In which we walk the Shotley Peninsula, explore Pin Mill and its history and finish with a meal at the Butt & Oyster, made famous by author Arthur Ransome.
The coast of Suffolk with its small towns clustered on spits of land, carved out and isolated by tides and rivers, became a place where traditionally the up-and-coming middle classes from our engine-room cities came to rest up and regain their spirits after maintaining the empire. Marry this with the independent and reserved personality of the indigenous ‘South Folk’, their toughness and shy self-sufficiency hard-wired via centuries of fighting off challenges by land grabbing invaders such as the Danes, Angles and Norman nobility and you can see why our county sea borders are home to such a compelling mix of people- an intriguing place to visit and live.
The Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) actually extends from the Stour Estuary in the south right up to Kessingland near the Norfolk borders and covers over 403 square kilometres. We recently spent a few days exploring a small part of it: the coastal areas around Pin Mill on the Shotley Peninsula, a spit of land between the River Orwell and the River Stour. The two rivers meet at Shotley Gate, merge and eventually flow into the North Sea where the north bank is crowned by the international port and docks of Felixstowe and the harbour town and port of Harwich on the south point. A passenger ferry transports people between the two.
Found on the western shore of the River Orwell, Pin Mill was made famous by the author Arthur Ransome of ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and fronts onto the Harry King Boatyard. In his book “We Didn’t Mean to Go To Sea”, the young and adventurous protagonists were staying at Alma Cottage, located right by the Butt & Oyster pub. Ransom had his own boats built at Harry King’s yard, although he actually lived on the opposite side of the Orwell, at Levington. Humans also live on the river and there are quite a few houseboats tilting on the mudflats when the river runs low, then slowly righting themselves as the tide turns and refloats them: the red-sailed Thames sailing barges are a common sight at Pin Mill too as they were once built here.
During the 19th century, coastal vessels stopped off here to offload shallower barges and local farms would have their produce collected and transported elsewhere by them. Buttermans Bay (to the right of the pub) was named after the fast schooners that carried dairy produce from the Channel Islands and to this day there is still an annual Thames Barge Match held here even though the halcyon days of trading here have now passed. The Orwell River was once a prime trading route between Ipswich, the European mainland and the rest of the country and in the Middle Ages, the wool produced by wealthy East Anglian merchants and farmers was exported via the town whilst hemp, coal, iron and timber was brought in. The once bustling docks area in Ipswich is now slowly being restored although the waters bob with yachts and houseboats now instead of the merchants ships that once plied their trade there.
The Stour and Orwell Walk at Pin Mill is a well known trail that loops around the Palladian Woolverstone Hall and its Park, essentially in the shape of a figure of eight, taking walkers over sleeper bridges and past mud flats and saltings; through spinneys, woodlands, meadows and scrub, rises up to the Pin Mill cliff plantation and skirts the tiny village of Chelmondiston, before returning you to your start point- The Butt & Oyster Inn. The pub overlooks the boatyards which edge Pin Mill Common on both sides and makes a logical and scenic place to start or finish at although if you like a drink, it might be best to wait until after that walk- the fireside seats and sunny warmth streaming through the picture windows overlooking the water makes it hard to get up and get going.
Once out in the fresh air, the clanking of halyards in the breeze and puttering of outboard motors, coupled with the sounds of men and women working on their boats will remind you that this is very much a working boatyard and river as opposed to a place for the flip-collared deck shoe-shod regatta brigade. Brick-edged creeks and streams edged with mossy seaweed run past the paths, the water clear and ice-cold. The brackish waters of the saltings and tidal mud flats act as a magnet for overwintering birds: waders such as the egrets-all orange beak and spindly-legged; avocets which breed here in the summer and the plovers and oyster catchers which feed and breed, then rest on the tongues of land that bisect the lagoons. They are partially camouflaged by the lush summer foliage of sea-lavender and purslane and breeding linnets soar overhead too, far above the scrubby gorse that lines the opposite side of the river and up to the woodlands clustered on the bluffs.
The sandy heathland is a welcoming habitat for the gorse that flowers from mid winter onwards, providing nectar rich blooms for insects to feed on, which are, in turn, eaten by the linnets. The acid-yellow of its flowers carry a heady scent of coconut and saffron on the breeze, melding with the salt and dankness of the estuarine mud to create the unique smell of Pin Mill. The estuaries of the two rivers provide a vital stop off or stop over point for many migrant species and carries the European designation of Special Protection Area (SPA) as “a wetland of international importance”.
On warmer days when the tide is low children paddle by the pub, stepping gingerly over the pebbles on the shore that runs alongside the raised outdoor seating area and car-park whilst dogs plunge in, recklessly. They are overlooked by the pub windows, the shore reached by a ladder fixed to its wall which is rapidly submerged as the tide comes in. Beyond the shore we continued our walk along the undercliff which is rapidly being eroded and has been partially protected by riverside revetments. It is possible to head west, in the opposite direction too, upriver, by turning left as you walk down the shaded narrow lane to arrive at the pub which will then be on your right. This route will take you past the Pin Mill Sailing Club, alongside the boatyard with its hedges bedecked with bunting and surrounding woods and sheep pastures and eventually towards the woods. In the summer, the fields that surround Wolverstone Park are filled with red campion, cornflowers, clover, jack-in-the-pulpit and tall thistles, stiff purple bristles bursting out of their calyxes and as you approach Woolverstone Marina, you will get wonderful views across to the Orwell Bridge which carries the A14 over the river.
Our lunch at the Butt & Oyster on an overcast early September day didn’t include the oysters that the pub name commemorates (there were prolific oyster fisheries here) but was otherwise resplendent with its piles of local seafood and fish, all slippery hues of coral and oak and palest pink. Smoked trout, salmon and mackerel plus shell on prawns, crawfish and crab came with Marie Rose sauce and the obligatory granary bread and salad. A starter of goats cheese and red onion marmalade on a shoe sized crouton was large enough to be a main course; the cheese was young and crumbly, lacking the barnyard rigor of older cheeses and possessed instead, a lemony rime.
Sticky toffee pudding with banana fudge ice cream, chosen from a menu of different ice-cream flavours rounded off a lighter meal than we had originally intended; the other choices of pork and apple burgers, smoked haddock risotto and fish stew with a tomato and chili sauce had sold out. We arrived late and were happy we were fed at all. The pub has a dining area, smaller side room heated by a wood-burning stove and outdoor seating but we sat by the main bar near the picture windows and watched the river rise. If you aren’t that fussed about a meal but want to nibble at something then the roasted cashew nuts will keep you pretty happy, I reckon. I imagine the Fritto Misto would too- a heap of deep fried prawns, squid, whitebait and gougons of white fish served with a pot of coleslaw. One of those things you order thinking you aren’t that hungry then find yourself tearing into like some ravening creature with poor table manners.
In my first edit of this piece I forgot to mention the lovely staff at the Butt & Oyster <the shame> who were super accommodating towards two ditsy, tired, grubby and hungry walkers. Nothing was too much trouble for them, including my complete inability to decide between the ice-cream flavours, a decision they appeared to be as invested in as I was. Their advice was considered, patient and great fun too.
Staff did not know we were coming, were not told we were reviewing and indeed remained unaware of this until this feature came out. At no time have we received fiscal reward for this review.