I've planned a day out every Thursday this month, with each trip further than the last. Last week Bracknell, this week...
Ipswich is Suffolk's county town, of Anglo-Saxon origin, and once a major North Sea port. Some say it's the oldest English town the Romans didn't have a hand in. Its heart contains a mix of historic buildings and less impressive infill, plus a modern waterfront quarter rising on the former docks. There are better places in East Anglia for a day trip, and a weekend mini-break in Ipswich would be unwise. That said there are several treats to see, most of which I entirely failed to visit when I lived here for a couple of years, so more fool me. [10 photos]
Most town museums have either updated for a modern audience or closed. Ipswich museum, I'm pleased to say, has done neither and is all the better for it. Stepping beneath its terracotta portal brings you into a long dark atrium filled with Victorian exhibits overlooked by a separate walkway round the upper perimeter. The museum started out as a repository for a natural history collection, so its core offering is a lot of stuffed animals in glass cases. The giraffe at the back enjoys a particularly large glass case which particularly taxed the local glaziers. If only the rhino had been in a glass case nobody would have stolen its horn in 2011. The woolly mammoth needs no shield.
A separate rear galley contains a nationally significant collection of stuffed birds, courtesy of Fergus Menteith Oglivie 'of Sizewell and Scotland'. A separate classic exhibit represents "a portion of the Bass Rock", complete with dozens of squawking seabirds and fake guano. The museum goes out of its way to explain that such practices are very much disapproved of these days, but this enormous set of tableaux would have been proper educational in its day. Rest assured it's not all dead animals. Further galleries cover history, geology and ethnography, including a detailed walkthrough of world cultures that reminded me of a trip to the former Commonwealth Institute.
Stashed on the back staircase is a sledge Captain Oates tried out before heading to the South Pole, but chose to leave behind. In a side gallery are treasures from the era of King Raedwald, son of Tytila, son of Wuffa. At the foot of an Egyptian statue is a sign thanking you for not touching the goddess Sekhmet. I also learned that the interglacial period before ours is known as the Ipswichian thanks to deposits uncovered at the sewage works at Bobbitshole. But I learned nothing of Ipswich in the 21st century, because the history display round the balcony ends with the 1990s and none of the individual exhibits appear to have been touched since then either. Ipswich Museum thus works brilliantly as a museum showcasing how museums used to be, and long may it stay that way.
Ipswich Art Gallery
The Ipswich Art Gallery was formerly the Ipswich Art School, so feels more converted institution than ideal hanging space. Everything other than the central atrium is tucked upstairs around the balcony or inside a handful of awkwardly shaped rooms, currently displaying a fine collection of 100 works by women artists, with Maggi Hambling the most well known. Free to enter, and just a little odd.
Ipswich's other big museum is a substantial Tudor mansion in a fabulous park almost in the centre of town. Christchurch Mansion was gifted to the people in 1895, and is an absolute warren of nooks and heritage crannies. Some of the interiors are original, others were shoehorned in from elsewhere, and you never quite know which era'll be round the next corner. In amongst these are a significant number of paintings by local lad John Constable, plus a separate 1920s art gallery which is currently hosting (in a big local scoop) The Kiss by Rodin. It's one of three larger-than-life copies created by the French sculptor, this a commission for a Sussex collector who specifically requested that the male genitals be realistic, and which is now under the guardianship of the Tate. See this marble icon for free, plus additional disparate sculptures throughout the building, until 28th April.
Ipswich town centre
Much of Ipswich town centre retains a historical street pattern and heritage buildings, and much does not. In my photos above I've focused on the better bits. Timbered buildings are scattered in impressive numbers - still very much part of the commercial fabric - and the pargeting on the Ancient House (now a Lakeland) is second to none. For characterful shopping a narrow arcade wends down from Tavern Street, while for characterless shopping there's the fortress-like chain-bland Buttermarket and the sheds of Cardinal Park. The council recently spent a few million revamping Cornhill, to no obvious effect, although maybe it looks better with the grid of fountains switched on. Better to hunt down the statue of Giles's Grandma, stood outside the offices where the Daily Express cartoonist penned his glowering harridan.
