To the Lighthouse

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They are taking the lighthouse down. It was really just a matter of time. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, and the two make for a powerful combination on this rapidly changing shoreline. The Orford lighthouse has stood here on the Suffolk coast since 1792, the 11th to stand on the same spot. All the previous lighthouses, mostly flimsy wooden structures, were lost to the sea; this one built by Lord Braybrooke of Audley End has lasted longer than any before it.

The ongoing demolition is simply a matter of being one step ahead of what will happen naturally as a result of longshore drift. Built as a very necessary warning for shipping and continually in service until its decommission in 2013, in more recent times the lighthouse has served as a bold territorial marker for this curious – and one-time secretive – strip of coastline. What it stands upon is not an island as it may seem but a spit – a long stretch of shingle, marsh and sand that sits between the estuary of the River Alde and the North Sea like a curving finger pointing south. Along with an expanse of pylons and weapon-testing ‘pagodas’, this red-and-white band structure has been an icon for the territory of Orford Ness, a place of Cold War secrets, sea-scraped shingle, wildlife and, in recent years, National Trust day trippers. Because of its dark history and evocative, lonely location, the Ness has also seen service as an unsanctioned psychogeographical theme park, a go-to liminal zone for enraptured lone males and Sebaldian shore-shufflers (myself included).

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While we are all losing a lighthouse, I am losing a gravatar for my blog and twitter feed. I suppose I ought to replace it with something new but I will keep it for a while as a tribute to the lighthouse’s ghosted memory. As for the lighthouse itself, it is hoped that the lantern will be reused to form part of a memorial structure on land across from the Ness on Orford Quay.

Not for the first time have iconic buildings world vanished overnight. The lighthouse’s destruction is, at least, planned and been a long time coming. Other well known places I have visited have met more violent ends – vicious executions rather than gentle euthanasia. I refer to some of these in a post on Palmyra from five years ago. Syria seems like a dream now; something I might have imagined. The reality is that the country I experienced as a welcoming place nearly twenty years ago has since become a land of nightmares.

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Going further back in time, it feels equally strange to recall having once spent several days in a hotel that overlooked the enormous sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. This was back in the halcyon days when the country was a way-station on the so-called Hippie Trail to India, long before the Taliban decided to blow the Buddhas up as blasphemous objects of idol worship (even then, the statues’ faces had already been disfigured by angry iconoclasts).

To continue a tally of Zelig-like appearances at places associated with doomed futures, I might also mention a visit to the World Trade Centre in New York on my first visit to the city in 1986 – of having once stood in a small room at the very top of the structure, a space that now existed as just a cube of empty sky above a disaster zone. Or a visit to a place that languished in a void between destruction and repair: Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still a broken city when I visited in 2003, the absence of its beautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge hanging like a question mark above the rubble-filled turquoise of the River Neretva. The bridge was faithfully rebuilt with foreign investment and reopened in 2004. As beautiful as before but somehow sad and perhaps even futile, the reconstruction was a gesture of hope more than anything else — the Muslim east and Croat west banks of the river would remain as places apart in terms of religion, culture and political allegiance.

Less exotically, I also recall the cooling towers that used to stand next to the M1 in Tinsley, Sheffield – twin behemoths that could be seen from the windows of the school where I did my first teaching practice in the city. The towers, devoid of function since 1980, possessed a grace and heft that seemed to perfectly symbolise Sheffield’s industrial past (as did the abandoned steelworks of the Don Valley, which were eventually cleared to provide the land for the inevitable – a massive shopping complex, Meadowhall). Like the Orford lighthouse, and also the equally iconic cooling towers that stood at Ironbridge until last year, the Sheffield towers were finally expunged from the landscape. It took just seven seconds to reduce the 76 metre towers to rubble. For now, like the Orford lighthouse, they remain as a memory, a ghost of landscape that will fade with time.

Blyth Spirit

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Back in April I took part in a writing workshop in Suffolk led by Ivor Murrell of Suffolk Poetry Society and Melinda Appleby of Waveney & Blyth Arts. The workshop encouraged the participants to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds and smells of the Blyth estuary and to reflect something of the history and nature of the area. The following is what I came up with on the day.

