25 events and attractions that MAKE Christmas in Suffolk
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Even as a fully grown woman I still get giddy at the idea of Christmas – largely because of the bulging cupboards of food, and the ‘hall pass’ to eat cheese morning, noon and night.
But I often feel, as I’m tackling my last mince pie of the day on December 25, a nip of rum in hand, that I’ve missed something.
It’s almost as though we spend so much time dashing about preparing for Christmas and all it entails, that we can forget to stop, take a moment, and admire all the wonderful things around us. How beautiful the window displays are in our independent shops. The twinkling trees in our town centres. The smell of orange and spice that seems to perfume the air in stores and homes.
This year I’m determined to soak up as much of the festive spirit as I possibly can. And these are just a few suggestions to get you started too.
Bury St Edmunds Christmas Market
I’m sure I’m not the only one disappointed the annual Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre has been cancelled for a second year, but as it drives in tens of thousands of visitors annually, it’s understandable for organisers to be cautious. A good alternative this weekend is a new Christmas market at the town’s cathedral. Open from 10am to 4.30pm on Saturday, there’ll be traders selling everything from handmade fudge to baubles, artwork and silk scarves. Carol singing and live music from the Haverhill Silver Band will fill the air. And tours of the tower are available at 10.30am and 1.30pm for £10 per person.
Red House Barn
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My family and I have a tradition every year, around my daughter’s birthday, to go and choose a new decoration for the tree each. You can definitely see our personalities around the spruce when it’s completed – food-themed ornaments from me, glitzy, sparkly items chosen by my daughter, comedy bits and bobs from my son, and cars, trucks and the like from my husband.
Last year we visited Red House barn (at Sternfields, IP17 1NF near Saxmundham) for the first time, and were astonished at what we’d been missing out on. Drive along the rural lane to the barn, alongside the Christmas tree plantation, park up, and step into a world of around 11 individually designed displays of everything from tinsel and baubles, to ornaments and gift wrap. I am so in love with the rainbow coloured felt cake I bought last year. It's open 10am to 5pm every day (until 4pm Sundays) and Santa is in his grotto until Christmas Eve.
There’s something about a tree festival that makes me feel a bit teary eyed. Two of the biggest in our county are in Sudbury and Stowmarket.
Head to St Gregory’s Church in Sudbury between December 7 and 11 to admire the displays at the event hosted by Sudbury Rotary Club.
And Stowmarket’s festival launches this weekend with bells and whistles on. More than 360 decorated trees are in situ at St Peter and St Mary’s Church until January 1. And this Sunday (November 28) there’ll be a festive fayre in Stowmarket with an ice rink, merry-go-round, carol singers, storytelling at the John Peel Centre, classic Christmas films being shown at the Regal, and Santa and his reindeer welcoming children at the Museum of East Anglian Life. The fayre runs from 10.30am to 5pm.
Co-op Juniors Christmas Spectacular
I took my daughter to see this show at Snape Maltings a few years back thinking ‘it’s a bunch of kids, how good could it really be?’. Er, well in the words of a certain Strictly judge “a-maze-ing". Neither of us could believe the sheer quality of the singing, dancing, costumes, music, staging and production. The show marks the beginning of Christmas for lots of Suffolk folk. This year it’s on from December 3 to 12, and tickets are priced from £15 to £29.
Illuminated Garden Trail
I went to Helmingham Hall’s first illuminations event with my family and some friends, and it’s now become a bit of an annual thing for our group of mates. The event attracts everyone, from couples on dates, to families like ours, all of them marvelling in seeing the grounds of the estate covered in thousands upon thousands of lights. The shops and café are open for a cheeky hot chocolate and slice of cake out of the chill. And you can buy s’mores, ready to be melted until gooey over one of the fire pits on your walk. A nice touch, and a newer addition to the trail, is a free cup of mulled wine, collected from over the drawbridge, inside Helmingham’s courtyard, which will make you feel like you’re in a Shakespearean play.
It’s not Christmas in our house until we’ve spent an afternoon perusing the Country Christmas Shop at Blackthorpe. Open daily from 10 to 5pm until December 22, it’s possibly one of East Anglia’s biggest festive stores, with every single inch of space filled with something delightful – be it a faux sprig of holly to perch on your mantlepiece, an intricate tree decoration, fairy lights, candles or gifts. The 16th century barn also hosts its craft market (£3 per person) at weekends until December 12. You can buy Christmas trees grown within a mile of the site until December 22. And the café is open from 10am to 4pm, serving up bacon rolls, savoury tarts, cakes and warm cups of cocoa, coffee and tea. You can even book afternoon tea to be taken in one of the two courtyard chalets.
