Walking on the beaches…. in Suffolk

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Suffolk’s beaches are atmospheric and historic, well-managed and award-winning with reliable water quality and surrounded by picturesque countryside, making the journey part of the pleasure. We have beaches that are slowly returning to the sea as a result of coastal erosion and famous holiday resorts that are enjoying a new lease of life. The richness of the local flora and fauna has been preserved via the creation of nature reserves and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and the countryside is quilted by a network of coastal paths and cycle routes which in their own way contribute towards a climate of protective benevolence towards our relatively unspoilt coastal regions. Our coastline also tells of threat and potential invaders: guarded by cannons, forts and martello towers we are confronted by our vulnerability although past invasions have struggled with the watery nature of East Anglia where apparently clear routes end in creek, marsh and water. The biggest threat now is that of the tide and the edges of Suffolk bear witness to its destructive nature. Do we adopt a policy of managed retreat or do we cover parts of our coastline in swathes of concrete and banks of giant stones in an attempt to mitigate the risk?

With more edge than middle, the geography of the Suffolk coastline has resulted in miles and miles of easily accessible beaches, as opposed to somewhere like Devon or Cornwall where many of the best beaches remain partially inaccessible to all but those in the know or with boats. So although people here have some secret places they go to to get away from the tourist crowds, most of them remain public property and easily found. Here are some of our favourites:

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The beach at Ewerton

Johnny All Alone Creek is a piece of insider knowledge. The Stour/Orwell long distance path runs along the river wall to Holbrook in one direction and Shotley in the opposite direction. The River Stour is 47 miles long and forms the boundary between Essex and Suffolk, the tidal estuary running from Manningtree to its confluence with the River Orwell at Harwich in Essex. Just across the fields from Johnny All Alone Creek can be found the village of Erwarton;  worth a visit for its connections with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Anne was a frequent visitor to her aunt who lived at Erwarton Hall and legend has it that she liked the place so much she asked for her heart to be buried in the local church after her death. When the church was renovated in 1838 a small heart shaped casket was discovered and subsequently reburied. The creek is bordered by beaches of fine grade shingle and lines of larger pebbles, punctuated by stands of jade green Samphire, bleached oyster shells, overhanging scrub and hedgerow busy with the many birds that live here. Now walk along the river path to Holbrook Creek, another atmospheric tributary off the River Stour with moorings for small dinghies; not a place for family bathing per se BUT it is a place for picnics and wild imagination.

Southwold pier
Southwold pier

Southwold Pier beach has also been awarded a European blue flag, so you can be confident of clean bathing-water and sand with little settlements of beach huts along the promenade and by the beach. Plenty of independent shops, a superb chemist packed with covetable products and a new Waterstones branch make shopping a bit of an attraction in itself. The pier has a restored collection of quirky arcade machines, a couple of restaurants and the town also has a lovely trad boating lake.The Denes is a dog friendly beach as is the beach stretching towards Walberswick which also boasts a beach cafe near to a carpark and low dunes to sunbathe in. The beach cafe sells cake, sandwiches, ice creams and hot and cold drinks. The carrot cake was pretty special when we visited in the summer and they offer take out containers too.

View across the Denes
View across the Denes

The Denes Beach at Southwold is a quieter, more secluded, shingle beach next to the River Blyth – good for walking, dunes and views across the estuary plus of course the lovely town centre to explore when you grow tired of the beach. Limited in its development by its location on a hill that gently rises from the Blyth Valley, making the town virtually an island, surrounded by the River Blyth to the south and Buss Creek to the north, this has helped to retain an old world charm. Visitors use the beach for surfing,windsurfing and fishing and a coast path takes you north to Southwold or south along the banks of the river.

Walberswick
Walberswick

Walberswick is a tiny village that is situated slap bang in the middle of the AONB and offers one of the best beach in the area for sandcastles, with coarser sand rising towards the dunes. Famous for its crabbing, the quay and creeks that meander across the flat countryside are well endowed with crustaceans and popular with those who want to pit their wits (and crabbing line) against them. The official crabbing championships became victim of its own success and is held no more sadly due to safety fears but ad hoc crabbing is not discouraged and it isn’t difficult to buy the necessary supplies of bacon, crabbing lines and buckets locally. Walk to Southwold along the banks and creeks of the river and over the Bailey bridge or use the foot ferry which operates during the summer months.

