If you’re something of a culture vulture, Suffolk is the county for you. From theatres to arts centres, classical music venues to coastal festivals, there really is something for everyone here. In the county town of Ipswich, you’ll find the Regent Theatre, a 1,800-seat venue which dates all the way back to 1929; in those days, it was a popular cine-variety hall. The venue attracts big name entertainers; those who have performed on its stage in recent years include Travis, Bill Bailey, Simon Reeve and Shane Filan.
The Regent’s first and second floors play host to the Corn Exchange, putting on some of the nation’s best comedy and music acts. The Ipswich Film Theatre is based at the Corn Exchange, too, and is the place to be for independent and world cinema plus live streams from the National Theatre. Also in town is the New Wolsey Theatre which brings in large crowds thanks to its varied schedule of live entertainment. Some productions are created in-house, alongside visits from touring companies; its programme ranges from drama and kids’ shows to comedy and musicals.
Meanwhile, the Wolsey runs its own annual Pulse Festival which launched in 2000. This is a 10-day extravaganza featuring established and emerging artists, both from the local area and further afield. In a converted corn exchange in Stowmarket, the late broadcaster John Peel is commemorated in an arts centre named in his honour. The DJ, who was a resident of neighbouring Great Finborough, is buried at St Andrew’s Church in the village.
His passion for music and the arts is reflected in the work of the John Peel Centre, of which his wife Sheila is a patron. The venue hosts a variety of live music, both from established artists and up and coming acts, along with poetry, film, theatre and comedy.
This venue attracts big name entertainers; those who have performed on its stage in recent years include Travis, Bill Bailey, Simon Reeve and Shane Filan
If your thirst for live entertainment still hasn’t been quenched, pay a visit to The Apex in Bury St Edmunds. This award-winning venue is known for its acoustic excellence; the band Fairport Convention said it had the “best acoustics we’ve had in 40 years of touring”. Whatever genre of music floats your boat, from classical to pop, country to rock, there will be an act to get your pulse racing. There are also regular comedy and dance acts on the bill at this beautiful auditorium, and you can browse contemporary art at the gallery on the first floor. Bury St Edmunds is home to the Theatre Royal, the country’s last surviving example of a Regency playhouse.
This gorgeous Grade 1-listed building was constructed in 1819 and is now under National Trust ownership, making it worth a visit for its architecture alone. Its programme includes drama, music, dance and comedy, and it hosts the annual Once Upon a Festival in June, aimed at bringing theatre to children.
For world-class dance, make your way to Foundry Lane near the waterfront in Ipswich. This is the home of DanceEast, which boasts a 200-seat studio theatre where some of the best professional companies from around the globe create and perform new work. If you want to give it a go for yourself, there are more than 50 dance classes on offer to the public every week, from ballet and tap to belly dancing and hip hop.
Whatever genre of music floats your boat, from classical to pop, country to rock, there will be an act to get your pulse racing
Classical music buffs simply can’t visit Suffolk without making the trip to Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh. This beautiful creative campus, set in the quiet countryside, is one of the world’s leading centres of music. It holds concerts and festivals throughout the year, its most notable being the Aldeburgh Festival which was founded by renowned composer Benjamin Britten 50 years ago. Indeed, the New York Times called the annual event “a festival so broadly rich in interest that it ranks amongst the finest in the world”.
There are four performance spaces at Snape, including its stunning 810-seat concert hall which was built as a malthouse in the mid-19th century. You might catch a youth orchestra, a well-known solo artist or a Britten-composed opera while you are at Snape – there’s always plenty on the bill to choose from and to get your juices flowing. If it’s art that really fires your imagination, take your pick from the countless galleries across Suffolk, like the Southwold Art Gallery on the high street of this lovely town.
The space exhibits around 40 of the region’s favourite artists such as James Allen, Alison Stockmarr and Sally Page, with new works added on a regular basis. Alternatively, check out the Angel Gallery in Lavenham, which is set in a 15th-century, Grade 2-listed former wool merchants’ residence. There are permanent displays of works by Mary Wild, Leslie Gibson and John Leach.
Snape Maltings holds concerts and festivals throughout the year, its most notable being the Aldeburgh Festival which was founded by renowned composer Benjamin Britten
Suffolk museums and galleries
For an afternoon steeped in culture, visit the Gainsborough House in Sudbury, a museum dedicated to the celebrated landscape painter Thomas Gainsborough. The artist was baptised at the then-Independent Meeting House in 1727, and the building was opened as a museum in his honour in 1961. A permanent collection of his artwork includes early portraits painted in Suffolk in the 1750s, while a number of his letters are on display. Along with the fixed exhibits, you will find regularly changing exhibitions throughout the year.
Elsewhere, at the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket you are invited to learn about the history and culture of this vibrant region. Set within 75 acres of countryside, the museum has been fascinating visitors for 50 years. Find out about East Anglian crafts and traditional gypsy culture, and discover 15 beautifully-restored buildings. Take a look at powerful steam engines, explore almost 3km of woodland and riverside nature trails, and meet rare breeds of cattle and sheep. There’s a museum bistro for a bite to eat when you’re ready for some refreshments.
And for a celebration of equine and sporting culture, a trip to the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, in Newmarket, is well worth the effort.
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