It has neither the glamour nor the reputation of comparably sized cities in southern England, but Ipswich seems not to care a great deal. Unfussy, historic and with a burgeoning appeal, it’s a town that’s working on itself, painting over its cracks, with real success. It’s also a footballing town par excellence – far enough away from the glut of London clubs and their associated media circus, this corner of East Anglia breathes the blue and white of perennial Championship contenders Ipswich Town, and match day roars with an expectant buzz.
On the warm April afternoon of our visit, the fortunes of the town and its football team seem especially intertwined with close to 30,000 – an almost unique figure outside the Premiership – packed into Portman Road to watch a promotion tussle with Derby County. Ipswich – once a medium-sized club but, by today’s Chelsea-sized proportions, a smallish one – have given generations something to cheer, sometimes overextending expectations gloriously. League winners in the ’60s under England World Cup-winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey, they subsequently beat Arsenal to lift the ’78 FA Cup before incredibly claiming the Uefa Cup in 1981. The architect of these latter two triumphs was the current grand-father of the English game, Sir Bobby Robson, an amusing statue of whom stands outside the ground. Inside, meanwhile, a thrilling 3-2 win brings a rise into the Premiership bone step closer, simultaneously proving that football below the upper echelons can be just as exciting.
Away from footballing concerns, Ipswich has other notable attractions. Its historic waterfront was once alive with trade but, in common with many English river and sea ports, that trade has either diminished greatly or disappeared altogether. The ghostly feel is tempered, however, by the remarkable regeneration programme that is under way: there are bistros and pubs lining the waterfront, but the earthiness of its former function remains. It’s both pleasant and urban, the decay not diminishing but adding to the overall effect.
History runs deep here; Cardinal Wolsey – Henry VIII’s right-hand man – grew up in the middle class son of a butcher in 1480s Ipswich and, in reaching high office, defied an even more rigorous class system than exists today. The town still bears his memory in street and theatre names, but actual remnants of his life are harder to come by; Wolsey’s greater deeds came when, as the richest man in England, he built Hampton Court Palace and helped orchestrate the proceedings of court life under his king. In 1530, he was sentenced to death for failing to aid Henry VIII’s divorce, but died before reaching the gallows.
Still, Christchurch Mansion helps bring into focus Tudor and subsequent periods with some canny curation. Set in parkland, the building houses a surprising number of gems in its Tudor portraits, as well as a host of Constable and Gainsborough originals that lift it to the status of treasure trove. Best of all, the mansion avoids the fustiness that often spoils similar museums. The art on display is from every era up to the present, and contemporary artists have been given the space to create and display works that breathe new life into the building. It’s a microcosm of what Ipswich is all about – paying heed to history, while updating wherever necessary.
For details of the Ipswich Town Football Club Stadium Tour, Behind The Blues, call 01473-400 555 or see www.itfc.co.uk. For a free copy of the Ipswich and District Visitor Guide call 01473-258 070 or email email@example.com. Information can also be found on www.chooseipswich.com, including suggestions for places to stay from the Ipswich & District Hotels Association.
Essex, immediately beneath it on the map, draws most of the gags from the rest of the country, leaving Suffolk to get on with the business of being quiet, scenic and historic. The market town of Bury St Edmunds reputedly once held the remains of King Edmund of East Anglia, killed by the Danes in 869; its lingering charms have much to do with with architecture that ranges back to the Normans and St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Newmarket, on the Cambridgeshire border, is the original horse racing town with its ties to the sport reaching back some 300 years to the reign of Charles II. On the coast, Felixstowe, a staggeringly popular seaside resort in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has four miles of beach and still fills up in the summer months, while Lowestoft, from whence spandex comedians The Darkness hail, has award-winning beaches. Finally, the area around Thetford is of genuine beauty: the King’s Forest’s 500 hectares contain muntjac and roe deer, and the Saxon village at nearby West Stow is perhaps the best example of its type in Britain.