A Night Away: salt-spiked escapism at the Suffolk, in Aldeburgh
Out on the fringes of the county, the Suffolk is a seaside retreat with a top-class restaurant: a champion of the countryside’s bounty and remote beauty
There’s something very lovely indeed about the idea of a restaurant with rooms. It calls to mind a place of sybaritic indulgence, where food is followed ineluctably by a feather duvet, where both the bread and pillows are equally, irresistibly cloudlike. Such all-round deliciousness is exactly the vibe of the Suffolk and its eatery, Sur-Mer, in the coastal town of Aldeburgh. Though the restaurant – which began as a pop-up in summer 2020 before expanding into a hotel in 2022 – can seat more than the six rooms upstairs can sleep, there’s still a delightfully intimate atmosphere to things here.
On the Wednesday evening of our visit, the parlour and dining room are alive with the amiable chatter of patrons, presumably debating whether to have the buttery baked lobster or fillet of halibut. And while some were staying upstairs, many others were local folk. “That really makes me happy,” says George Pell, the man responsible for it all. “I can’t think of anything worse than only being busy at weekends. I don’t want to run a place where you have to buy a bottle of wine; I want anyone to feel they can come in for a glass because they’re passing.”
While George isn’t from around here himself (he grew up in the south-west before moving to London, where he worked at Home House, the Arts Club in Mayfair and latterly as director of L’Escargot), he now feels proud to call this part of the world home. Living in a cottage down the road means he’s often to be found in the Suffolk’s club-like parlour, asking people how their windswept walks were. That our own taxi driver asked for his best wishes to be passed on to George says something about how this affable “outsider”, in his words, has assimilated into the community.
When quizzed on how he’s managed it, George says that “communicating a sense of place” is vital. How, then, has a Somerset boy with an august London career, distilled seaside Suffolk so successfully? The food really helps, he says. Given so many top London restaurants get their pork, duck and Baron Bigod brie from this corner of East Anglia, sourcing for Sur-Mer was presumably like shopping in Whole Foods, only better – more local, more seasonal, more delicious. Seafood, naturally, forms the backbone of its small and perfectly formed menu (we ate scallops followed by the silkiest of skate wings), but there are other treats too – smoked salmon from Pinney’s of Orford, Dingley Dell bacon, wine from a merchant in nearby Woodbridge.
Not that any of this would mean a jot without a crack team in the kitchen, however – and the one here is testament to George’s overarching belief that, above all, a sense of place comes from people. When, after the success of the pop-up, he took over the entire building and began renovating, he made sure to employ local tradesmen, confident they would have the required know-how to work on the listed Georgian structure. Built as a coaching inn in the early 19th century, it had since been sliced up into shops and offices and was in a sorry state – something hard to tell now. “Our builders were brilliant,” says a deferent George.
His commitment to Suffolk’s broader terroir is evident in every corner, thanks to the handiwork of locals, who have made the Suffolk look and feel the way it does. Of particular note are the joiners, Ipswich-based ESH, who handcrafted the extraordinary fluted wooden bar, and Kate Fulford, an interior designer from Aldeburgh, who styled the bedrooms. Kate’s skillset, it seems, lies in creating spaces that manage to feel completely sumptuous without ever being off-puttingly swanky. (We’re pleased to report that the pillows are indeed cloudlike.)
Named for various spits and sheltered spots on the local Rivers Alde and Ore (their romantic monikers include Abraham’s Bosom, Little Japan and Iken), they’re each bestowed with their own quiet identity, variations on a theme of pastel palettes, a few well-chosen printed textiles and cork floors in the bathroom. It helps that the higgledy-pigglediness of the building means no two are the same in shape or size, and while some overlook Aldeburgh’s pretty high street, others offer views of the beach and sea beyond.
The pace of life in Aldeburgh is refreshingly slow. Shops open late and close early, leaving plenty of time for pottering – something rarely afforded in the maelstrom of modern life. Benjamin Britten’s house is within walking distance, as is Maggi Hambling’s haunting scallop-shaped tribute to the great composer, reached along the shingle shore. Here, as the salt-smacked wind whips and the waves froth on a brisk spring morning, normal life feels far away. As we tell George how hard it will be to leave, he apologises for the fact that the station isn’t nearer (Saxmundham is a 10-minute drive) – and then quickly takes it back. “What am I saying?” he laughs. The fact that Aldeburgh isn’t on the train network is entirely the appeal of this place. “We’re not just end-of-the-line – we’re past the end of the line. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
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Looking for something more permanent? The Old Post Office, set in the middle of nearby Saxmundham, is currently on the market. Just a short car ride away, but with access to the railway station, it offers best of both worlds; the current owner tells us he goes swimming in the sea at Aldeburgh every day. (No judgement if you were to swap a chilly dip for a hot chocolate at the Suffolk, though…)
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