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

Patience (After Sebald) – Walking The Rings of Saturn

About a year ago I wrote a post about an Aldeburgh Music weekend at Suffolk’s Snape Maltings that celebrated the life and works of the writer W G Sebald. A new film by Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald), was also previewed on that occasion but it has taken a full year for it to have been finally been put out on general release in the UK. After such a long wait, ‘Patience’ might seem a wholly appropriate choice for a title but I finally got the chance to see the film last Sunday at a sell-out screening at Cinema City, Norwich.

The film is based on what is probably Sebald’s best known work, The Rings of Saturn, which  describes a long meditative walk in the Suffolk coastal region. In German translation the book is subtitled ‘Eine Englische Wollfahrt – an English pilgrimage’, but this is misleading as The Rings of Saturn is not really about pilgrimage at all, nor is it a work that concerns itself that much with landscape, although the shingle and wide skies of coastal Suffolk do make a cameo appearance.

Although genres such as travel, history and memoir are appropriate up to a point, The Rings of Saturn is a work that boldly defies categorisation and which cannot easily be placed into any single literary pigeonhole. Sebald’s Suffolk odyssey is really as much an internal journey through one man’s mind as anything else. Far from the normal notion of travelogue, The Rings of Saturn is more a psychogeographic exploration of one corner of East Anglia. Certainly, the physical geography here is spectral, a melancholic landscape of ghosts, personal reflection and dark cultural memory. The term ‘Proustian’ might be used to define Sebald’s style to some extent but a better word would be Sebaldian: W G Sebald is one of those rare writers, like Dickens, Kafka and Ballard, whose name can be confidentally used as an adjective thanks to a distinctive mournful style and typically digressive, fragmentary narrative.

Part of the Sebaldian trope is to include images – black and white photos and line drawings – as part of the narrative flow; images, sometimes unsettling, that are tangential to the geography of the walk yet central to the narrative’s solipsistic digressions. Many of the book’s already familiar images are replicated in Patience (After Sebald), serving as a backdrop for talking heads like Robert Macfarlane, Iain Sinclair and Andrew Motion who have been recruited among others to give their personal take on Sebald’s oevre. Other images on display in the film are immediately resonant to those who have read The Rings of Saturn even though they do not appear as photographs within the pages of the book itselfA brief glimpse of a naked couple lying on a beach clearly represents the lovers that Sebald stumbled upon at Covehithe and, panicking, described as ‘like some giant mollusc washed ashore… a many-limbed, two-headed monster’. A shot of a distressed-looking plate of food undoubtedly refers to the joyless pub meal taken by the author in Lowestoft, which contained a fish that had ‘doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years’ along with tartare sauce ‘turned grey by sooty breadcrumbs’. Apart from an occasional colour inset frame showing a walker’s boots on the tarmac (the film-maker himself perhaps?), the images used are monochrome throughout, as grey as Sebaldian tartare sauce.

Also permeating the film are grainy 8mm-like shots of some of the locations that Sebald passed through on his long walk – places that get scant mention in The Rings of Saturn but which clearly inform its telling; places familiar to anyone who knows the Suffolk coast reasonably well – Southwold’s Sailors’ Reading Room, Boulge church, Yoxford, the ruins of Dunwich and the formerly top secret research pagodas of Orford Ness. If anywhere could be described as an archetypal Sebaldian landscape it would surely be Orford Ness.

Patience (After Sebald) complements Sebald’s book admirably. It encourages those unfamilar with his work to read The Rings of Saturn for the first time, while those already smitten can find nourishment in the distinctly Sebaldian imagery of the film and the generous personal accounts of the man himself. To be nitpicking, there are a couple of small details that some Sebaldophiles might find slightly incongruous – Andrew Motion reading his poem about the merman of Orford, perhaps, and a scene near the end that involves a puff of smoke at the roadside where Sebald died in a car accident. The latter I found quite thrilling although some might consider it borderline tacky – I can say no more.

Sometimes writers can seem to influence the reader’s view of landscape to such an extent that it is hard to come to it with innocent eyes. Once The Rings of Saturn has been read and absorbed, coastal Suffolk – in the right conditions – can easily transform into a Sebaldian landscape for those passing through it. Yet, as Robert Macfarlane recounts in Gee’s film, it is imposible to replicate Sebald’s journey exactly. Macfarlane’s own well-intentioned attempt to retrace Sebald’s steps was thwarted by sunny, distinctly non-Sebaldian weather and by simply having too much fun swimming at Lowestoft.

Even with fine weather and a light heart, it seems impossible for anyone who has read The Rings of Saturn and walked the Suffolk coast to not have some sort of Sebaldian connection. Whether we like it or not, his prose and dark historic musings have encouraged us to see the coastal landscape in a thousand shades of (tartare) grey whatever our proclivities. But we cannot replicate Sebald – and why should we? Even following those exact same footsteps, we all do our own walk, make our own pilgrimage. The psychogeographical dimension of any walk through any landscape is as dependent on the mindset of the walker as it is on the territory itself.

On a personal note, the book’s geography resonates more than I might ever have imagined: the site of the old Norfolk and Norwich Hospital where Sebald opens the text (finding himself there with a back problem a year after the completion of his Suffolk walk) is located immediately across the road from where I live.

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.