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Blyth Spirit

We followed the estuary path beneath spindly oaks in first flush leaf, the reedbeds rippling in a southerly breeze. Across the water, white-faced cattle grazed on the sloping pasture: a pastoral diorama framed by willows with the Southwold skyline beyond – church, lighthouse, a scaffolded water tower. This once was a place more connected to the sea, to fishing and trade; the town’s lighthouse, no mere curiosity but earning its keep as a warning to shipping. This was before the great silting and scouring of the coast, when Dunwich was a name on every seafarer’s lips and Suffolk was still holy – Selig Suffolk; before the great land grabs of enclosure and dust storm robbery of the sheep walks, before hangings and suicides cursed the brackish waters of the Blyth.

Now only the names on the map gave the clue: Deadman’s Creek, Bloody Marsh. And Angel Marshes – did this expanse of reed and tidal water take its name from the wooden figures that graced the roof of Holy Trinity Church, angels that you might just imagine taking flight at dusk to quarter the marshes crepuscular as owls? A chance to flex stiff wings and dust themselves of woodworm and Puritan shot; a flight to taste the brine of the incoming tide before following the creek back to settle like beautiful bats in their resting place in the rafters. Did anyone see them, even catch a glimpse? Or did they steal between the cracks of the day, visible only to curlew and estuary ghosts?

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Three estuary haiku

Through slats of pale wood

Green spears of reed thrust skywards

To taunt passing clouds

Mud oozes over reed

In the shade of green-gold oak

A memory lives

Reeds scratch like tinsel

Piping redshanks stitch the air

A dull groan of cars

 

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The Minster in The Saints

IMG_4925The Saints is a small, loosely defined area of northeast Suffolk just south of the River Waveney and the Norfolk border. Effectively it is a fairly unremarkable patch of arable countryside that contains within it a baker’s dozen of small villages with names that begin or end with the name of the parish saint:  St Peter South Elmham, St Michael South Elmham, St Nicholas South Elmham, St James South Elmham, St Margaret South Elmham, St Mary South Elmham, St Cross South Elmham, All Saints South Elmham, Ilketshall St Andrew, Ilketshall St Lawrence, Ilketshall St Margaret, Ilketshall St John and All Saints Mettingham. The area is bisected in its eastern fringe by the Bungay—Halesworth road that follows the course of Stone Street, a die-straight Roman construction, one of several that can still be traced on any road map of East Anglia. On the whole though the roads around here are anything but Roman in character: narrow, twisting, often bewilderingly changing direction, and marked with confusing signs (too many saints!), it is a good place to visit should you wish to humiliate your Sat Nav. John Seymour in The Companion Guide to East Anglia (1968) describes The Saints as ‘a hillbilly land into which nobody penetrates unless he has good business,’ which is perhaps hyperbolic but there is undoubtedly a feel of  liminality to the area that persists to this day. IMG_4891The village names conjure a medieval world where saint-obsessed religion loomed large. Such a tight cluster of settlements suggests a concentration of population where parishes might eventually combine to form a town or city – with 13 villages and the same number of churches (eleven of which are extant), there were more churches here than in all of Cambridge. But The Saints never coalesced to become a medieval city – none of the villages had a port, defensive structure or even significant market to its credit and consequently the area would slowly slip into obscurity as the medieval era played out and other East Anglia towns and cities – Cambridge, Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and, of course, Norwich – took the baton of influence and power. IMG_4903It was not always so: one of the villages in particular held great significance in its day. The land covered by the South Elmham parishes was once owned by Almar, Bishop of East Anglia and the late Saxon Bishops of Norwich had a summer palace here at St Cross, now South Elmham Hall. The most intriguing of the churches lies within the same parish. It is not in any way complete but a ruin framed by woodland a good half mile from the nearest road. South Elmham Minster, although probably never a minster proper, is veiled in mystery regarding its origins but its appeal owes as much to its half-hidden location as it does to its obscure history.  South Elmham may have once been the seat of the second East Anglian bishopric (the first was in Dunwich, the sea-ravaged village on the Suffolk coast), although North Elmham in Norfolk seems a more likely contender. Whatever the ruin’s original function – a private chapel for Herbert de Losinga, Norwich’s first bishop, is another possibility, or it may even be that a second bishopric was founded here – the church in the wood just south of South Elmham Hall dates back at least to the 11th century. It is probably older in origin – a ninth-century gravestone has been unearthed in its foundations. The site itself is undoubtedly of greater antiquity: a continuation of an earlier Anglo-Saxon presence that occupied the same moated site, which, earlier still, was home to a Roman temple and perhaps, even earlier, a pagan holy place. IMG_4918We leave the car in a muddy parking area alongside another vehicle and a dumped piece of agricultural machinery. Nearby stands a weather-beaten trestle table that suggests that this once might have served as a designated picnic spot. Now half-submerged in grass and thistles, the table did not look as if any sandwich boxes had been opened on it for some time. Things have changed here a little in recent years: the permissive footpaths that once threaded through the South Elmham estate are no longer available for the public, and the hall itself has been re-purposed for use as a wedding and conference venue. At least the minster was still accessible by means of a green lane and a public footpath across fields. IMG_4930The green lane is flanked by mature hedges frothed white with blackthorn blossom. Reaching its bottom end we turn left to follow a footpath alongside a stream, a minor tributary of the River Waveney; strange hollowed-out hornbeams measure out its bank. Soon we come to the copse that contains the ruin, a rusty gate gives admission across a partial moat and raised bank into what can only be described as a woodland glade. The ancient flint walls of the church stand central, striated by the shadow of hornbeams still leafless in late March. There is no sign of a roof but the weathered walls of the nave are clear in outline, as is the single entrance to the west. On the ground, last year’s fallen leaves provide a soft bronze carpet that is mostly devoid of ground plants. IMG_4920Church or not, there is a timelessness to this place in the woods. And a strong sense of genius loci, the sort of thing that put the wind up the Romans with their straight lines and four-square militaristic outlook. I wander off to explore the bank to the west and discover the opening of a badger sett that looks to be newly excavated. Without much expectation, I rummage though the spoil musing that there might just be the remotest of chances that, burrowing deep beneath the mound, the animals have thrown up some treasure long buried in the soil below: an Anglo-Saxon torc, a Roman coin perhaps? I would even settle for a rusty button, but nothing. No matter, the mystery of the place is enough for now. We leave the bosky comfort of the site and retrace our steps along the beck and green lane back to the car. The other car has gone – we never did see its occupants. IMG_4933IMG_4951IMG_4945

