13 reasons why winter is wonderful in East Anglia

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Words by Harriet Cooper

As the temperature drops, East Anglia becomes a winter wonderland. Frosty landscapes take on a magical air and it’s a great time to discover the region’s abundant wildlife, not least its migratory birds.

Towns and cities are full of festive cheer and, one thing is certain, there is no shortage of cosy pubs ready to welcome you with a crackling fire and comforting plate of food. Here’s how you should embrace the cold snap…

1 Try a spot of birdwatching

Norfolk and Suffolk are two of the best places in the UK for birdwatching with plenty to see year-round, particularly in winter. Head outdoors either at dawn or dusk to spot the migratory pink-footed and Brent geese as they fly overhead in huge numbers on the North Norfolk coast.

Further south, large flocks of ducks gather at RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk, and you may see marsh and hen harriers, peregrines, barn or short-eared owls. The starling murmurations at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire are also a sight to behold.

Nearest stations: Cromer or Sheringham for the North Norfolk coast; Darsham for RSPB Minsmere; Ely for Wicken Fen

Birdwatching in Minsmere

2 Savour the local shellfish

It’s said that the best time of year to eat shellfish is during months containing the letter ‘r’ – in effect, wintertime. And where better to sample mussels, oysters, clams and the like, than the Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk coast? Head to any decent restaurant or pub in the region and they’re bound to be on the menu.

To buy your own, pop along to the bustling Suffolk Food Hall in Ipswich, where the seven-metre fish counter offers a vast array of fresh-from-the-sea produce.

Nearest station: Ipswich

Shellfish

3 Hunker down in a warm, cosy pub

Gastro pubs perched on picturesque riverbanks, former coaching inns nestled in tiny villages and seafront taverns with beach views… East Anglia is not short of decent places to eat and drink. And many of these pubs come into their own in winter, with crackling fires, comfy sofas, welcoming pints of local ale and a hearty menu.

A favourite is Norfolk’s The Gunton Arms, where chef-patron Stuart Tattersall cooks over an open wood fire in the main dining room.

Nearest station: Gunton

4 Go round the houses

East Anglia’s stately homes and historic mansions embrace winter whole-heartedly with large-scale light shows, elaborate festive adornments and old-fashioned Christmas entertainment – not to mention their rolling parkland, ideal for frosty winter walks.

For a truly memorable experience, book tickets to Enchanted at Audley End House in Essex, which will see the Jacobean mansion transform into an enchanting illuminated world between 5 and 30 December.

Nearest station: Audley End

Enchanted at Audley End

5 See the snowdrops

While we presume spring and summer to be the seasons for the prettiest flowers, don’t underestimate the beauty of the snowdrop. The gardens at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, developed by Lord Fairhaven from 1926 onwards, have a large collection of snowdrops during the season, from 29 January to 4 March.

Also worth a visit when the temperature dips is Cambridge University’s botanic garden, where the winter garden is beautiful.

Nearest station: Cambridge, then the number 11 bus for Anglesey Abbey

Snowdrops

6 Get your skates on

The North Pole at Parker’s Piece Park in Cambridge has become something of a Christmas institution. Open until 5 January, it’s a wonderful place to ice-skate when dusk is falling and the twinkling lights lend a magical air.

Afterwards, refuel with a steaming mug of hot chocolate or mulled wine at the Alpine Cabin Bar. You can also practice your twists and twizzles at Felixstowe Ice Rink, which is open from 20 to 23 December.

Nearest stations: Cambridge and Felixstowe

7 See the light

Many regional towns and cities are adorned with shimmering lights during the festive season but for a truly glittering display head to Norwich in Norfolk, where the Tunnel of Light returns to the city centre.

The much-loved construction – the biggest of its kind in Europe – consists of over 57,000 LED lights and more than five miles of cabling. Elsewhere, 40 trees will be lit up across the city. Be prepared to be dazzled…

Nearest station: Norwich

Christmas tree at Norwich Cathedral

8 Base yourself at the Broads

The Broads National Park isn’t just for the warmer months – it is beautiful year-round. The area is criss-crossed with walking trails – the Norfolk Broads alone have some 190 miles of footpaths. But for a back-to-nature winter experience, take out a boat.

The air is crisp, the waterways are clear of summer crowds (making mooring much easier) and the wildlife in abundance – keep eyes peeled for the elusive otter.

Nearest station: Hoveton & Wroxham for the Norfolk Broads

Norfolk Broads

9 Savour the sea views

There’s nothing like wrapping up warm (sturdy walking boots are also a must) and navigating the coastline of East Anglia on a winter’s day. Why not take on a stretch of the North Norfolk coastal path from Cromer to Sheringham, or vice versa?

It will be bracing, yes, but breathing in lungfuls of fresh, salty sea air and soaking up the views of the wide, empty beaches will do you the power of good. Venture further towards Wells-next-the-Sea and you may even spot one of the many grey seal pups that are born at Blakeney towards the end of January – or even a whale.

Nearest stations: Cromer and Sheringham

Sunset over the sea in Sheringham

10 Shop till you drop

Shopping in the winter is win-win. Before Christmas and everywhere is geared towards the festivities; after the Big Day, it is sale time and an excellent opportunity to snap up a bargain.

East Anglia is not short of opportunities for retail therapy but, for everything under one roof, head for Westfield Stratford City. The shopping centre offers seasonal workshops and Santa’s Snowflake Grotto leading up to Christmas, and is open from 7am to 10pm on Boxing Day, ready for you to hit the sales.

Nearest station: Stratford

11 Drink a toast to the beer festival

East Anglia has a strong brewing tradition which is going from strength to strength – of the 111 real ale breweries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, 40 of them have been established in the past five years.

In winter, there are a host of beer festivals, including Elysian Winter Ale Festival in Ely (16–18 January), the Colchester Winter Ale Festival (29 January–1 February), and the Chappel Winter Beer Festival (28–29 February).

Nearest stations: Dovercourt; Ely; Colchester; Chappel & Wakes Colne

12 Take in an attraction or two

Many attractions across the network are open throughout the winter, providing an opportunity to enjoy them without the queues – and they’re often cheaper too. From visiting the colourful animals at Africa Alive! near Lowestoft to pulling strings at Norwich Puppet Theatre, there is a wealth of things to do when the temperature takes a dip.

Travel by train and make big savings on many top attractions, events, restaurants and shows across the network.

Nearest stations: Lowestoft; Norwich

Africa Alive!

13 ’Tis the season for a pantomime

The festivities wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the panto, and East Anglia promises some fabulous productions this year. West End star Adam Garcia treads the boards as Prince Charming in Cinderella at Ipswich Regent Theatre; while over at Cambridge Arts Theatre, a cast including Wayne Sleep, Liza Goddard and Matt Crosby star in a different production of the fairytale.

Ashley Banjo & Diversity will be performing their dizzying dance routines in Robin Hood and the Merry Men at Southend-on-Sea’s Cliffs Pavilion Palace Theatre, and Great Yarmouth’s St George’s Theatre is staging an enchanting performance of Beauty and the Beast.

Nearest stations: Ipswich; Cambridge; Southend Victoria; Great Yarmouth