Coastal Culture Hub
In the way that Essex is often overlooked in favour of Suffolk, so Ipswich is often bypassed for the genteel seaside resorts of Aldeburgh and Southwold or the photogenic Tudor-beamed villages of Lavenham and Long Melford. But the county town has been steadily transforming itself with millions of pounds already invested and more to come, creating a surprising and often overlooked short-break destination.
I was born in East Anglia, leaving for London as a late teen, vowing never to return. Fast forward 25 years or so and I’m back living in Essex, taking my teenage daughter Maya the 30-minute trip down the A12 for a night in Ipswich. It’s a compact centre, so a day trip or even a one-night trip from Essex or East London is easy with trains from Liverpool Street taking just over an hour and rewarding the traveller with views over the River Orwell.
We begin on the waterfront, where the former industrial port has been transformed from an area of warehouses, wharves and quays, although the Old Custom House still stands, to an appealing marina now called the Neptune Quay with mix of galleries, bars, restaurants, luxury flats and one of the area’s best hotels.
We’re staying in the Salthouse Harbour, a four-star boutique hotel facing the waterfront in a redbrick former warehouse. The hotel retains the building's maritime heritage while adding playful and quirky elements, dressed in designer pieces by Vivienne Westwood and Damien Hirst best exemplified by the suit of armour by the lobby sporting a string of pearls. It feels fun but still sophisticated. We’ll be back for dinner but for now we walk along the waterfront, home to the University of Suffolk, part of Ipswich's Innovation Quarter including the well- respected Jerwood DanceHouse
We break for lunch at the cavernous Cult Cafe at the far end of the quay, which manages to appeal to students and families with a bar, restaurant and stage area hosting regular live music events. The food is as appealing as the waterfront setting visible through floor-to-ceiling windows, with rows of homemade cakes, vegan and vegetarian snacks (Maya tucks into a buttery pastry meat-free sausage roll while I enjoy a peppery tortilla-stuffed sandwich) such as Kikin' Kale Salad and quinoa porridge (natch) made with local ingredients and balanced by the inclusion of less earnest dishes you’d eat after a big night out such as poutine (cheesy chips) which you can top with chilli beef or roast chicken gravy.
Sated, we retrace our steps along the marina and walk into the town centre, along scruffy streets, historic buildings such as the Unitarian Meeting Room built in 1700 and the smoky-glassed grand piano-shaped Willis Towers Watson office building, one of Norman Foster’s earliest designs. Perfectly mirroring (see what I did there?) the mix of old and new, the most recent grade I listed building in the country reflects the older buildings opposite.
Ipswich has three major museums in the centre, all free to enter. We spend the afternoon among two, starting in the Ipswich Museum, with its vast collection of Victorian natural history downstairs including Wool.i.am, an er, mammoth replica of a woolly mammoth. Maya, being a vegetarian, refused to look at the huge amount of surrounding taxidermy on display in glass cases so after exploring the Egyptian exhibition upstairs, which reignites our interest in their ahead-of-their-time inventions, we move on up the hill to the Ipswich Art Gallery. Fans of the era will find this distinctive art deco building worth viewing in itself, but the modern art and design exhibitions include the recent Women 100 exhibition, marking the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act giving women the right to vote. Fittingly, academic and women’s rights activist Dr Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, is the latest chancellor at Suffolk University. Their new summer Open Call exhibition includes oil paintings, watercolours and sculptures by local artists. We run out of time to visit Christchurch Mansion, a sprawling Grade 1 listed Tudor building in the 70-acre Christchurch Park, (pictured, above) where Rodin’s The Kiss sculpture is currently on loan from The Tate, and a permanent display of the UK's largest collections of works by locals Constable and Gainsborough outside of London.
Back at the Salthouse Harbour Hotel, we luxuriate in our room for a while before dinner, enjoying the glamorous view of the freestanding copper bath set to one side of the room (so big Maya can lie down and read in it) and the high masts of the Med-style yachts in the marina through the Juliet balcony doors. We’ve tickets to Kiss me Quickstep at the New Wolsey Theatre – one of many locations in Ipswich named after Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who was born here - so eat early at hotel’s all-day Eaterie restaurant which draws diners for its generous menu of local delicacies and waterside setting. Despite the time constraints we order three courses each including starters of tempura gherkins and chilli mayo, the juicy inside contrasting with the crispy exterior; flavoursome porcini tagliatelle with Jerusalem artichoke, wild mushrooms, cimmi di rapa (greens) and parmesan and dark chocolate fondant (the latter pushes it a bit but the soft, not-quite-bitter chocolate is worth waiting for). Head chef Luke Bailey won Suffolk Chef of the Year 2019, perhaps as much for his beautiful dishes using local supplies but his encompassing contemporary tastes with vegan and gluten free menus and afternoon teas. It’s tempting to linger in the restaurant with easygoing staff buzzing around as the place fills up on a Saturday night. But the show must go on…
All things to everyone, the small, 400-seat New Wolsey Theatre is one of the six Arts Council recognised organisations in Ipswich - Dance East at the Jerwood DanceHouse is another - with an in-house theatre company, niche touring shows, musicals, comedy and pantomimes. We settle down to watch Kiss Me Quickstep, which fully embraces the nation’s love of Strictly Come Dancing, exploring and exposing the relationship between three couples competing at Blackpool. It’s borderline cheesy with fantastic dancing, and characters whose flaws and dark secrets are gradually revealed. For more of the same, Little Miss Sunshine is a musical comedy on this month, based on the Oscar-winning film.
In a very short time – and space - we’ve taken in more culture than we have in a long time, eaten some amazing local food and enjoyed a destination close to home, just across the border from Essex. Suffolk’s county town is clearly a growing cultural hub with much more to come.
* The Salthouse Harbour Hotel ‘Summer Fizz’ package offers double rooms for £169 with a complimentary bottle of fizz on arrival followed by a full Suffolk breakfast in the morning, based on two sharing. Offer valid 1 June until 31 July 2019.
More information about Ipswich can be found at: AllAboutIpswich.com