Lammas Day, Suffolk Coast

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Lammas Day – the first day of August. School holidays, warm weather, beach visits, perhaps a swim in the sea? Or, on a windy cloudy day, a walk; a beach walk. At low to mid tide it is possible to follow the beach all the way between Lowestoft and Southwold on the north Suffolk coast without ever venturing inland. The coast along this stretch of the North Sea foreshore is a mixture of sand and shingle, with low cliffs and the occasional freshwater broad lying perilously close to the ever advancing tide. At odds with the gentle agricultural landscape of the hinterland the coast here is an uncompromising full stop in the landscape: a sudden transition from land to sea. Far to the east, beyond the horizon, are the European Low Countries that were once so closely tied, economically, and culturally, to this region. Lowland – sea bed – low land: the North Sea (WG Sebald’s ‘German Ocean’ in The Rings of Saturn) is but a watery interruption in the flow of things, both a barrier and a conduit for the movement of humans and goods. IMG_1716I set out from Kessingland, just south of Lowestoft, where a large expanse of dunes and shingle separates the sea from the holiday homes and caravans that line the low clifftop like racing cars at a starting grid preparing to rush towards the sea. Truth be told, there is little in the way to stop them. It may be August but even now the beach is relatively quiet – just a few families and dog-walkers clambering over the dunes to reach the sea, which today is grey, grumpy and not particularly welcoming. The Kessingland littoral is distinguished by its specialist salt-tolerant flora: sea holly, sea pea, sea campion, sea beet – in fact, place a ‘sea’ in front of any common plant name and there is a good chance that such a species will exist and flourish here. Also rooted into the shingle, thriving on little more than sunshine and salt spray, are clumps of yellow-horned poppies with long twisting seed pods. The poppies are mostly past their flowering peak but elsewhere, where there is a thin veneer of soil to root into, colour is provided by stands of rosebay willow herb – a rich purple layer of distraction between the straw-hued shingle and the cloud-heavy sky, both washed of colour in the flat coastal light. IMG_1718Further south, the cliffs grow a little higher. Ferrous red and as soft and powdery as halva, they are irredeemably at the mercy of the North Sea tide. And it shows: the cliffs are raw and freshly cleaved, with collapsed chunks that have been further eroded by the incoming tide such that they appear to seep from the cliff bases like congealed gravy.  Man-made objects receive no preferential treatment – a collapsed WWII concrete defence bunker slopes between cliff and sand at one point, its long process of total disintegration still in its infancy as its perches ignominiously at 45 degrees, an involuntary buttress for the flaking cliffs.IMG_1744

