1. An initial ambleFirst things first: Woodbridge is easy to navigate. Leave the train station and cross the road up Quay Street for a scenic loop of the town that takes in Tudor, Georgian and Regency buildings. The attractive square, which hosts regular clothing and farmers’ markets, has a very French feel and is lined with interiors stores and fashion boutiques including Homespun, Chatterton’s and Fanny & Franks. Amble back towards the river down pretty Theatre Street, with its antiques emporiums and even a violin shop. On the main drag, Thoroughfare, rummage bookshops, cafes, and vintage stores, as well as useful everyday outlets and chains.
2. Get your beansOur favourite pitstop is Honey & Harvey (Thoroughfare, pictured), housed in a 17th century building: their americano was served exactly the right strength, with its Butterworths roast from Bury St Edmunds. The back room and garden make a good place to catch up on emails, too. Also recommended on the street is the Fire Station, a packed slither of a cafe which handily mutates into cocktail and craft beer bar in the evenings.
3. EatingYou could be here a week and not run dry. On previous visits we’ve enjoyed The Table (Quay Street), with its leafy courtyard, cosy rooms and solid British fare with a spicy twist; and up on Market Hill The Galley is popular, with its Mediterranean-tinged menu featuring local hake or Turkish lamb stew.
On our last two visits, however, we’ve enjoyed dinner at The Riverside (Quayside, pictured), a contemporary dining room attached to the town’s independent cinema: inside there are retro touches (shelves lined with Marmite jars and TOTP albums), waiters in braces, bare bulbs and an easy, relaxed menu.
Recommended is tender Cornish squid paired with refreshing watermelon and chili caramel (pictured), and a chunky rabbit and pork terrine to start. Mains (around £15) impressed too: sea bass fillet with creamy crab croquette on sweet pepperonata and an earthy watercress pesto just had the edge over a pink Gressingham duck breast with confit potato. A very decent Australian pinot noir was £30. Sweet of tooth? Try the boozy Le Colonel dessert, a lemon sorbet bathing in vodka.
4. DrinkingWith a dozen or so options, the town’s made for a weekend pub crawl. Central to the scene is The Anchor, right opposite the station, with its handful of cosy drinking dens. Up on Theatre Street is The Angel, which sells 240 gins arranged pharmacy-style behind the bar: Norwich Gin, for example, is matched with cinnamon and bitters from a pipette.
Further downhill is Ye Olde Bell & Steelyard on New Street, another ancient watering hole (dating back to the 1500s) with a maze of dark-panelled rooms and huge floodlit garden. Back towards the water, The Crown’s bar is also always buzzy with a good-time crowd. Other pubs to consider too? The Old Mariner on New Street and The Red Lion on Thoroughfare.
5. A waterfront strollThe main promenade is directly opposite Sutton Hoo burial ground. In one direction is the Tide Mill, one of only two in the country, which has stood on the banks of the River Deben for hundreds of years, and still produces stoneground wholemeal flour. The boats that line the harbour are fascinating: the town’s been a centre for boat-building and sail-making since the Middle Ages.
In the other direction the path snakes around the Deben and makes a fine, view-tastic stroll. Wander along the river wall, past the sailing clubs and boat yards, and the wide open landscape of the estuary comes into full view: at low tide you’ll see redshank, curlew and oystercatcher.
6. The day trip: OrfordSurely one of England’s most beautiful corners, and only a half hour’s drive from Woodbridge, this coastal village boasts a medieval castle and the famous Orford Ness, a long, wide shingle spit at the mouth of the River Ore. It’s a well-heeled kind of place, full of braying voices and smart shops. But don’t let that put you off: once you’ve admired the the quay, sink an Adnams dry-hopped lager at the Jolly Sailor, before climbing up to the square.
The Butley-Orford Oysterage, started by the Pinney family who still run it (and own a shop on the quay) has been in situ for fifty years, and comprises a couple of small dining rooms with basic tables and chairs. On our visit, as torrential rain swept in, we tucked into starters of tender griddled squid and superior smoked eel.
The menu is simple but comprehensive – things like fresh oysters, smoked fish, grilled mains – and our butter-soft Dover sole didn’t disappoint; but the real winner is a fish pie (pictured), masterfully light and creamy, with breadcrumb topping. We matched it with a crisp Albariño – and, afterwards, grabbed a superior espresso at the Suffolk pastel-pink Pump Street Bakery, opposite. (Need a cab to and from Woodbridge? We can highly recommend the friendly M & R).
SleepingThe Crown is positioned exactly in the heart of town, a historic 16th century building with ten decent-sized rooms, comfortable beds, goose-down pillows and cotton bed linen. Powerful showers, too. Less impressive was the view over Natwest opposite, with its benches frequented by teenagers in the evenings.
Downstairs the nest of dining rooms, on a warmish early October evening, were rammed and swelteringly hot: its restaurant is undoubtedly popular with locals. And the modern British menu is solid: an unusual crab ballotine starter came in a strong fishy bisque, with confit artichoke and an outsize, crunchy pork cracker; and rosy wood pigeon (below) was paired with spring onion and toasted seeds.
From the grill, a leg of lamb steak was served over the requested pink, but nonetheless still juicy, and pimped up by delicious rosemary fries. Best of all were medallions of beef fillet, seared red-rare, accompanied by celeriac gratin and beef cheek croquette: surely the chef’s signature dish.
The Crown is on Thoroughfare, Woodbridge IP12 1AD. Phone: 01394 384242. Rooms £110-£150. Starters from £7, mains £14+. Find out more here.
Getting there: about two hours from London by car. Trains run from Liverpool St and take about 90 mins with a change at Ipswich (from about £30 return). For further information on all things Woodbridge and Orford go to The Suffolk Coast.