestral repertoire.
East Anglia’s most famous musician is the 20th-century composer Benjamin Britten. He was born in a big house in the east coast port of Lowestoft. As a nine year old at a concert in Norwich, he first heard a modern orchestral work, Frank Bridge’s The Sea. He was astonished by it, and arranged, as a teenager, to take composition lessons from Bridge.
Britten’s 1945 opera, Peter Grimes, is the story of a Suffolk fisherman, based on a poem by George Crabbe. Crabbe himself came from Aldeburgh, a Suffolk fishing port that has now become a popular seaside resort town.
Achieving rapid success as a composer, Britten moved to Aldeburgh itself, to a place known as the Red House, which is now a museum. He founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. It was a success from the start, and has continued up to the present, becoming an important event in Britain’s musical calendar.
It moved from Aldeburgh to the old Maltings at Snape, three or four miles upriver. The Victorian maltings factory had recently gone out of business. It was converted into a concert venue, was opened by the Queen in 1967, and has been the site of the festival each June ever since. Snape is also, by now, an artists’ colony and crafts center, with garden shops and restaurants, bustling every weekend and surrounded by beautiful fenland.
Towns and Counties of East Anglia
At Aldeburgh, you’re a few miles away from Dunwich Heath, a coastal moorland that is part of the region’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The vegetation, unremarkable in winter, turns to brilliant pinks, yellows, and purples every summer when the gorse and heather are in bloom.
Slightly inland stands Framlingham, an old market town and the ancestral home of the Howard family, Dukes of Norfolk, who had a gift for getting on the wrong side of the Tudor monarchs.Framlingham Castle is very much worth a visit because of its great setting on the top of the area’s only hill, its historical associations, and because in the 18th century a red-brick poor house was built inside the curtain wall. It must have looked incongruous in its early days, but the passage of the time and the gentle weathering of all the stonework have given it, by now, an aura of dignified antiquity.
In the village of Lavenham, the church of St. Peter and St. Paul dominates the entire landscape. It rivals in size and splendor some of England’s smaller cathedrals. Built mostly in the late 1400s and early 1500s in Perpendicular Gothic style, just before the Reformation, it has elaborately carved stonework and a soaring decorated flint tower higher than that of any other village church in the country.
The village of Lavenham itself is full of ancient houses, being one of the best-preserved medieval settlements in England. By 1600, changes in the textile business had thrown Lavenham on hard times, which is partly why so many of the medieval buildings remain—the owners couldn’t afford to update their houses.