The cliffs may be ephemeral geomorphology, constantly pushed back by the eroding tide, but they possess enough permanence for colonies of sand martins to pit them with nesting burrows high up the cliff face. The birds swoop and chatter in high-pitched whispers as they gather flies above the shingle, flying in and out their nest holes faster than the eye can bring itself into focus. IMG_1802

Further along, a red-brick building lies in an even more advanced state of breakdown. Dead trees, devoid of bark and bleached pale by saltwater protrude from the sand. Some stand roots-proud with their upper trunks planted in the sand as if drawing nutrition from deep underground. Others are inverted stumps that appear to channel the centrepiece of north Norfolk’s sacred Seahenge, upturned roots on display like rustic altars.IMG_1768

IMG_1783The tide is still going out, revealing new treasures on the wet smooth sand. Footprints ahead of me heading south look like my own but, of course, they are not – I have not been there yet. The unidentified boot-print doppelganger must be far ahead of me. One of the imprints has narrowly missed a solitary beached jellyfish, red-veined and otherworldly. Soon I notice more jellyfish on the tideline: unveined, translucent specimens that stare up from the sand like the detached iris of a giant’s eye.IMG_1770

Approaching Southwold, the pier stretching out to sea becomes clearer in detail. The town’s white lighthouse flashes in warning. Beyond the resort, a few miles further south, the gargantuan golf ball of Sizewell B glows uncannily white. Halfway between sea and cliff on the freshly revealing sand are miscellaneous concrete blocks, remains of footings, moorings, buildings. Some of these have been almost completely submerged by sand to leave a line of tiny pyramids like the vertebra of a buried dragon. Frame the scene carefully and squint and this might be an aerial view over the Egyptian desert. The lack of a viable sphinx and presence of a battered clifftop caravan soon disabuses such fantastical musing.IMG_1810

Southwold arrives – or, rather, I arrive there – the beach approach heralded by groynes and breakwaters. Then comes the first phalanx of the town’s famously expensive beach huts, a sink estate for solvent holiday makers who have succumbed to the Southwold equivalent of shed-envy. The huts trace a line along the seafront past the pier where a Punch and Judy show is underway, delighting a crowd of children and adults with good old-fashioned, non-PC entertainment that glosses over domestic violence and police brutality. “That’s the way to do it,” swazzles Mr Punch before exclaiming, “Lookout children, the Devil’s going to come and get you.” The Devil was, in fact, coming for Mr Punch yet is outwitted by the trickster anyway in the show’s denouement. Light entertainment, yet such darkness – the seaside has always taken liberties with propriety.

For more on this stretch of coast see my earlier post: At Covehithe

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At Covehithe

IMG_1981The day before the autumn equinox: the setting, the beach at Covehithe. We have gathered here at the north Suffolk coast to walk and talk. A literary walk to celebrate W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, no less, organised as part of the Waveney & Blyth Arts festival. The weather – hazy grey skies, mist, light drizzle – is suitably Sebaldian.

