Built around 1810 to defend against the threat of invasion by Napoleon, Martello Tower AA in the tiny Suffolk hamlet of Shingle Street is one of a chain of towers that run along the south and east coasts of England, each designated by a letter or number. In its day, the squat, brick, Rolo-shaped fortress would have been manned by 25 soldiers, who cooked and slept on the first floor. There were three cannons on the roof, and provisions and ammunition were kept at ground level. A previous owner had doors and windows cut into the 13ft-thick ground-floor walls in the 1970s, but once the only light there came from candles, their flames kept from the gunpowder store by a glass screen.
Despite its austere exterior, we found the tower cosy and quirky. It is usually lived in by a family with four children and is only available to hire this summer – let’s call it a “pop-up tower” – because they have gone travelling. It sleeps eight, with space for another four in a boathouse on the surrounding lawn.
Simple bedrooms and bathrooms, with alcoves and curved ceilings in whitewashed brick, are on the ground floor, while a bohemian beachcomber vibe characterises the first-floor living area. However, what really charmed us lay at the top of two narrow stone staircases built into the walls: a rooftop glass pod straight out of Grand Designs. It houses a circular dining area with a long table (supported by an old cannon set in the floor), a sofa and a stove, and a modern, slate-grey kitchen. Another circular space, open to the air and overlooking the beach, provides a panoramic view and a deep, dreamy silence more relaxing than any wind chime-lulled massage at a luxury hotel.
On a bright but windy day – the kind where your fish and chips are whipped out of your hand – the scene from behind thick windows at the top of the tower appeared completely serene. We spent hours gazing at the 360-degree view.
There are miles of grassy coastal paths here, but with a baby and a buggy that wasn’t quite as “off-road” as we hoped, we headed north for Suffolk’s seaside towns. Orford, a picturesque village nearby, has the excellent Butley Orford Oysterage, serving fish from its smokehouse on the quay, some of it caught by its own boat.
Southwold, an hour’s drive up the coast, might as well have been invented by the tourist board as the perfect British seaside resort with its mix of famous guests, dune-backed beach, 1950s kitsch (stick-of-rock-coloured beach huts and a pier with a “Whack a Banker” game) and decent flat whites (go to artisan bread and coffee shop Two Magpies).
Aldeburgh, meanwhile – celebrating the centenary of its most famous inhabitant, Benjamin Britten – is the area’s cultural centre, with constant festivals and a steel shell sculpture by Maggi Hambling on the beach.
Aldeburgh also has a Martello tower owned by the Landmark Trust and available to rent (there are others in Dublin and Folkestone). However, unlike Martello Tower AA, it has the whole roof open to the elements, so watching for birds, sunsets and invading emperors in the rain could be a bit too historically authentic.
Martello Tower AA
Shingle Street, near Hollesley. Three nights, for up to 12, from £1,365. Book via Suffolk Secrets: 01502 722717; www.suffolk-secrets.co.uk
Shingle Street is 13 miles east of Ipswich (trains from London Liverpool Street take 67 minutes)
Hot holidays: The Valais in summer
The Swiss canton of Valais has many of the world’s top ski resorts, but it’s also wonderful in summer. Prices fall and the pace of life slows, but many of the cable cars stay open to allow easy hiking and high-altitude picnics. Hidden Dragon, a five-star chalet for 12 in Veysonnaz with chef, butler, cinema and spa, costs £15,970 per week, compared with £48,600 in winter.
The centre of Zermatt is a maze of footpaths winding between chalets. Many tourists come just to take photos, but a few of the chalets are available to rent. The Zermatterhof sleeps four and is sweet rather than spacious, built almost entirely of wood in the local style. It’s one of more than 3,000 holiday homes available through Swiss company Interhome. From £1,600 per week.
Hidden at the top of the Val d’Anniviers, the tiny village of Zinal is a perfect summer retreat. There is outstanding hiking (and free use of the cable cars) and stunning views of the “Imperial Crown”, the ring of 4,000m peaks which look down on the village. Sitting in a grassy meadow, Chalet Anna sleeps eight and has a big open-plan, light-filled living room. From £1,250 per week.
– Tom Robbins