The moment when a hazy afternoon in late summer melts into a lazy, warm evening is the most delicious of times, and an instant that can etch itself on your mind. I wasn't big on aesthetics when my age was still in single figures, but I still recall the intense joy towards the end of our family boating holidays in the Fens and the Broads. The big old sun would subside at about the same pace as us children, sliding into weariness after a day of solar-powered activity. We watched the huge reddening sky reflected in the ripples, and measured the shadows lengthening from the ancient trees on the banks.

In the olden days, of course, the summer was longer, drier and warmer and the skies were bluer (or, at sunset, redder). But the great treat about returning to the East of England is that so much remains the same: the dazzle of Cromer and Caister in midsummer, the wistfulness of Lowestoft and Southwold and King's Lynn in midwinter. And, at any time of year, the mystique of the East Anglian countryside - clad in layers of time, whispering the history of England.

Glance at the map and you, too, may be irresistibly drawn to Santon Downham, Wangford Warren and Grime's Graves, in the bleakly beautiful Breckland, a part of Norfolk that seems only faintly connected with modern Britain.

Essex still provides a planet's worth of holidays in a single county, with wildlife, forests, an intricate coast and the whole spectrum of culture - some of it, in the shape of Constable Country, shared with Suffolk across the Stour. Outrage aplenty this week at the news that The Hay Wain came second to Turner's The Fighting Temeraire as the nation's favourite painting.

Hertfordshire is the location of choice for many millionaire footballers, who possibly appreciate its tranquillity and proximity to the capital more than the historic communities of St Albans and, yes, Watford: the 21st-century successor to Roman Verulamium is connected to Sir Elton John's spiritual home - itself a fascinating location - by a seven-mile slice through the greenest of belts. This is one of the great little railways that dice the region so deliciously. At Park Street station, for example, the view from the platform is of meadows running down to a stream and populated by contented cattle. In contrast, Bricket Wood station is drenched in dense foliage, with bushes bursting with berries - as you might imagine a railway station in Narnia to look.

Finally, the county that millions of people pass through each week yet overlook: Bedfordshire. The county seat is a handsome and upstanding English town that has become splendidly multicultural, while to the south-west of the county the Dunstable Downs provide fine hiking.

Framed between two of Britain's busiest highways, the A1 and M1, you can find architectural gems such as Luton Hoo - plus Houghton Conquest and Milton Ernest, who sound like a couple of out-of-work actors. And within the same confines, the absurdly indulgent meanders of the Great Ouse.

The optimum way to see the region is by rail. You can take a sprint through the autumn, at the point when the leaves have begun to turn. Woodland becomes a golden blur of beech and birch and oak, while the waterlands reflect the deepening skies. Like the flickering frames of an old movie, the simplest train journey can capture a series of those moments of wonder.