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Covehithe Beach has none of the Enid Blyton charm of nearby Aldeburgh and Walberswick and is more akin to the wild beauty of the beaches of north Norfolk – for elemental majesty and crowd free enjoyment, you will be hard pressed to find a better place. To reach the beach you must park your car in the village and take one of two footpaths down to the beach (10 minutes or so walk). The path curves towards the eroded cliffs then bends inland again past bracken and the trees, plants and grasses that have tumbled from the falling cliffs. These crumbling cliffs are home to sand martins whilst the  low-tide mark exposes rockpools full of tiny crabs and sea anemone. Freshwater lagoons (Benacre Broads) lie behind the sea, sheltered by an arc of broadleaf woodland and are lovely for swimming although the salt of the sea is gradually leaching in- a slow commingling that will eventually join them with the North Sea.  If you follow the path to the north instead, you will arrive at the Benacre National Nature Reserve at Benacre Ness, where a varied habitat of dunes, broads, heath and woodland provide shelter for breeding birds and other creatures.

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Dunwich

Dunwich Beach is next to the Flora Tearooms which serves excellent fish and chips, neon bright sundaes and hot chocolate and backs onto the famous Ship Inn. This shingle and pebble strip of beach edges some of Englands most diverse heath and woodland- Dunwich Heath, looked after by the National Trust. Backed by low lying, collapsing cliffs tufted with Marram Grass, you can walk for miles here, undisturbed except for the (reputed) chimes of the village church, lost under the waves since 1904. Dunwich was once the capital of East Anglia until that moment when the harbour and most of the town were claimed by the sea, causing a slow decline into what is now, a tiny coastal village. The drive towards the village and beaches is a joy, especially when the broom and gorse is in bloom. The road dips and rises through heathland and low wooded scrub, the sharp yellow, honey scented flowers perfuming the air for miles around. As you approach the car park near the sea, the road noise becomes deadened by the sand blown inshore creating a thick layer on the tarmac, and then become twisting lanes, narrowed further by hedges of eglantine roses and honeysuckle and the streams of walkers and cyclists.

Shingle Street
Shingle Street

Shingle Street, the subject of fevered speculation since it was evacuated in 1940 is now a SSSI and protected in parts. Lying at the mouth of the River Ore is a collection of houses sitting between a row of Coastguard cottages and a martello tower. In summer the shingle beach is alive with flowering plants and seals sun themselves at low tide on the islands in the mouth of the River Ore. The erosion has made it treacherous to walk parts of the coastal path south-west of Shingle Street, so take care when setting off in that direction. Not a beach for sunning yourself on the sand, it is however bleakly beautiful and one of our favourite places to see the Suffolk sun rise and set and see history writ large upon the landscape. Another curiosity here in front of the coastguard cottages is a line of bleached white shells arranged in a sub-geometric pattern of swirls and concentric circles, ‘beach art’ created here over 5 years ago by childhood friends Elsa Bottema and Lida Kindersley for future visitors to do with as they wish.

Felixstowe
Felixstowe

Felixstowe beach offers the classic day at the seaside against the backdrop of this lovely Edwardian town with its bright rows of beach huts and steep roads rising up behind the promenade to the town centre. From playing on the seafront amusements, building sandcastles on the beach, walking the promenade and exploring the Winter gardens which are now being restored to their full magnificence, Felixstowe is coming out of the shadow cast by the more well known Suffolk resorts, and deservedly so. The pier hosts crabbing competitions each year too and the sea defences, called groynes, that divide the beaches collect pools of sea water around their stumps, great fun for children to fish with nets.

Felixstowe ferry gazing across to Bawdsey with its small sand beach
Felixstowe ferry gazing across to Bawdsey with its small sand beach

Felixstowe Ferry is the older part of the town, predicated upon the fishing industry that once sustained this part of the coastline, all black washed bargeboards, clank of chains and fishing huts, some still selling their catch. There’s also a pub and a river and an estuarine cafe selling seafood and pots of hot tea. Walk along the sea wall at Felixstowe Ferry to gaze upon Bawdsey Manor on its peninsula across the river Deben or catch the eponynous ferry over there. It is a secret WWII facility and home to the invention of Radar. You will also come across two of Felixstowe’s Martello Towers built between 1804 and 1812 to repel Napoleonic invasion. Bawdsey peninsula has a small sand beach too.

