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

Crossing the Bridge

A little south of Ipswich, the vast concrete span of the Orwell Bridge stretches across the eponymous river like a conveyor belt to Hades. Well not Hades exactly, but the Port of Felixstowe. A constant rattling procession of lorries shunt to and fro the port, their drivers barely aware of the river they are crossing or the county town they are skirting by. The ciphers that identify their payloads have become household names — Maersk, China Shipping, Cosco – those magic metal boxes that contain the necessities of 21st-century life. Well-travelled, and more often than not coming from the Far East, the containers are the camels of the latter day Silk Road: a trade route, which, as any historian will tell you, was about a lot more than just silk.

The bridge might appear to be no place for pedestrians, but they are tolerated, and walkers intent on completing the Stour & Orwell Walk between Languard Point and Cattawade, and wishing to avoid the extra six or so miles of the alternative ‘Ipswich Loop’, are obliged to cross it on using the walkway on its southern side. The approach on foot from Orwell Country Park is intimidating – the noise, speed and volume of traffic all contributing to the inevitable feeling that this is an unnatural place for hikers to be setting foot. The 30-metre drop to the Black Ooze (yes, it really is called that) of the River Orwell below is held at bay by just a concrete ledge a little more than a metre high. This is certainly not comfortable strolling territory, nor a place to suddenly become aware of a hitherto undiscovered acrophobia.

Steps lead up sharply to the bridge walkway, past a Samaritans sign that bears a short but kind message and a phone number. Like steps to the gallows, the certainty that you are shadowing the last steps taken by some desperately unhappy souls is chilling. At the top is a free phone, proof that someone cares, although the lorries flying by seem wholly indifferent. The views along the Orwell estuary are pleasing – green fields, houses snuggled in woodland, little boats bobbing in silver water – but the constant thrum of the traffic, and a tangible sense of alienation, do not encourage lingering. The walk across takes around 15 minutes.

Bridges are powerful metaphors for the journeys of life, for transformation. The novelist Ian Banks wrote an entire novel – The Bridge, no less — using an enormous industrial super-complex of a bridge as the dream environment of his comatose crash victim protagonist. Religion and mythology make good use of the bridge as metaphor too and the crossing of a body of water — the River Jordan, River Styx — is ascribed a spiritual meaning. Most of the time though, our concerns are more mundane: if crossing the Orwell Bridge on foot is disturbing then it is because of its height and heavy traffic as much as its psycho-geographic imprint.

Elsewhere in the world, where health and safety concerns are not held as sacred as they are here in the West, dodgy-looking footbridges have been used daily for generations without much fuss. The one illustrated here is over the Hunza River in the far north of Pakistan. To be honest, it is a little nerve-wracking to traverse, especially when local villagers join you and the bridge sways nauseatingly above the rapid rock-filled glacial river beneath. More alarming still is to cross halfway only to discover a missing slat and the necessity of making a jump to the next complete one.

In contrast, this footbridge feels much safer; nurturing even. Perhaps it is its solid organic nature that reassures, and also the surprising realisation that it hardly sways at all? This remarkable feat of bio-engineering, which resembles something that Frodo might have encountered in The Lord of The Rings,  is one of many living root bridges found in the deep, rain-washed valleys of Meghalaya, northeast India. Fashioned from the living roots of fig (Ficus elastica) trees that grow alongside the region’s turbulent monsoon streams they take decades to build but last for centuries. You can read my article on them in Geographical magazine here.

Returning closer to home, to the Waveney Valley in fact, here is a short extract from Slow Norfolk & Suffolk that describes an encounter on the bridge across the Waveney at Mendham on the Suffolk/Norfolk border. Perhaps bridges do affect us psychologically more than we might credit?

This is classic Waveney Valley scenery — the sort of thing Munnings might have painted if he had not concentrated on horse fairs or attacking modernism quite so much. It’s the kind of landscape that brings reverie. The iron bridge crossing the Waveney seems like a giant staple attaching Norfolk to the Suffolk mainland. Brown cows wandering the meadows contentedly graze and flick flies away, keeping their eyes on a pair of locals fishing beneath the trees and catching nothing. As poplars rustle in the breeze, the very English sound of an accordion drifts down from the Munnings pub. It could almost be the 18th century, if it wasn’t from the fishermen’s car parked by the road. As I am taking all this in, a man who is clearly the worse for drink ambles down the road towards the bridge. He stumbles exactly halfway across, pauses for a moment, then goes back the way he has come. It is as if he is fearful to place his feet on Norfolk soil, or there is some sort of invisible barrier. Two minutes later, a sleek Jaguar arrives from the north to pick the man up. Then it turns around and ferries him back across the bridge… into Norfolk.