It's probably not the best day to be going on a country pub crawl. Snow is forecast and there's a foreboding chill in the air but the chance to cosy up next to blazing pub fires, sipping warmish pints of real ale and swapping childhood stories with old friends has something of an enticing, wintry charm about it.
Our pub crawl is taking place in Long Melford, a picturesque village in the county of Suffolk, which claims to have the longest village high street in England. Laid by the Romans, the road stretches almost five kilometres and is studded with beautiful, centuries-old houses, antique warehouses, tea shops, stately homes and a sprinkling of traditional English pubs within stumbling distance of each other.
Bedded down amid a patchwork of rolling green hills and fields, this bastion of conservative rural England is often listed as one of the country's most liveable villages. It's only 100 kilometres from the bright, multicultural lights of London yet its slow-paced vibe - and distinctive, singsong Suffolk dialect - makes it seem much further away.
We enjoy our first tipple in the Hare, an establishment renowned for its family-friendly atmosphere, fine Sunday roasts and flavoursome pints of Greene King IPA and Abbot Ale, which are both brewed in the market town of Bury St Edmunds, 15 kilometres away. Foster's - Australia's national beer, apparently - is also on tap.
Although I spent much of my childhood in the county, I never managed to attain a broad Suffolk accent - something I'm quite comfortable with, not least when an old gentleman enters the pub, doffs his tweed flat cap to the landlady and says: "Orrriight, oi'll ava pinta IPA pleeese."
While Suffolk folk account for most of Hare's clientele, the pub is popular with visitors to nearby Kentwell Hall, a glorious mansion built during the reign of Henry VIII.
As a child, I recall attending Kentwell's annual Tudor-themed re-creations, in which people would cavort around the hall's spacious grounds dressed as peasants, dairymaids, weavers, blacksmiths, bakers and other dominant figures of mediaeval Melford.
"They're still 'olding those events, bor," says the man in the flat cap, who had been eavesdropping on our conversation. "Each summer since 1979, oi'll have you know."
Like neighbouring historic towns Bury, Sudbury and Lavenham, tradition seeps through Long Melford. Families have been here for generations. Start talking to someone and there's a fair chance their surname will be Kemp, Bailey, Ambrose or Westropp. Or they'll know one of them, at least. The most famous of dynasties, the Hyde Parkers, have lived in the village's grandest stately home, Melford Hall, for more than 200 years.
This huge, 16th-century, red-brick building is capped by dramatic chimney towers and fanciful turrets, hedged by a moat and enveloped by beautiful landscaped gardens and a rambling deer park. Queen Elizabeth I and her 2000 courtiers stayed here in 1578, while a regular visitor was celebrated children's writer Beatrix Potter, a relative of the Hyde Parkers.
With Melford Hall in National Trust hands, everyone is free to savour it. Highlights include the giant banqueting hall where the monarch was feted and the room where Potter sketched and wrote stories about Jemima Puddle-Duck.
The hall faces Melford's enormous, and photogenic, village green, which is fringed on one side by quaint Georgian houses and is home to the Holy Trinity, a church of cathedral-sized proportions with vivid stained-glass windows.
Like many of Melford's richest properties, it was built during the 15th century using the profits garnered from the village's burgeoning wool industry.
In summer, it's lovely to sit in the shadow of the church for a picnic on the green. Today, with the temperature plunging below zero, we duck inside the nearby Bull Hotel.
Built in 1450, the Bull has been welcoming drinkers since 1580 and although it now hosts weddings and conventions, it has maintained its old coaching inn vibe. Oak beams, vintage furniture, comfy armchairs and an Elizabethan-era fireplace decorate the interior. It might not be as popular as the Cotswolds but Londoners and celebrities looking for peace and quiet have long been drawn to Melford. John Lennon and Yoko Ono enjoyed a romantic break here in the late 1960s, Irish painter Francis Bacon regularly came to recharge his batteries (and to visit his gay lover) and model Claudia Schiffer, who owns a mansion nearby with film producer husband Matthew Vaughn, has been seen window-shopping.
Although the village bathes in its bygone feel, it's not frozen in time. Long-standing establishments such as Ruse & Son butcher, Alexander Lyall Antiques and Lady Jane's department store trade cheek-by-jowl with Chinese and Indian restaurants, contemporary art galleries, funky hair salons, lingerie shops, interior design stores and, of course, a few more pubs.
After popping into two older-stagers, the Crown and Cock & Bell, we hit another beacon of tradition, the George & Dragon, where, as a teenager, my attempts to order a round were rebuffed by the landlord. He'd been unconvinced by my baby face and fake deep voice.
The George has, for years, tried to live up the sentiments expressed by 18th-century author Dr Samuel Johnson. His quote - "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn" - is framed on one of the walls and, with its warm, convivial atmosphere, the George fulfils the good doctor's criteria.
Though there's one more pub on the high street, this is the final stop on our crawl. There's no great urge to walk that extra mile; we're happy in here and, besides, it's beginning to snow rather heavily outside.
From London Liverpool Street, trains to Sudbury via Marks Tey run every hour. See thetrainline.com for timetables and fares. From Sudbury, regular buses run the seven kilometres to Long Melford from Monday to Saturday between 8am and 6pm. Alternatively, a taxi will cost less than £10 ($NZ21).
Long Melford's Bull Hotel (www.bullhotel-longmelford.co.uk) has doubles priced from £75 ($NZ157) a night. Another fine choice is the Black Lion Hotel (blacklionhotel.net), which is regularly voted best restaurant in Suffolk. Rooms from £153.
See + do
Melford Hall costs £6.30 ($NZ13.20) for adults to visit. nationaltrust.org.uk/melfordhall.
For details on the latest historical re-creations and events at Kentwell Hall, see kentwell.co.uk.
- Sydney Morning Herald