Fifty miles of beauty

How many admirers of coastal Suffolk, I wonder, have walked the full length of its shores? And of those who haven’t, how many would know and love it still more if they did?

To walk these fifty miles with my dad when I was ten was a great education.  With him he brought the homework he’d done at each stage of our trek.  Local knowledge we tapped helped us understand what we saw.  And as well as seeing it, I heard, smelt and felt it all for myself.

A natural treasure

The Suffolk coast is well known for its shingle beaches and the long shingle spit of Orford Ness, the product of longshore drift. But it has fine sandy bays too, particularly in the north, and the coastal path is not all by the sea: river estuaries force it past marshes inland, and the Sandlings take it through forests and heaths.

These varied surroundings are home to a wealth of wildlife. The estuaries’ reedbeds are important freshwater breeding grounds for bearded tit, marsh harrier and bittern, while tidal mudflats provide food for huge numbers of waders and wildfowl. 

As I was told at RSPB Minsmere, Nature is an enormous family, and wherever birds thrive there will be insects they eat, plants which support them, and mammals that share their surroundings. Otter and water vole have seen a revival, and sightings of seal are common. Deer on Westleton Heath, part of the Minsmere reserve, form one of the largest wild herds south of Scotland. Given the better climate and nutrition, it includes some of the biggest and healthiest stags in the country, and an RSPB safari to see them is a memorable experience.

To walk the length of this coast is not just to enjoy a natural treasure. It is to witness how dynamic Nature can be. Seldom is the power of the sea so stark as at Benacre, where uprooted trees lie below cliffs on which they once stood. Elsewhere erosion may seem less dramatic, but bit by bit clifftops edge towards homes, and freshwater sites are exposed to the sea.  

Coastal erosion at Benacre

The sight of these upheavals highlights the challenge of managing the shoreside environment. In several places along the coast, environmental bodies have been supervising a managed retreat from progressive flooding, working with Nature rather than against it. In some cases this has involved establishing new freshwater reedbeds to which wildlife can move. In areas vulnerable to erosion, decisions have had to be made to prioritise defence resources in key areas, whilst in others leaving Nature to take its course. But though much of the coast is ever-changing, it remains a realm of perennial beauty.

A cultural heritage

In the ears of a musician, the melodies and rhythms of Nature are a constant soundtrack to any journey along this coast, and it’s small wonder that they feature so much in the work of Suffolk’s great composer, Benjamin Britten.

Under the Music tab I’ve said a few words about music in Suffolk, and the venues where concerts are held, including some of its fabulous churches. Here’s an extract from Fifty Miles with my Dad, as Dad and I were nearing the halfway mark on our walk in 2009:

We continued on the road into town by Aldeburgh Church. In December I’d be singing there with the school choir, performing Herbert Chappell’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in an ensemble with the Britten-Pears Choir. A recce would give a feel for what lay in store.

Dad’s homework came out of his pocket: a printout from one of his favourite websites, Simon’s Suffolk Churches. There were at least six hundred and ninety of them. Most were medieval, many built with wealth from the weaving and wool trades.

Some, like St Bartholomew’s in Orford, were huge, with towers that dominated all around them, and had provided beacons for sailors and airmen. Others were not so big, but still drew the eye from afar, Iken being an outstanding example. Some were small, but were notable for other reasons, like remote round-tower ones. More than once on our trek I’d be reminded, verbally or visually, how lucky we were to be blessed with this architectural heritage – one that inspired an enthusiast, Simon Knott, to tour East Anglia with a bike and camera, and describe it all on a website.

So Dad now had the details of St Peter and St Paul’s, which according to Simon was ‘a fine municipal Anglican parish church.’

Two months later I returned to sing those pieces with the composer in the audience, an exciting experience which helped make Aldeburgh one of my favourite churches.

Singing in the Abbey Choir with the Britten-Pears Choir
in a performance of Herbert Chappell’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis,
Aldeburgh Church, December 2009

It was a joy to return to a warm welcome in 2015, on a tour of the county with the Rugby School choir.

Singing with Natalie Houlston and the Rugby School Choir in Aldeburgh Church, October 2015

Another favourite on our walk was St Andrew’s, Covehithe. This ‘church within a church’ would provide the title for one of the chapters in Fifty Miles.

St Andrew’s Church, Covehithe. The thatch-roofed nave, inside the shell of the medieval structure, was built in 1672.

More churches have since been added to Simon’s Suffolk Churches, which now lists over 700.

A stirring history

The county’s architectural heritage is not confined to its places of worship, and many buildings by the coast are monuments to a stirring history. Museums tell the story of its ever-changing shores, reminding us that in Roman times they were a mile further out; that Dunwich in the Middle Ages was a major town and seaport; and that the village of Slaughden – once a proud shipbuilding centre on the south side of Aldeburgh – was denied even a graveyard when swept away by the waves.

Dunwich Museum, October 2009

Beside its wars with the sea, Suffolk has faced a full share of military threats. The Plantaganet castle at Orford is considered one of the best-preserved keeps in the country; and dotted between Martello towers are many defences from the world wars of the last century. Passing them on foot helped me appreciate what a blessing it is to enjoy their surroundings in peace.

Looking back to Shingle Street from a WWII pillbox at Boyton Marshes. The questions it prompted, just after the picture was taken, led to a conversation I’ll never forget.

Fifty Miles with my Dad, published by Sarnia House in April 2020, is available in bookshops (subject to coronavirus), with net proceeds in aid of the ‘Fifty Miles with my Dad’ Fund at Suffolk Community Foundation.*

*The ‘Fifty Miles with my Dad’ Fund is an endowment managed by Suffolk Community Foundation and established in 2009 by the fundraising walk described in the book of the same name. Grants are made from the income to charities and community groups supporting those with disability, the infirm and the vulnerable.