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.

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.

Walking the Edge

The latest issue of Geographical magazine has a feature by Alastair Humphreys on walking around London following a route as close to the M25 orbital as possible. The focus here – other than the testing of outdoor clothing and equipment – seems to be that of ‘micro-adventures’ in one’s local area: a worthy notion in this information-bloated age where, if truth be told, there are few exotic places left to explore. The adventurers of yore usually had an ulterior motive anyway – empire carving, resource procurement, trade – and so latter-day explorers, unsponsored by king and country (and usually publishers) and wishing to find something new, have to look instead at the finer detail, examine the way countries have changed, focus on the small print of ‘place’.

The writer Iain Sinclair has already written about the M25 at length in his book London Orbital where, instead of sleeping in a bivvy bag in green belt fields (and tweeting about it) as Humphreys has done, the author completed the circuit by way of day-long excursions from his Hackney home in the company of a handful of friends. Sinclair’s clockwise plod reveals a twilight zone where megalopolis begins to morph into leafy shires. Most revealingly, he identifies a ring of vanished mental hospitals and institutions that trace the course of the future motorway with uncanny accuracy. Like plague pits located beyond medieval city walls, it appears as if it was decided in Victorian times that illness – especially the mental kind – had to be kept at arm’s length and well beyond the city’s grasp lest it infect the metropolitan populace. The distance necessary for this physical and spiritual separation seems to coincide almost exactly with that of London’s orbital racetrack.

Turning to a more rural setting, here in East Anglia both Norfolk and Suffolk may be circumambulated (more or less – let us not quibble about precise boundaries) by following a series of long-distance footpaths. In Norfolk, begin with the Angles Way in Great Yarmouth, follow it along the Waveney Valley almost as far as Thetford in Breckland and then take the  Iceni Way along the River Great Ouse and across the Fens north to Hunstanton where the Norfolk Coast Path can be picked up to continue east. At Cromer, the meandering Weaver’s Way can then be followed through the Broads to arrive back at Yarmouth. In Suffolk, the Suffolk Coast Path can be walked from Lowestoft to Felixstowe before continuing around the Suffolk estuaries by means of the Stour and Orwell Walk to Cattawade. Here, the county boundary may be traced west to by means of the Stour Valley Path, straying occasionally into Essex and Cambridgeshire, as far as Sudbury before continuing to Bury St Edmunds along the St Edmund Way and Icknield Way path to Breckland  from where the Angle’s Way completes the circuit back to the Suffolk Coast.

Last year I had a notion that it might be interesting to split the Norfolk boundary circuit into four seasonal portions, four lengths of the county rectangle that would be walked around each of the year’s cardinal points: the Angle’s Way in mid winter; the Iceni Way in spring and so on, completing the circuit to arrive back at Great Yarmouth around the autumnal equinox. Starting out with good intentions, I walked the length of the Angles Way in late December 2009 and early January 2010. Plans for setting out on the next section, the Iceni Way, were abandoned however – or, rather, put on hold – when a commission to write a guide for Cicerone Press on the three long-distance walks within the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB turned my attention to trails a little further southeast. My forthcoming guide Suffolk Coast and Heaths Walks: Three Long-distance Routes in the AONB will be published in November this year.