Proceedings begin at Covehithe’s St Andrew’s Church – itself a curiosity, a church within a church –the large medieval shell of the original church sheltering the tiny 17th-century thatched-roofed replacement that was built when the former became too expensive for villagers to maintain. The fine 15th-century tower abuts the later build, dwarfing almost mockingly its dinky proportions. Before taking a pew to hear an introduction by UEA lecturers Jo Catling and Barbara Marshall, who both knew and worked with W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald, some of us examine the font, recycled from the earlier church, which has stylised lions and hairy human-like figures that have had their heads chiselled off. Headless or not, these strange decapitated figures are recognisable as representations of the woodwose (wild man), a creature that belongs to the same fabulist stable as the Green Man, the crude anti-masonry no doubt the handiwork of William Dowsing’s men as it was these same arch-puritans who did for the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the original church.

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We drift down to the beach by way of Covehithe Broad – the direct road from Covehithe is closed and fenced-off these days thanks to the coastal erosion that constantly depletes this shoreline. The broad’s brackish water is alive with Canada geese that honk plaintively, their voices coming through the mist even before we can see them. The geese take off sporadically in small groups to circuit and survey the parish before returning to the watery comfort of the broad. At the shore, the tide is out and the beach is deserted but for the presence of a distant dog-walker and our own gaggle of muse-seeking Sebaldians. To the north, the curve of the coast at Benacre Ness near Kessingland can just about be discerned. Southwold lies to the south: a distinctive profile that stretches from sea to land – first pier, then low town roofs and blinking lighthouse before a water tower marks the point where the town ends and the Sandlings and marshes begin.

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We walk north along the beach in small amorphous groups exchanging thoughts on Sebald’s gloomy oeuvre. The cliffs of Covehithe feature in The Rings of Saturn, albeit briefly, which is of course why this was chosen as a suitable territory for the walk. It was here that the author stood on the cliffs and gazed out on the leaden-coloured water of what he describes as the German Ocean (a rather archaic term for the North Sea that went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century but chosen by Sebald for his own, anything but nationalistic, reasons). As he lowered his gaze to the beach below he inadvertently spied a couple making love and noted that “it seemed that the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. Overcome with panic at the sight of this “many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species” he left to walk to Southwold.

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Thankfully, no such sexual shenanigans affronted us on Saturday. In fact, the only other living thing on the beach other than a desultory parliament of herring gulls was a lone figure scrutinising the foreshore for Paleolithic flint hand tools that we were assured sometimes turn up here. The walk’s turning point was probably somewhere in the shadow of Covehithe church, although we could not see its landmark tower from our position on the sand beneath the cliff. Having examined some of the evocative bleached tree stumps that decorate the beach here like Arts Council sculptures, looked at the ever-receding cliffs with their abandoned sand martin burrows and observed a solitary craft out to sea just as Sebald had done, we turned to face south. With Southwold’s low skyline now silhouetted on the brightening horizon we placed the North Sea/German Ocean to our left as we ruminated and slowly ambled our way back to Covehithe’s church within a church. In half a century or so, this may well be gone, a victim of the ferocious erosion that defines this coastline. Covehithe and its church will have vanished forever, living on only in memory and books – a place of legend.

Mildred Holland’s Seven-year Task

IMG_3824Mildred Holland was an unusual and determined woman. Not content with  being merely the new rector’s wife at St Mary’s, the parish church at Huntingfield in northeast Suffolk, Mildred took it on herself to singlehandedly repaint the ceiling of the church’s hammerbeam roof. This enormous labour took seven whole years between 1859 and 1866, a period in which spent she much of her time on her back atop scaffolding wielding a paint brush. First she painted the chancel, then the nave. A novice to church painting, Mildred was given some advice by E L Blackburne FSA, an expert on medieval decoration, but other than this and the help she received from workmen erecting the scaffolding she had no assistance whatsoever. Naturally, such arduous toil took its toll and Mildred died in 1878, a relatively young woman, not so many years after completing her task.

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There may be those who will find the roof decoration here far too bright for their taste –  the colours are brilliant and vibrant, the overall affect almost psychedelic. But if you have  a plentiful supply of pound coins  – there is a cash-hungry slot for inserting coins to supply short-lived electrical illumination – you can see for yourself the sort of church decoration that might have held illiterate medieval peasants in awe. True, Mildred’s work was a Victorian makeover but it was probably quite faithful to the original paint job – the bling of medieval church decoration was often far more garish than many of us imagine it to be.