Lovers of modern architecture should make a pilgrimage to Ipswich's Princes Street roundabout to admire one of Norman Foster's earliest commissions. The Willis Building looks 21st century, such is its influence, but was actually constructed in the early 1970s for an obscure insurance company. The office block is grand-piano-shaped, and pioneeringly open plan, and was very rapidly Grade I listed. The exterior is a curtain of smoked glass, there's not a right angle in sight, and oh how the changing light reflects off it throughout the day. Don't expect to get inside without being an employee, or pop up to the roof garden with your sandwiches, but have this 9 minute documentary by Zaha Hadid as compensation.
Once upon a time urban docksides were for trade, but these days they're prime residential territory. Ipswich council leapt on the bandwagon earlier than most, sequentially replacing both sides of their waterfront with smart flats and adding a marina to attract yachting folk. It was only just kicking off when I lived here, so I was amazed by the transformation (if not entirely won over). The skyline includes Suffolk's tallest building, a tower block whose construction faltered during the 2008 recession and whose interior still isn't finished. Some wharves remain empty, others are only just being transformed... but walk far enough and it all looks closer to being complete.
At promenade level a sequence of eating and drinking opportunities has opened up, because what people want beside water these days are craft beer, boutique hotels and bistros. The vibe along Neptune Quay is impressively trendy, a quality which the architects have ensured by the simple premise of placing the town's university at the far end. Students have their own coffee bar and restaurant with slightly cheaper prices to avoid having to intermingle with the nightlife. The Waterfront's worked well for the town, which now has a quarter worthy of attracting young professionals, but I don't think I'd have wanted to move in.
River Orwell/River Gipping
What I had planned to do on my visit was head down the estuary to walk across the Orwell Bridge. The ultimate town bypass, this stilted concrete creation opened in 1982 and is now so integral to Ipswich that if it ever closes the entire town seizes up. It doesn't close very often, but Storm Gareth closed it for eight hours the day before my visit which kept the local paper in screaming headlines. With gusts of 50mph promised throughout Thursday I wisely decided against an elevated hike beside windblown lorries forty metres above the choppy Orwell, and am saving this treat for a later date. Instead I headed in the opposite direction, upstream of Stoke Bridge, beyond which point the river is known instead as the Gipping.
The River Gipping slices between the railway station and the football ground as a deep-cut channel with a walkway alongside. Don't be easily tempted. It's signposted as an appealing stroll or easy cycle, but this perception will not survive the three miles to the next village. The first stretch includes a modern footbridge, a Sainsbury's car park, the backside of an industrial estate and the reedy edge of a housing estate. As urban riverside goes, it's fairly standard. But things change at the first railway bridge, the descending concrete steps so narrow you'd never get a bike down, beyond which is a minor riverside path that feels almost rural. It's really not, though. Lurking at the top of the slope is a hu-uge brownfield site once occupied by a sugar beet factory, now reduced to rubble, while a chain of pylons plant metal footprints along the valley. The path eventually opens out into squidgy orchard, then ducks below a dual carriageway and skirts a water pumping station. I walked well over a mile without any external footpath connection, which was somewhat unnerving, before eventually emerging onto Sproughton Millennium Green. I do not especially recommend.
Sproughton is a classic Suffolk village, except not quite. Down by the river are a post-medieval watermill (private), a Millennium Green (aforementioned) and a yew-circled church (locked). Climbing the main street are an actual tithe barn (restored), the village lock-up (empty) and a tin-shed community centre (buzzing). At the top of the slope are the village pub (carvery-enabled), a vintage barn (antiques-ridden) and a bus stop (irregularly-served). The village sign is one of the last carved by Harry Carter of Swaffham. Twenty years ago you couldn't buy milk here and the top treat was an exhibition of teatowels. Today the community shop in the tithe barn sells Mediterranean Sundried Tomato Nut Roast and the top attraction in the church hall is a Jigsaw Puzzle Challenge Evening. Residents are currently up in arms at plans to replace a central field with 114 homes, even those living on a similarly-sized estate built across former fields. It's also a bloody awkward walk back to Ipswich, because connectivity isn't really a rural Suffolk thing, which is just one of the reasons I left.