Metal Box

There are strange low hills in the vicinity of The Port of Felixtowe in Suffolk. Not the product of tectonic upheaval or Ice-Age earth shifting but man-made plateaus of painted steel. Around what is the largest container port in Britain vast acres of stacked shipping containers afford the local topography a distinct Legoland character. Ugly they may be, but containers can be piled high, safely and efficiently – this is really the whole point of them. Cross the Orwell estuary to the other bank and the mechanics of the terminal seem somehow easier to discern from a distance. Looking north across the water from Shotley Peninsula the enormity of the container ships becomes all too apparent, as does the immense volume of their gargatuan payloads. The juxtaposition of the tranquil saltmarshes, silent but for the piping of waders, and the distant metallic rumble of behemoths docking across the water strikes an oddly unsettling note.

There is something a little inhuman, sinister even, about shipping containers. Perhaps they are too much like a human-sized tin cans for comfort. They evoke fears of incarceration, claustrophobia – a living grave. Such fear affords them considerable dramatic possibilities.  A European shipping container was central to the plot of the second season of the acclaimed HBO production The Wire. In this, McNulty, the anti-hero cop who had been exiled to  Baltimore Docks, found himself involved in a case concerning a shipping container full of dead young East European women, the victims of a people trafficking scheme that had gone terribly wrong. Even the British soap Brookside once invoked a container for criminal purposes when top-dog ‘scally’ Barry Grant locked a business opponent in a shipping container at Liverpool Docks. We never learned of his fate – or if we did, I had stopped watching by then. Containers seem to fit snugly into the lexicon of crime pulp fiction and the threat of tinny incarceration provides a welcome alternative to hackneyed themes of ‘swimming with fishes’  or being concreted into flyovers.

Shipping containers can be found in the most unlikely of places, not just ports. Travel about as far as you can get from an ocean – Central Asia, say – and you’ll still find them in large numbers, not so much as moveable storage but more as make-do business premises. Both of Kyrgyzstan’s two largest markets make extensive use of them, double-stacked in parallel rows to create narrow shopping streets of easily-secured retail premises. In the capital Bishkek, you can find pretty well anything you might need at the Dordoi Bazaar north of the city. While the sellers are mostly Kyrgyz, many of the shoppers strolling the market’s metallic thoroughfares come from further afield – Kazakhstan or even Russia.

Larger still is the market at Kara-Suu right on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border close to Osh in the south. This one really is the largest market in all Central Asia. Kara-Suu is the grey economy writ large. Almost entirely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, this is the place to buy very cheap Chinese goods -clothes, electronic goods, household wares – just don’t expect a guarantee or 6-month warranty. The market is long-established and dates from Soviet times when the meandering Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier really did not mean that much. These days Kara-Suu is closed down periodically by the authorities but most of the time shoppers from Uzbekistan are able to sneak or bribe their way across this the border to buy goods at much cheaper prices than at home.   Sometimes they even bring raw cotton to sell at a premium in Kyrgyzstan.

Bazaars like Kara-Suu are hardly typical. Away from Bishkek, Osh and a handful of small cities, Kyrgyzstan is by and large rural – wild, mountainous and very beautiful. The country may be very long way from any ocean but it does have some stunning high-altitude lakes like Issyk-Kul and Song-Kul (above). No container ships, though.

W.G.Sebald, In Memoriam

The UEA-based German writer, W. G. (‘Max’) Sebald, died just over nine years ago in a car accident close to his home south of Norwich. One of his most famous books, and certainly the one most closely connected with the East Anglia region, is The Rings of Saturn, published in 1999. Superficially a post-illness walking tour of east Suffolk, this labyrinthine unclassifiable work delves tangentially into deep history to discuss episodes as wide ranging as the import of silkworm cultivation into Europe, the writings of 17th-century Norwich polymath Thomas Browne, Nazi concentration camps in Croatia and the scurrilous private life of the Suffolk-based translator of Omar Khayyam.

Focusing unhealthily on the dark, isolated and horrific, Sebald’s writing is hardly what one might describe as ‘feel-good’; indeed, it is often gloomy to the point of verging on the morose. His literate, hang-dog style can almost seem self-parodying on occasion, especially when it circles down to earth to confront the quotidian as in the case of an hilarious description of a disappointing dinner in Lowestoft – only Sebald could disparagingly describe the ‘breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish’ and sachet tartare sauce ‘turned grey by sooty breadcrumbs’. Although he veered towards the hyper-melancholic, his writing was always elegant and elegiac, not to mention meditative, lapidary, dream-like and solipsistic. Interweaving memory, fiction and observation along the course of his walk, there is a Proustian quality to his writing that questions the transience of life and suffering.

Clearly, The Rings of Saturn has sufficient devotees for others to want to walk in Sebald’s footsteps, seeking out the Suffolk landscape that inspired such beautiful gloom along the eastern reaches of the Waveney Valley and the Suffolk coast between Lowestoft and Dunwich – a landscape that seems oddly devoid of people in Sebald’s book. Aldeburgh Music at Snape Maltings recently held a weekend devoted to a celebration of Sebaldia that involved the American rock chanteuse Patti Smith no less. It remains to be seen whether the film Patience (After Sebald) by Grant Gee that was also screened during the weekend will be available to general view in the near future.

Here’s a short film and a piece in the Guardian.