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Set sail for Suffolk

3rd February 2017

Matt Tyler, from Places & Faces magazine, headed to Suffolk’s Heritage Coast for an overnight break at The Ship. Here is what he said about his visit… 

We strolled along the beach in Dunwich which was populated by a lone fisherman on the shoreline and a couple of dog walkers.

Wrapped up warm and with seagulls screaming and reeling in the vast skies overhead, the wind whipping the marram grass in the dunes and huge waves crashing along the shoreline, it’s hard to believe that Dunwich was once the unofficial capital of East Anglia.

This major port had a population of over 4,000 until, in the 13th century, a storm washed countless homes, farms and fields into the sea. Three further surges claimed the few remaining buildings and today just the smallest fragments of structure remain where they stood.

Now with only a few cottages, a church and a museum, the area is mostly visited by walkers, cyclists and nature lovers for whom the peace and tranquillity of this part of the coast are reasons enough to visit.

The other main reason many head here – as we did – is to visit The Ship Inn, a traditional Suffolk hostelry and former smugglers’ haunt full of old world charm, aged beams, wood panelling, exposed brick and low-ceilinged rooms.

Views from The Ship hotel across the marshes
A view from one of the Marsh View Rooms at The Ship

The Ship Inn is located just off the A12 between Southwold and Aldeburgh, close to heathland and forest, the RSPB nature reserve at Minsmere and the crumbling cliffs and shingle beach of the Suffolk Heritage Coast itself.

After parking up alongside the full car park (a sure sign of popularity if ever there was one) and checking in, we were shown to our room for the night, the delightfully-named Dingles, to unpack and enjoy the very welcome complimentary coffee and biscuits before heading to the main bar. An ideal haven from the January weather, thanks to the welcoming glow of a wood burner, we looked over the menu put together by head chef Sam Hanison which makes good use of seasonal Suffolk produce and locally-sourced seafood, having clearly been devised with a focus on freshness and local provenance.

Once thawed out sufficiently from our invigorating beach walk, we were shown to the conservatory and one of the few remaining unreserved tables in this delightful room which is decorated in tasteful heritage colours and adorned with coastal photographs and ships’ lamps.

The choice of very appetising starters included a rather retro-sounding cheese and ale fondue, mackerel and horseradish pâté and locally-caught whitebait plus a very tempting range of made-on-the-premises Scotch eggs, among them Blythburgh pork and black pudding, hot-smoked salmon and horseradish, and spiced mixed bean, all served with chutneys and good value at £6.95 (one for our next visit methinks!).

However, I chose from the Sunday specials menu: deep-fried brie and cranberry – a huge chunk of creamy cheese encased in the crispest breadcrumbs and which would have sufficed as a meal in itself, while my partner opted for the half pint of shell-on prawns: two delightful dishes and both good value at £6.25 and £7.25 respectively.

When it came to mains, we were really spoilt for choice and were tempted by The Ship’s highly-acclaimed fish pie with cod, haddock, salmon and prawns served with cheese and crusted mashed potato and veg (£13.95). A neighbouring diner was tucking into chargrilled haloumi with spiced aubergine ragout, which looked to be a good choice for another time. However, for me it was, as they say, a no-brainer, and had to be classic fish and chips, an easy choice being a fish-lover and given The Ship’s reputation for this particular dish.

Fish and chips at The Ship at Dunwich
The famous Ship's fish and chips

And what a winner it proved to be: lustrous, meaty flakes of cod encased in the lightest, crispiest batter and accompanied by perfectly-cooked, hand-cut chips: crunchy and crisp on the outside, light and fluffy within, served with the obligatory mushy peas and helped along its merry way by a glass of Adnams bitter. Proper fish and chips are hard to get right but The Ship has got them down to a tee and, at £12.95, this was excellent value for such a well-cooked, huge portion, an honest-to-goodness, simple but really memorable dish.

Although she’s also a fish lover, my partner chose the locally-sourced Suffolk pork belly and crackling which came with the crunchiest, fluffiest roast potatoes and a side dish of creamed leek gratin, which she declared: “absolutely gorgeous”.

Desserts were plentiful and ranged from light possets, Norfolk-made ice creams and sorbets to the heavier and more indulgent sticky toffee pudding and apple cake. However, after two sizeable main courses, dessert proved one step too far, so we reluctantly declined, a shame as the offerings included an East Anglian cheeseboard with a good selection of some of my favourite cheeses as well as a new one on me, Suffolk Shipcord, which would have been an ideal way to finish off what was a truly delicious, well-cooked and well-presented meal.

Dinner over and after moving back to the bar to finish our drinks by the fire, we headed to our room, one of 16 housed in the main inn, the stable block and the garden rooms. Ours had a tasteful and stylish feel about it and made the most of the original features, coming complete with a flat-screen TV, a beautiful iron bedstead, the most comfortable, fully-sprung mattress, feather pillows and duvet plus, I am reliably informed from one who knows, a selection of The White Company toiletries in the immaculate and spotless en-suite bathroom. All this and with a view to die for, looking out across the marshes and away to the sea.

Bedroom at The Ship at Dunwich
Cosy bedrooms at The Ship

It was almost worth sleeping with the window open to be lulled to sleep by the crashing, distant waves and to listen out for, legend has it, the submerged church bells tolling beneath the sea. Realistically, however, with it being a bitter cold January night, we thought better of it and shut the wildness of the coast outside, snuggling down into the all-enveloping duvet.

The next day dawned bright, sunny and fresh with breakfast matching the weather and, despite a vast array of lighter, less calorific goodies on offer, I needed no persuasion to go for The Ship’s traditional “Full Suffolk”, a good choice and one which didn’t disappoint, with the aroma alone enough to whet the appetite.

A groaning side table full of cereals, juices, yoghurts, fresh fruit and a lovely-looking, home-made granola were also on offer, but a plentiful supply of fresh coffee and crusty toast with artisan marmalade and jams completed the meal and set us up nicely for the long journey back home.

It’s worth noting that The Ship Inn has a relaxed style and is very doggie-friendly with many dogs in evidence on the day of our visit (we decided to pack Peggy off for her holidays on this occasion and take the break alone). For those wanting to bring their four-legged friends with them, there are a number of rooms available and Fido and co are most welcome to dine in the conservatory or breakfast rooms with their owners. One nice little touch was the complimentary bowl and biscuits for dogs on arrival: tail-wagglingly good service!

Heading back, we both agreed that The Ship Inn proved the perfect retreat and really does offer something for everyone, whether as a base to explore the coast, a quiet, relaxing night away, or a pint and a bite at the bar. Oak beams, open fires, polite and friendly staff, home-cooked food, a warm welcome and a great atmosphere, plus a lovely, large enclosed garden for the warmer months, really do make The Ship Inn ideal for a weekend break or a quick refuelling stop at any time of the year.