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To find the church you must first venture down winding narrow lanes southeast of Halesworth in Suffolk, a modest adventure in its own right. There is a monument to Mildred and her husband in the churchyard close to the gate. The dedicated font cover, a sort of internal church steeple, is rather impressive too.

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St Mary’s, Huntingfield and the story of Mildred Holland makes an appearance in my new book Slow Travel Suffolk, a companion volume to the recently published Slow Travel Norfolk, although the book is by no means solely about churches, medieval decoration or single-minded determined women.

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Orford Ness

Walking, whether rambling or hiking in the countryside, or the unplanned urban exploration of a would-be flâneur’s dérive – call it what you will – seems to be the hippest new literary genre. Often found cosily in tandem with what can only be described as ‘the new nature writing’, the genre undoubtedly has its stars. High in that firmament is Robert Macfarlane.

Almost everywhere you look in the literate media these days, Macfarlane’s name seems to crop up. As well it might, as his new book The Old Ways has instantly and deservedly become a best seller. Having already been lauded in features in the Guardian and suchlike, The Big Issue has this week also seized the opportunity to echo the zeitgeist and published a feature on Macfarlane taking a walk in the company of fellow writer and bipedalism enthusiast, the sardonic (and sesquipedalian) pavement-plodder Will Self.  The desired result: an interesting combination of styles and focii in which rural meets urban, wild nature confronts man-tamed landscape, and literary topography melds with psychogeography.  Given such a brief, it seems almost odd that the Psychogeographer General, Iain Sinclair, landscape ombudsman extraordinaire, wasn’t invited along for the stroll. There again, three is a crowd, and Sinclair was no doubt already busy enough with the Sisyphean task of hurling word-bombs of withering allusive prose at the perimeter fence of the Stratford 2012 Olympics site.

The Big Issue walk – delightfully, if almost predictably – took place along the crumbling Suffolk coast, the mysterious region between Bawdsey and Orford Ness, a coastline rich with legend and secret histories: a luminous landscape of shingle, rare birds and nuclear power stations where the mud itself murmurs of UFO sightings, secret weapons testing, silted estuaries, lost ports and sea-claimed monasteries – the most distinctly ‘Here be Dragons’ patch on the East Anglian map. Pleasingly, the Will and Rob walk also took in some of the territory I have described in my own humble walking guide to the Suffolk coast: Suffolk Coast and Heaths: Three Long-distance Walks in the AONB, available from all good book shops and even a few bad ones.

The Macfarlane-Self walk concluded at the lighthouse on Orford Ness, the mysterious island-like shingle spit that stretches south from Aldeburgh. Orford Ness is bypassed by the Suffolk Coast Path but it does feature in Slow Norfolk and Suffolk, another book of mine that hurrahs the Suffolk coastline. Here’s a brief extract:

If you are not at Orford Quay for sailing, your eyes will no doubt be drawn across the water to Orford Ness, which exudes an air of mystery typical of places associated with forbidden territory. From 1913 to the mid 1980s, the spit was firmly closed to the public, a top secret, no-go area dedicated to military testing and radar research. The links with its secret past are part of its appeal; otherwise, it’s undeniable that Orford Ness is quite a remarkable bit of geography.

Though hardly pretty, this long shingle spit is undoubtedly evocative. Signs warn about unexploded ordinance, and everywhere you’ll see tangles of tortured metal and wire netting among the teasels in the shingle. Overall, it’s a rather melancholy landscape and you might begin to wonder if Orford Ness should actually be ‘orfordness’, a state of mind, rather than the name of a wayward landform.

Seen from Orford Quay, Orford Ness has the appearance of being an island, and the ferry trip across the River Ore simply adds to this impression, but it’s not – it’s actually a long sand spit that begins just south of Aldeburgh and gradually widens as it follows the coast south. It is the largest shingle spit in England (nearly ten miles long) and it is only when you disembark at the jetty that you can really appreciate the scale of the place. The National Trust has a number of recommended way-marked routes to follow but the reality is that you won’t see much unless you are prepared to walk some distance. Concrete roads lead around the spit and you have to trudge along these some way before you get to see anything of much interest. Bicycles are not permitted.