Carols at St Edmundsbury Cathedral
I am not religious, but even I cannot fail to be moved by the rapturous, gorgeous sound of carols being belted out in this stunning building. It’s spine-tingling stuff.
This year you can enjoy Carols by Candlelight on December 11, and the festival of the Nine Lessons and Carols on December 23, both at 7pm.
Every year I try to set myself a challenge to be crafty at Christmas. I usually end up making chutney or some kind of boozy infusion, and I’ve made a half decent looking wreath too. While my plans aren’t set in stone for 2021, I do know I’ll be making a trip out to this enormous crafting shop at Pightle Barn in Middlewood Green (near Stowmarket) for my supplies. Wendy’s shop has quite literally everything you need to make your own decorations, hampers, wreaths, festive floral displays, to furnish your Christmas cake...and the Christmas room (yes it’s a thing) bursts with ready-made items too. You can easily lose an hour or so browsing.
Ickworth Light Nights
The last time we went to an event like this at Ickworth my children were very small, and their faces lit up when they saw the strange lights in the woods, picking up the eerie sounds and music being played amidst the trees. We’re all booked in for the last weekend of this attraction, which runs until December 5, from 4.30pm each day with timed slots. The trail takes visitors around the gardens, finishing at the iconic rotunda. It’s a chance to literally see Ickworth in a new light. Entry is £11 for adults and £9 for children (under fives free) on week days and £1 extra at weekends. Booking is essential and slots are now limited.
I never thought I’d see the day a trip to the garden centre became exciting – but low and behold, as soon as we were able to break free in lockdown, I was dragging my husband all over the county to stock up on perennials, and muse over furniture. Gardening doesn’t stop in the winter. And nor should our little nips to garden centres – some of which have really gotten into the Christmas spirit.
Perrywoods on the outskirts of Sudbury has a phenomenal winter wonderland set up, complete with glistening woodland animals, and even a bridge. Found in the newer greenhouse building attached to the main shop, the area has lots of decorations in many different themes to choose from, as well as Christmassy flower and plant containers.
It’s a similar story over at Notcutts in Woodbridge, where there are hundreds, if not thousands of decorations to take in, alongside gifty bits and pieces.
And, this is not garden related, you absolutely should go to Glasswells’ Bury St Edmunds or Ipswich stores to see their animated festive showpieces. There are lots of gift ideas to find in the shops at this time of year – it's not all beds and sofas!
Christmas food shopping
As I said right from the top, my favourite thing about Christmas is the food. I try to keep it as local as possible – although I can’t resist a festive Colin the Caterpillar or light up gin bottle from M&S – who, incidentally make the best supermarket mince pies, alongside Heston’s carrot and clementine infused ones from Waitrose.
High up on my local shopping list are:
1. Salted honey caramels in dark chocolate from B Chocolates, based over at High House Fruit Farm near Orford.
2. Christmas ham from Royal Warrant holder Emmett’s of Peasenhall.
3. Too much cheese, sourced for me by Julie at my local deli Ferguson’s in Hadleigh (other delis are available). I’ll go for a local Shipcord, Baron Bigod and Norfolk Smoked Dapple, supplemented by favourites from across the UK and Europe. My cheeseboard always includes a round of Tunworth, a waxed Cropwell Bishop stilton truckle, the pungent but Champagne-tasting Langres, and Cados – a small washed rind Camembert covered in breadcrumbs, which I first fell in love with at Maison Bleue in Bury St Edmunds. It’s pungent, but oh so good.
4. There’ll be smoked fish from Pinney’s. Always mackerel, kippers for breakfast so we can pretend we’re on holiday, and I like their smoked salmon offcuts (often found in East of England Co-op stores for a snip), which are ideal for putting on top of my Christmas day blinis.
5. I have to find a slot of time to get over to Bury St Edmunds just before Christmas to pick up a paper bag of Tudor’s Pralines from the market. Made to a recipe honed over nearly two decades, toasted almonds are tossed in a copper pan in small batches, right in front of your eyes – coated in a seriously addictive salted caramel honeycomb. Lightly warmed in the oven, they are my go-to Christmas Eve treat.
