‘This isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience’
- Credit: Archant
Where can you combine hearty food, history and nature in Suffolk? Our food and drink editor finds out.
Ruddy cheeked, clutching a glass of mulled cider, encased in my fleece-lined jacket, as I stand at the bow of The Lady Florence, the water of the rivers Alde and Ore lapping at her hull, I look more Nora Batty than Kate Winslet.
A river cruise at this time of year is certainly bracing. But there's no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. And how remarkable this part of Suffolk looks in winter. Houses swathed in ethereal mist, frosted with dew at the water's edge. Starlings turning the grey sky inky, moving as one before breaking ranks and bursting across the horizon.
I was aboard the boat (an ex-Admiralty vessel - one of 1000 built in WWII - once charged with supply runs of around 10 tonnes of supplies to nearby ships) for a three-hour lunch cruise.
The trip was keenly navigated and guided by South African Craig Haresnape, who's taken the reigns of the nearly three-decades-old business from his parents John and Susan, alongside partner Kris.
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Little has changed in 27 years. At breakfast, lunchtimes and, in the lighter months, during evenings, the genteel Lady Florence can be seen pootling up the water, promising guests hearty food, history, and a relaxed brush with nature.
Our journey was bound for Aldeburgh, returning back alongside Havergate Island.
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She's certainly rustic, but there's a real charm to Lady Florence, who's petite dining room seats just 12, and is ably catered by Sharon, who took our orders (food is an additional cost and priced per dish) and divvied out glasses of mulled wine and cider, before doing an about turn back to what's probably the tiniest kitchen I've ever seen.
Peeling ourselves away from the warmth of the wood-burner, we stepped back on deck, binoculars at the ready, as Craig pointed out a building formerly used by the BBC for radio. Birders amongst us though were more interested in clapping eyes on the area's avocets - a bird which has flourished so remarkably here that the RSPB adopted it on its logo.
While the prized avocet proved elusive, we did pick out herons, egrets, stunning marsh harriers in flight, lapwings, delicately long-beaked curlews, shelducks and a few cheeky seals lazing on the banks.
Nearing the turning point of Aldeburgh, which looked beautiful viewed from a whole new angle, Craig gave detailed commentary on everything from the now diminishing cod trade, to the creation of a salt marsh at this part of the water, and the history of smuggling at Slaughden - particularly the 'endeavours' of Margaret Catchpole's lover.
An about turn, the ringing of a bell, and the smell snaking out of the galley kitchen told us it was time for lunch. Nine of us - locals, newcomers to the area, bird lovers, a visitor from London - sat down, breaking (very good) bread over the communal table. Food is simple but hearty fare (don't expect haute cuisine), and the menu has deviated little since Craig's mum first wrote it. In fact, she still gets involved. If you order apple pie, chances are Susan cooked it.
There was smoked salmon, served retro style in a rosette with salad. Prawn cocktail with a mango dressing. And I sampled some mildly spiced fish cakes, served with a sweet chilli sauce.
In the middle, a venison pie of melting, succulent meat. Piquant chicken curry in a sauce which more closely resembled devilled chicken. A huge piece of cod fillet in a bath of creamy pesto sauce. Vegetables were served family-style, to be divvied up by diners, who all smiled when they clapped eyes on the vat of cauliflower cheese.
For dessert I chose the Haresnapes' take on a South African malva pudding. Something like a syrup sponge pud, it's a bit more wobbly and light. And this one had a welcome dash of booze. The chocolate brownie, all crispy-edge and melting, was lovely. And there was a decent apple and loganberry crumble too.
Tea served, bellies full, and we were back outside again, where I was surprised to learn cattle were once grazed at Havergate - floated out to the island on pontoons. We learnt too of Orford's importance as a thriving port in the 1800s. Did you know there were once 18 warehouses there? Or that Trinity House had to fight to keep the remains of the castle as it's a recognisable landmark for boats up to 20 miles out to sea? Fascinating.
As we rounded off our trip there were squeals of joy as not one, not two, not even three, but a whole bevvy of avocets came into view, pecking at the mud. Another thing ticked off the 'suffolk bucketlist'.
What a wonderful way to spend a few hours - truly away from it all.
Visit The Lady Florence website to book and discover this quiet part of our county for yourselves.