 

And yes, that is the Orford lighthouse on the East of Elveden gravatar

Suffolk Coast Walks 2

Just to update the previous post – Nick Marsh, countryside officer at Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB, went on BBC Radio Suffolk a couple of days ago to talk about my new Cicerone guide and the walking potential that the Suffolk coastal region offers. You can listen again here (fast-forward to around 2:37). It is available online until March 5.

Suffolk Coast Walks

If I might be allowed a little shameless self-publicity, my new book Suffolk Coast and Heaths Walks: Three Long-distance Routes in the AONB is published today by Cicerone. A bit of a  mouthful, I know – let’s just call it ‘Suffolk Coast Walks’ for the sake of brevity.

The book gives a detailed account of all three long-distance trails within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). All three routes make for excellent walking, either in their entirety or as selected day stages.

OS map extracts for the various stages are included and the book also has considerable background information outlining the history, geography and wildlife of this attractive region.

It is lavishly illustrated too, with photographs taken by yours truly (the cover shows the River Blyth at Southwold).

For a look inside the book, a sample chapter and downloadable PDF file you can visit the Cicerone website here. It is also on Amazon.co.uk here.

Here’s a brief sample from the introduction and a few images from the book.

Introduction

The sky seems enormous here, especially on a bright early summer’s day, and the sea beyond the shingle almost endless. Apart from the gleeful cries of children playing on the beach, the aural landscape is one of soughing waves and the gentle scrape of stones, a few mewing gulls and the piping of oystercatchers. Less than a mile inland, both scenery and soundscape are markedly different – vast expanses of heather, warbling blackcaps in the bushes, and a skylark clattering on high; the warm air is redolent with the almond scent of yellow gorse that seems to be everywhere. This is the Suffolk coast, and it seems hard to imagine that somewhere quite so tranquil is just a couple of hours’ drive away from London.

The big skies, clean air and wide open scenery of the Suffolk coast has long attracted visitors – holiday makers certainly, but also writers, artists and musicians. The Suffolk coast’s association with the creative arts is longstanding, and its attraction is immediately obvious – close enough to the urban centres of southern England for a relatively easy commute, yet with sufficient unspoiled backwater charm for creativity to flourish.

It is not hard to see the appeal – east of the A12, the trunk road that more or less carves off this section of the East Anglian coast, there is a distinct impression that many of the excesses of modern life have passed the region by. The small towns and villages that punctuate the coastline and immediate hinterland are by and large quiet, unspoiled places that, while developed as low-key resorts in recent years, still reflect the maritime heritage for which this coast was famous before coastal erosion took its toll.

The county of Suffolk lies at the heart of East Anglia, in eastern England, sandwiched between the counties of Norfolk to the north, Essex to the south and Cambridgeshire to the west. The county town is Ipswich, by far the biggest urban centre in the county, while other important centres include Bury St Edmunds to the west and Lowestoft to the north. Much of the county is dominated by agriculture, especially arable farming, but the coastal region featured in this book has a wider diversity of scenery – with reedbeds, heath, saltmarsh, shingle beaches, estuaries and even cliffs all contributing to the variety. There is also woodland, both remnants of ancient deciduous forests and large modern plantations. Such a variety of landscapes means a wealth of wildlife habitat, and so it is little wonder that the area is home to many scarce species of bird, plant and insect.

This region can be broadly divided into three types of landscape – coast, estuary and heathland, or Sandlings as they are locally known – and the three long-distance walks described in this guide are each focused on one of these landscape types.  All three have plenty to offer visitors in terms of scenery, wildlife and historic interest, and the footpaths, bridleways and quiet lanes found here make for excellent walking.

Almost all of the walks featured here fall within the boundaries of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which stretches south from Kessingland in the north of the county to the Stour estuary in the south. The whole area – both coast and heaths – is now one of 47 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, having received AONB status in 1970, a designation that recognises, and protects, the area’s unique landscape.