Santa Specials at the Middy
It’s worth pointing out from the offset that this incredibly popular event at Mid Suffolk Light Railway has sold out. But....there is a waiting list, so if you missed out on tickets, it’s worth getting your name down just in case. Children aged up to 10 and their parents, grandparents or carers can take a ride on the steam train from Brockford to North Pole Halt, meeting Santa for a present. This runs on weekends from December 4 to 19.
Christmas at Kentwell
One of the jewels in Suffolk’s tourism crown, Kentwell is renowned for its immersive historical days. I can’t think of a more wonderful time to visit than in the lead up to Christmas, when you can take a step back to the Victorian era.
Open from December 4 to 12, watch on as the cooks and bakers hurriedly prepare for the festivities. The Great Hall and dining room will be decked out. You could bump into Charles Darwin on the Christmas Trail in the garden. And children can take part in crafts, meet Santa, and write and post their Christmas list in Father Christmas’s cottage. Entry starts at £8 for children and £26.30 for adults and booking is essential.
Pick Your Own Tree
We’re lucky to live just a short drive away from Raydon Agricultural near Hadleigh – a retirement project for the family, who have created a large tree plantation of thousands of Norway Spruce. It can get quite muddy and slippery on wet days, so wrap up warm and pull on your walking boots before you set out to the farm, which is open from 10am to 4pm Tuesday to Thursday and 9am to 4pm Friday to Sunday until December 19. You’ll be given a measuring stick before you head into the tree area, so you can gauge how much you’re spending. It’s £6 per foot.
This clutch of lifestyle stores, a café, butchery and farm shop has a magical feel to it all-year-round, but that’s really ramped up at Christmas. Meet Father Christmas in his log cabin at weekends (pre-bookable only), buy a tree (from 10am to 4pm until Christmas Eve) and have it lugged back to your car by a gorgeous Newfoundland dog (weekends from 11am to 3pm) for a donation to charity, and stock up on pressies and food. Elveden is known for its really very good hampers.
Santa experience at Kersey Mill
If you’ve got children or grandchildren, I think this experience is one of the very best in Suffolk for youngsters. It's aimed at three to nine-year-olds, and really does go above and beyond what you’d find at the average grotto.
First there’s a walk in the mill’s gardens, looking for Santa’s lost gifts. Then it’s into the mill (the event is helping to pay for its restoration) where they’ll meet the man himself and help his elves with their chores. Children can check to see if their name is on Santa’s scroll, before collecting a small gift, and helping the elves mix reindeer food. The session ends with arts and crafts, making an item to take home.
This experience lasts an hour and costs £32.50 per child with one accompanying adult. Additional adults are £15.
It’s panto time
Oh yes it is! I have to admit, I’m not a pantomime fan – I really don’t enjoy slapstick. But I adore the New Wolsey’s Rock n Roll Panto. This year it’s Jack and the Beanstalk, with the line-up of talented actor-musicians belting out tunes such as Hit the Road Jack and Lady Marmalade. This is the last panto at the Ipswich theatre for artistic director Peter Rowe, who is stepping down from his role in 2022. Tickets start at £12, up to £38.
If you want to make lasting family memories you can’t go wrong with tickets to the gala performance of the panto at Bury St Edmunds’ Theatre Royal – Cinderella this year. The gala event on December 5 (where fancy dress is encouraged) includes ice cream, a programme, goodie bags for children, drinks and nibbles within the ticket price. The panto is on until January 16, and tickets are priced from £10.50 to £18.50.
Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre is also putting on Cinderella, featuring Jaymi Hensley from the band Union J and on from December 14 to January 2 (tickets from £10), as is Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion, from December 17 to January 3 (tickets from £20 for adults and £12 for children). The Spa’s launch night has special tickets which include a pre-theatre meal and a dancing and a DJ after.
Aladdin, with Marcus Collins and Mike4 McClean flies into the Ipswich Regent from December 17 to January 2 (tickets from £14).
And then there are the alternatives. At Ipswich’s Sir John Mills Theatre Eastern Angles presents its alternative Christmas show – From Rushmere with Love from December 8 to January 8. James Boond (not Bond) has been sent to investigate the disappearance of a nuclear scientist and amateur twitcher at Minsmere. Tickets are £20 or £10 for previews.
While Pat Whymark’s Sherlock Holmes Meets Count Dracula is going on tour from December 16 to January 23 (tickets £14). Lady Emilia has brought in Sherlock to investigate the disappearances of her butler and other staff in the neighbourhood – which seem to coincide with the arrival to town of a certain Count.
As ever, please check online or social media, or give any of these places a call before setting out on your journey, just in case they’ve had to close due to Covid or staffing levels.