Part of the old jetty off landguard Point
Part of the old jetty off landguard Point

Landguard Fort, Point and Nature Reserve covers over 81 hectares and is a sand and shingle spit off the Southern tip of the Suffolk coast and near to Felixstowe. Originally built at the behest of Henry the Eighth, this fort is the only one in England to have repelled a full scale invasion attempt. At the mouth of the River Orwell, Landguard Fort was designed to guard the entrance to Harwich and with its prime position overlooking the enormous cargo ships arriving and departing the port, it is one place you won’t want to forget to bring your binoculars. A Site of Special Scientific Interest, the reserve has frequent activities arranged for all ages and is an important ecological part of the world. You can cycle along part of the National Cycle Network (Route 51), walk the boardwalk around the point and eat in the museum and fort cafe.

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Lowestoft beach is situated on the UKs the most easterly point and is a town is in two parts, divided by a narrow strip of water called Lake Lothing, which connects to Oulton Broad, the most southerly of the East Anglian Broads. Lowestoft is at the forefront of Britains wind generation industry and combines Edwardian majesty with a friendly seafront that has amusements: a pier, its own maritime museum and places to eat alongside a wide and safe sandy beach with huts to hire. The promenade also has a marker showing that easterly point and fountain jets of water that erupt from the ground at multiple points, delighting children and dogs. The North beach is backed by chalk cliffs studded with fossils from the Creaceous period, Marram grass covered dunes and plenty of secluded places to sit and relax. Or try the fine stretch of sand known locally as ‘Victoria Beach’, south of Clarement Pier Beach, Ask the locals for directions.

Kessingland
Kessingland

Kessingland offers dog friendly beaches , is pretty unspolit and never seems over populated with beachgoers; maybe its proximity to the more popular Lowestoft is the reason why. A mix of marshland, sand and shingle, there are uninterrupted views towards Lowestoft to the North and Southwold to the South although you can only walk along the beach to Southwold from the town at low tide and the beach here is littered with the drowned bleached corpses of fallen trees and other casualties of coastal erosion. Kessingland is popular with archaeologists who come for the remains of an ancient forest, discovered on the seabed and also the Palaeolithic and Neolithic implements which have been found there. Walk the opposite way between Lowestoft and Kessingland along the cliffs, and encounter the point at which they disappear into a gully, known locally as ‘Crazy Mary’s Hole’ (I am saying nothing). This part of the walk is backed by low, grass tufted cliffs and at the right time of year, huddled masses of nesting terns on the strips of sand and shingle.

The cliffs at Pakefield
The cliffs at Pakefield

Pakefield is swiftly becoming the premier site for fossil collecting in East Anglia although experienced collectors know to visit the day after a storm when the pounding North Sea has scoured the cliffs on their behalf, freeing up the ammonites and other remains of ancient reptiles and echinoids this coastline usually keeps hidden in its boulder clay. Ensure your children are under supervision near the cliffs although the foreshore is also a good, and safer,  hunting ground. The fastest and most direct route is dependent upon the steps down to the beach being undamaged- the inclement weather can sweep them away and they may remain unrepaired until spring. There is another way of getting onto the beach which requires a longer walk.

Aldeburgh
Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh Beach is home to Maggie Hamblings’ iconic Scallop – a tribute to local composer Benjamin Brittain and ranked third in the Sunday Times’ Top Ten of cultural beaches. A fishing village, Aldeburgh has managed to largely hang onto its sleepy coastal appearance although Summer sees the influx of many visitors from London and the Home Counties. Predominately shingle, the beach is wide, banks towards the shoreline and is dotted with boats, fishermen and their huts. Dog owners will find a mile of dog-friendly beach just to the north of the town, which is well signposted. Walk north and you’ll eventually reach the quaint village of Thorpeness and its famous Mere whilst a southerly route  takes you down towards Orford Ness.

Thorpeness
Thorpeness

 Thorpeness is home to the House in the Clouds (a water tower disguised as a house), a boating lake in a meare designed by JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, and a sizable collection of hugely rambling Edwardian Summer houses designed by Scottish railway designer Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a friend of Barrie. He brought up a large stretch of coast to the north and south of Thorpeness and turned it all into a private holiday retreat, indulging a penchant for mock Tudor and Jacobean pastiche in his housing designs. A place with even more of a playful, childlike vibe is the Meare boating lake with Peter Pan monikers: Pirates Lair, Wendy’s home and an annual summer firework display and regatta. The low cliffs along the steely shelving shingle beach are brimming with trove for fossil hunters: shells, echinoids, bryozoans and corals.