Elveden – Gateway to the Land of Nod

So why Elveden? And why east of it? Obviously there’s the name itself – E(lve)den, close enough to Eden for a cheesy pun – and let us remember that in Biblical terms the territory that lies ‘on the east’ of Eden is the Land of Nod, where Cain was exiled after murdering his brother. Of course, as well as a place of banishment for betraying siblings the Land of Nod also has connotations as a mythical place of sleep. Given Elveden’s real life position at the western end of the Suffolk-Norfolk border perhaps one of the Snorings (Little Snoring or Great Snoring – take your pick) forty miles or so to the north in West Norfolk could substitute for the aforementioned slumberland? (A real-life Land of Nod actually does exist in the East Riding of Yorkshire – it’s a tiny hamlet apparently).

Elveden itself is not without interest. The Suffolk village straddles the A11 just south of Thetford. There are traffic lights there these days and it has subsequently become quite a well known spot for traffic delays. In the bad old days, though – before the traffic lights and imposed speed limit – the stretch of single carriageway here was an infamous accident black spot. Norfolk-knockers like that nice Jeremy Clarkson have always been quick to point out that Norfolk is one of the few counties in the country that does not have a motorway leading to it and for many years there has been a strong campaign to get the whole of the A11 dual-carriagewayed right up to Norwich. As things currently stand, the A11 between Mildenhall and Thetford is one of the few remaining stretches of single carriageway. However, now that the powers that be have finally agreed to allow road widening to go ahead around Elveden, it looks as if a continuous dual carriageway will become a reality in the near future. No doubt the five minutes that will be knocked off the current London to Norfolk journey time will quickly elevate Norwich’s currently modest economy to Shanghai-like heights.

Those whizzing past the village in the future might want to consider a little of Elveden’s, frankly strange, history as it flashes past in an automotive blur. Here’s a brief extract from my Slow Norfolk and Suffolk book:

Elveden

Situated astride a busy road just beyond the Little Ouse in Suffolk, to most people this is little more a sign on the A11 and an inconvenient bottleneck for traffic. It used to be an accident black spot too before traffic-calming measures were introduced. Some will tell you that there have been more people killed on the A11 since World War II than there are names on the obelisk-like war memorial south of the village. Elveden is a small estate village centred upon Elveden Hall, a somewhat bizarre private residence. The estate, which has the largest arable farm in the country, is in the possession of the Earl of Iveagh but the hall itself was emptied of its contents in 1984 and stands empty.                                                   

Elveden Hall is best known as the home of Maharajah Duleep Singh, a deposed Sikh prince from the Punjab who was exiled to England for his part in the Sikh Wars during Queen Victoria’s reign. The Maharajah purchased the estate in 1863 and refurbished the Georgian hall in lavish Moghul style using Italian craftsmen – a North Indian tradition apparently. He also built an aviary where he kept exotic birds and in an unselfconscious effort to outdo the English squirearchy he took up the habits of English country life with a passion, leading parties that shot thousands of pheasants on his estate on an almost daily basis. Naturally, if you have a 17,000-acre estate and a vast private fortune, you can do that sort of thing without worrying too much about the cost of it all. The Maharajah was always keen to impress the inhabitants of his adopted home and tended not to do things by halves. He was even good enough to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to QueenVictoria and to cheerfully convert to the Anglican Church such was his willingness to fit in. An equestrian statue of the Maharajah stands in Thetford and, although he died in Paris in 1893, his surprisingly modest grave lies in the churchyard of Elveden’s St Andrew and St Patrick Church.

Elveden Hall passed into the hands of the Guinness family after Duleep Singh’s death and the first Earl of Iveagh went even further, building a new wing and adding a replica Taj Mahal to the complex. If the hall sounds as if it it would make a perfect film set then you are quite right as, since its interior was emptied in 1984, Elveden Hall has been used as a location for films such as Tomb Raider, the Bond movie The Living Daylights and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. The bad news is that the hall is not open to the public. You might try getting a job as a film extra here, as a friend of mine did on Eyes Wide Shut. He reports that he didn’t see much of the interior but did learn that Tom Cruise was unable to find any suitable accommodation in the area and had to be helicoptered in each day from afar for filming. You can just about get a glimpse of the hall from the rear of the village churchyard and make out its green dome.

NB: The photograph at the top of this post does not represent Elveden. It was taken east of it though – at Brockdish in the Waveney Valley. I just liked its ‘fish out of water’ feel.