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Explore the rivers of Suffolk aboard the Lady Florence

The Lady Florence at Orford Quay. Photo: River Cruise Restaurants
The Lady Florence at Orford Quay. Photo: River Cruise Restaurants

On a sunny mid-summer day, what better place to be than out on the river, enjoying a leisurely cruise? Chilled drink in hand, a cool breeze ruffling my hair, in fine company and anticipating a delicious lunch, this is where I find myself one Friday in early June, at the invitation of Lady Florence owners Craig and Kris Ambury. Well, it would be rude to refuse, wouldn't it?

Cruising on the Lady Florence is one of Suffolk's unique experiences; fun, delightfully different and certainly a memory to keep. The cruising restaurant operates all year round out of Orford, serenely exploring the waters of the Rivers Alde and Ore. Take your pick from breakfast, lunch, supper (March to October) and dinner (June and July) cruises, make your menu selection and join your fellow passengers - a maximum of 12 - around the communal table in the cosy saloon.

Great British Life: Picturesque Orford Quay. Photo: Simon ParkerPicturesque Orford Quay. Photo: Simon Parker

As you make your way up river towards Aldeburgh, then return via Shingle Street and Havergate Island, you'll be treated to the sights and sounds of this beautiful, fragile part of the Suffolk coast, and learn about its fascinating history.

The Lady Florence brings her own history. Full of character and charm, she's a 50 ft, ex-Admiralty motor fishing vessel (MFV), built in Poole, Dorset, in 1944 as one of more than 1,000 World War II supply boats that were used for fishing once the war ended. It's thought Lady Florence never left British waters. After the war she was used by sea cadets, then registered as the British ship Margaret Jane.

The boat came to Suffolk in 1983, bought by Geoffrey Ingram Smith, of Woodbridge, who renamed her Lady Florence and set up the river cruise business in Orford in 1984. He sold the business to Susan and John Haresnape in 1992, and now their son, Craig, and his partner, Kris, continue the family business, River Cruise Restaurants. They have a second boat, the Allen Gardiner, a 1942-built, ex South African Air Force air-sea rescue launch, which they operated out of Durban until relocating the boat to Ipswich in 2012 to offer year-round cruises on the beautiful River Orwell.

Great British Life: Orford Castle is a landmark for boats navigating the Ore. Photo: Peter CuttsOrford Castle is a landmark for boats navigating the Ore. Photo: Peter Cutts

At picturesque Orford Quay, my fellow passengers and I board the Lady Florence. There's plenty of space on deck, fore and aft, for us each to find a seat and settle in for the voyage. As we get underway, manager Sharon Mills arrives to take our orders for drinks. There's an impressive range on offer, from Pimms to Prosecco, beers (full strength and low alcohol, including Adnams), a fine selection of South African wines, and non-alcoholic beverages. I'm happy to sit back and quench my thirst with a sparkling mineral water.

The outward leg of the cruise takes us up the River Alde, as far as Slaughden, with an excellent commentary from the crew about various features along the way. The trip is dominated by Orford Ness, a 10-mile vegetated shingle spit that is a conundrum. It's both nature reserve, home to rare and delicate flora and fauna, yet it's also an important historic military site, a reminder of the part Suffolk played in defending the nation during two World Wars.

Abandoned airfields and various structures tell the story of 80 years of top secret research. Here the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment tested nuclear weapons components. There's a building where bomb ballistics were studied, and where Robert Watson Watt and his team pioneered radar. Here also loom the giant masts of Cobra Mist, the Anglo-American experimental over-the-horizon radar station, built in the 1960s at the height of the Cold War. They were subsequently used to broadcast the BBC World Service and now serves Radio Caroline.

Great British Life: Boats sit on the river at Orford Quay with the Pagodas on Orford Ness in the distance. Photo: Simon ParkerBoats sit on the river at Orford Quay with the Pagodas on Orford Ness in the distance. Photo: Simon Parker

I gaze backwards at 12th century Orford Castle fading into the distance. Eight centuries separate our modern war paraphernalia from Henry II's fortress, strategically placed to spot enemies attempting invasion via the Alde and Ore. It's pretty peaceful now, though.

At Slaughden Quay, with its Martello tower, the Lady Florence turns and we make our way to the saloon for lunch. The communal meal is great fun, as we get to know our fellow passengers. The saloon, lined with maps and historic photos, is comfortable and surprisingly roomy, and winter cruises would be really cosy with the stove burning in the corner.

The food aboard the Lady Florence is fresh, delicious, high quality and some of it locally sourced (it has a 2023 Good Food Gold Seal award). There's plenty of choice on the two- and three-course fixed price menus; I enjoy Asian fishcakes, herb crusted salmon and strawberry cheesecake. There are superb new potatoes and lots of fresh salad which we all share. It's all expertly prepared by Sharon and her team in the tiny galley, which is surely some kind of Tardis, and served with friendly good humour.

Great British Life: One of the pagodas used for atomic research on Orford Ness. Photo: National TrustOne of the pagodas used for atomic research on Orford Ness. Photo: National Trust

After lunch it's back on deck for the final leg of the trip along the Ore from Shingle Street, past the entrance to Butley River, and around Havergate Island, the RSPB reserve that is famously home to avocets, terns, spoonbills and brown hares. Across Chantry Marshes, Orford Castle beckons as the Lady Florence slowly makes her way back to Orford Quay. This is a most enjoyable way to discover this part of the Suffolk coast.

Breakfast cruise and three-course breakfast £37pp

Lunch, supper, dinner cruise £25pp; two courses £26, three courses £29

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