Gleaming E-Type Jag, unspoilt countryside and beautiful villages - make way for Valerie Singleton

The last time I climbed into an E-Type it was the early Sixties. In those days, the M4 only went as far as the Maidenhead roundabout (about 20 miles). Late one evening, a friend who owned one of these trendy cars took me for a spin. We drove from Hammersmith to the end of the motorway and back in well under half an hour. It was exhilarating.

The last time I climbed into an E-Type it was the early Sixties. In those days, the M4 only went as far as the Maidenhead roundabout (about 20 miles). Late one evening, a friend who owned one of these trendy cars took me for a spin. We drove from Hammersmith to the end of the motorway and back in well under half an hour. It was exhilarating.

Now, here I was, all these years later, settling into one again, only this time the driving would be more sedate. Not, I hope, because I'm more sedate, but because with speed cameras littering the countryside we'd never get away with it. And, anyway, the Suffolk lanes don't lend themselves to such crazy driving. Nor, of course, would I want to race through the glorious countryside and villages of this largely unknown county. Having said that, there was one open stretch of road when my companion yelled "amazing acceleration" as, unable to resist temptation, he put his foot down.

It has always been a mystery to me why Suffolk has never lured the same number of visitors as the Cotswolds. There's a long, attractive coastline and, in the heart of the county, one beautiful village after another. Known collectively as the wool towns, they became wealthy in the Middle Ages from producing fine quality cloth which they exported to the Continent. Timber-framed houses and cottages, often lop-sided with age, jut over streets and colour-washed buildings in shades of pink, vibrant yellow and green. However, the famous Suffolk pink is not "hollyhock pink", as I'd always thought, but a deep, almost Chinese, red made originally from pigs' blood.

Those beautiful villages come in quick succession: Clare, Long Melford, Cavendish, Lavenham, Bildeston, Kersey, Chelsworth... every one deserving time and exploration. It would be impossible to do them justice in a couple of days.

We'd picked up our E-Type from the Grand Touring Club - actually a delightfully remote cottage in the wilds of Suffolk near Bury St Edmunds - where owner Nicholas Brimblecombe gave us some E-Type dos and don'ts, and a folder of maps, routes and things to look out for. It was up to us whether we stuck to the suggested tours, but they started us off in the right direction - Lavenham, on a hill overlooking the Brett Valley.

In the 16th century, Lavenham was one of the wealthiest towns in the country. Today, it is known for having the finest timbered buildings in Britain. The owner of one of the most outstanding houses, Cordwainers, was cutting back flowers from her front door. "The house goes back to before 1425," she told me. "Then, later, it became a shoe shop."

In the museum on the top floor of the magnificent Guildhall we found out more about the town's industries and how the 1620s brought a fall in demand for Lavenham's blue serge cloth and, ultimately, depression to this part of Suffolk. "East Anglia is one of England's last undiscovered places," the warden told us as we left. We needed a day here, not just a few hours.

It was the same at Long Melford and its wide, mile-long high street. The superlatives were never-ending - the finest, the wealthiest, the best preserved - and here we were at the Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford, considered to be the grandest building in Suffolk. The churchyard was peaceful, with lichen-covered gravestones bearing blurred dates. Inside, it was a hive of activity, as local parishioners hurried to decorate the church for harvest festival the following day. Some of the stained-glass windows were very early, showing friends and relations of the rich Clopton family, who rebuilt the church in the 15th century.

There are some 500 medieval churches in Suffolk - an extraordinary number. Built mostly with flint stones they have distinctive towers that often dominate the landscape for miles. A stunning sunset turned the sky pink as we arrived at The White Hart Inn in Nayland. The White Hart is not a hotel, though it was for centuries a coaching inn. Reopened just over a year ago by Michel Roux, it's a restaurant with six guest rooms - each one simply, and attractively, decorated. As you'd expect from a Roux brother, dinner was excellent and we just had to try the roasted Nayland woodpigeon on a bed of red cabbage, with red wine sauce flavoured with berries.

We woke at 7am to utter silence. Despite being on the High Street, there wasn't a sound. Most people in Nayland, we found out later, use bicycles. Franck Deletang, who was at the Waterside Inn in Bray before coming to the White Hart, looked after us well and insisted next morning that we do a walk of the small village with the booklet he gave us about historic Nayland.

It was eerily misty, with that hint of a great day to come once the sun broke through. The River Stour - more of a stream than a river - ran through the village past weavers' cottages and a watermill and marked the border of Suffolk and Essex.

Preparations were going on in the church for an evening recital, but James Finch, the choir master, took a few moments off. "Come and see Constable's altar painting," he said. "It's one of only two religious paintings he ever did. He painted it for an aunt." I would never have guessed it was a Constable, even though we were deep in Constable country.

The mist cleared and we had a last taste of summer sun. We put the hood down and headed for Flatford Mill, where Constable grew up. We negotiated the one-way system through East Bergholt, down the narrow lanes that led to Flatford Mill car park. It was all remarkably well organised, and only a short walk to the river and buildings that were so much a part of Constable's paintings.

We bought a book that linked our position to each picture and strolled along a tranquil, unchanged riverbank. Only the undergrowth seemed to have grown thicker - the views are not as clear as they were in Constable's time. The mill itself is not open to the public. It is used by the Field Studies Council, which runs courses and study groups, and just a few painters were absorbed at their easels, gazing, brush in hand, at Willy Lott's famous cottage. Next time, we decided, we would walk the three miles along the River Stour to the charming village of Dedham, where the Victorian painter Alfred Munnings lived.

Our second night was to be spent at the White Lion Hotel, on the coast at Aldeburgh, so we set off to the north east, with more scenic delights on the way.

The central tower of Orford Castle is exactly how a Norman keep should look. It has all that remains of the castle Henry II built to protect Orford - in those days, a busy port. We clambered up the spiral staircase and took in a fantastic view over Orford and the marshes towards the sea. An hour or so later, we were at the White Lion Hotel, where we tucked in to delicious local crab and Aldeburgh lobster.

Next day, the sun brought everyone out. Aldeburgh isn't large, but has great charm and an array of architectural styles. Deck chairs were set up on the wide pebble beach that stretched away into the distance. Fishermen's huts were doing good business, selling freshly caught fare, and visitors strolled along the pretty seafront, made up largely of painted cottages.

Further up the coast, at tiny Dunwich, we ate at Flora's Tea Room on the beach, famous for fish and chips. The café was packed and the beach almost empty, but, like Aldeburgh, the shore seemed to stretch into infinity. There was Southwold in the distance, and the tower of another church - probably Blythburgh - above the marshes. It was almost impossible to envisage Dunwich as one of the greatest ports in the country - twice the size of Ipswich. But it was. Then 600, years ago, much of the town was devoured by the sea after a storm, and the remainder has been vanishing ever since.

We didn't get as far as Southwold, as it was time to return the E-Type. Driving home to London in my battered MGB didn't seem quite as much fun as it usually was.

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