Approaching Sizewell from Dunwich heath
Approaching Sizewell from Dunwich heath

Sizewell beach is tucked away between Dunwich and Thorpeness and boasts fantastic coastlines with have no restrictions on dogs year-round, unlike most other Suffolk beaches which have April-Nov restrictions in place. Long level beaches offer long walks north to Dunwich, past RSPB Minsmere, the Minsmere levels or south to Thorpeness. The beach is a mix of sand and pebbles, has a small cafe, a wooden walkway for the less steady on their feet and public toilets nearby. Oh, and that dramatic view of the power stations ‘giant golfball dome’ is unmissable, in the distance as the bay curves towards it. This is most definitely a beach for the early summer mornings with the sky a milky haze and the only noise that of the gulls, and the sound of your feet on the pebbles.

Abandoned Coastguard Station Orford Ness

Orford Ness is an internationally important nature reserve with a truly fascinating (and previously secret) war time history as suggested by the views of ramshackle and forbidding buildings scattered along its length. Remote, bleak and accessed only by boat and managed by the National Trust, this is a place to visit and marvel at as opposed to sunbathe on. Indeed visitors are not allowed to stray off the marked pathways for fear of stepping on unmarked and unidentified ordnance. For most of the 20th century the military used the Ness for top secret experiments on a vast range of weapons and it was intensively used as a bombing and rocket range. Orford Ness may also contain as much as 15% of the world’s reserve of coastal vegetated shingle, and is one of the best preserved shingle ridges in Europe- all eleven miles of it. The lack of human access for so long is what allowed nature to flourish and the Trust is keen to ensure that the site remains as undisturbed as possible for the many breeding creatures that have made it their home. Access it by ferry from Orford Quay on one of its open days (check the NT website for more information) because whilst most National Trust coastline is open to the public, the public can visit the spit only on Saturdays from April to June, and Tuesday to Saturday from July to September.

Orford
Orford

Orford beach runs south along the coast from Aldeburgh to North Weir Point and is protected as a National Nature Reserve (NNR) and managed by the National Trust and the RSPB, in partnership with Natural England. The shingle here supports a number of rare insects and beetles, while the marshland and creek are home to birds like the avocet and curlew. The striped Orford Ness Lighthouse and the turret of Orford Castle stand sentinel over the village and its coastline and the village itself is a bit of a paradise for those who love great food with the Pump Street Bakery, Smokehouse and Oysterage and Crown and Castle pub among others.

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Ramsholt

Ramsholt is another prime site for fossil hunting, yielding sharks teeth, echinoids, fish remains and coralline from the clay and rocks for visitors to its small sandy beach. Boats moor here and you can barbecue and picnic along the shore. Again, if you want fossils and other combing finds, visit after a storm and high tides and be prepared for a bit of a walk to the cliffs (30-60 mins depending on conditions and in winter it is very slippery). Ramsholt is only a few miles from Bawdsey and has a wonderful waterfront pub and pretty quay from which a river walk runs beside the river wall almost to Woodbridge. Or take the circular walk along the marshes to the All Saints Church with its round tower, one of only 38 in Suffolk.

Photo of Nacton costal walk by Jon Bennet / Flickr
Photo of Nacton costal walk by Jon Bennet / Flickr

Nacton, a tiny village on the banks of the Orwell in southern Suffolk, was closely associated with the  admiral, Edward Vernon who christened the watered down tot of rum given to some of the workforce to help them through their day. The mixture of water with rum was given the moniker ‘grog’  as a reference to Vernons wearing a coat of grogram cloth. Nacton itself is also the site of Orwell Park, the estate where he lived and a sandy tidal beach and pretty coastal path offering spectacular views of the sailing boats that cluster along the Orwell River and berth at Pin Mill marina on the southern side of the river. Runnng through woodland approximately 50 feet above the shoreline, the coastal path is signposted, and bordered for much of its length. The Ship Inn at Levington or the Butt & Oyster at Pin Mill offer sustenance and at low tide, a small pebble beach can be accessed by climbing down laddered steps from the latters carpark. To be honest, this entire riverside and estuarine district yields lots of secret coves and hidden beaches, known only to the locals and pure Arthur Ransome territory.

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