A river cruise, a walking tour and museum visit. These were the three things on our itinerary as we headed off for a day out in Ipswich, Suffolk. The weather was fine and held the promise of a relaxing day meandering around town and a calm evening out on the water.
Suffolk’s county town has for me, always been a place that I visited on business, rather than for pleasure and so it was with fresh eyes, those of a tourist, that I approached the day with curiosity and anticipation…
We parked our car on the waterfront, with its mix of luxury apartments, bistros and bars, a hotel and a university building overlooking the yachts and boats in the harbour.
From here we took a short walk into the town centre, past the quirky Giles Statue, to pop into the tourist information centre (TIC) in St Stephen’s Lane. The TIC is a treasure trove of information leaflets, maps and other goodies and we picked up a town map here as well as tickets for our evening river cruise.
It’s much more interesting to get off the well-beaten path around the town centre in Ipswich, and venture into the side streets. These are quieter and prettier than the main streets and the shop owners seem more inclined to take the time to chat with their customers.
We came across some lovely little shops, including Myrtle and Mint, a flower shop in St Peter’s Street, which was filled to the brim with peonies, hydrangeas and roses. Other shops in the neighbourhood sell homeware, records, craft items and there are several places to stop for a bit to eat.
Also in St Peter’s Street is Loveone, a gift / vintage shop owned by Cathy Frost, who is a natural ambassador for Ipswich, with her bright and cheery manner and enthusiasm for her adopted town. She moved to Ipswich from London some 20 years ago and loves the vibrancy and culture that she finds here and the friendliness of the people.
Cathy also organises a regular Vintage and Crafts Market in St Peter’s Street, when around 30 vintage and artisan crafts stalls line the street. Closing the road for the day gives the event a real community feel: “It’s like a mini Spitalfields market” she says.
Built in the 16th century as a gentleman’s town residence, the mansion now houses an eclectic range of items, including a wonderful collection of work by Gainsborough and Constable. The Wolsey Art Gallery, a large room within the mansion, has a display of Constable’s possessions, including his wife Maria’s wedding band and his paint brushes and palette.
There is also a small wood carving which the artist signed and the rather macabre death mask, made by a neighbour on the night Constable died in 1837.
Christchurch Mansion feels huge inside with layers of different rooms and collections, a striking china and glass gallery and a fascinating collection of Victorian toys and games. Entry to the museum is free and many events take place in the grounds throughout the year.
After a refreshing cup of tea in the museum café, we headed back through town, towards the waterfront to wait for the start of our evening river cruise.
The waterfront was getting lively; the warm summer weather enticing people to sit in the street cafés and watch the world go by. The Thames Sailing Barge Victor was our cruising vessel of choice and we were welcomed aboard by the skipper, David ‘Wes’ Westwood and his friendly team of volunteers.
Built in 1895 in Ipswich, for work in the linseed oil trade, the barge was restored by a local businessman in 2005. The restoration project took nearly three years and when it was finished, Victor was proudly raced in the Thames Sailing Barge Match, the second oldest barge race in the world, after the America’s Cup.
Now, the barge is used for pleasure cruises throughout the summer, with a choice of picnic, cream tea or supper cruises and in the winter, there are early morning bird-watching cruises with the RSPB.
Our supper cruise left the waterfront at 6.30pm and we made our way gently past the hundreds of luxury yachts anchored in the harbour, through the lock and before long, we were out in the River Orwell, sailing towards the incredibly picturesque Shotley Peninsula. The weather was superb as we enjoyed our drinks on deck and watched the birds, other boats and the world go lazily by.
Wes, skipper of Victor for over a decade, gave us commentary as we passed interesting landmarks: Pin Mill (with its excellent pub, The Butt and Oyster), Orwell Park School Observatory (open to the public twice a year), Freston Tower (now self-catering holiday accommodation with the Landmark Trust) and we soaked up the peaceful atmosphere as we watched the sun set on the horizon.
Dinner was served below decks (home-made lasagne and salad, with an excellent veggie option, available on request) but this was just a pleasant side line to the beautiful landscapes we were passing by. After a while it was time to turn around and head back. Wes switched the engine off and raised the sail and we glided serenely towards Ipswich, arriving back at the marina just after 10pm.
It was a wonderful end to our day out in Ipswich and it was a day that took me slightly by surprise; I didn’t expect to be extolling the town’s virtues quite as much as I have been since our visit, and I will definitely be back to explore some more. A thoroughly pleasant day out, thank you Ipswich!
If you want to extend your time in Ipswich and enjoy the summer buzz of the waterfront, why not stay at the snazzy Salthouse Harbour Hotel? A room with a view of the waterfront will set you back £279 per night in August, room only. Continental breakfast is £8.50 per person on top of that or £14 for a full English.