Walking the Deben estuary: Bawdsey Island, Felixstowe Ferry and Ramsholt

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Boats on the Deben at Ramsholt

I am shivering, not so much because of the cool air which is pushing up from the sea, ahead of the sunset but more from my realisation that seventy five years ago other people probably sat right where I am now and listened to what I am listening to. It’s 10pm on the Fourth of July and I’m on a pebbled beach at Bawdsey Island looking out across the waters of the River Deben which separate me from the tiny hamlet of Felixstowe Ferry across the mouth of the estuary. There’s an American tribute band playing ‘In the Mood’ inside the boat club and the voices, laughter and pops of champagne corks are carried across on the breeze. Time has telescoped in the most peculiar and unexpected way and I don’t quite know what to make of this.

The Deben at Ramsholt
The Deben at Ramsholt

Felixstowe Ferry was vulnerable to German Luftwaffe pilots seeking to unload a cargo of undropped bombs before their flight back across the North Sea and the blackouts imposed on this hamlet, huddled at the edge of East Anglia, probably ruled out too much partying. However I like to imagine the locals and temporary residents dancing to music and enjoying the relief from war, responsibility and the heavy burden of hyper vigilance. In the near darkness, I see memory ghosts of laughing girls stumbling along the pebbles, bending down to remove strappy sandals and precious rationed stockings which they ball up and carry. They dance and chatter amidst the smell of American tobacco and caulked boats with fishy cargoes on the ebb of the English landmass as it merges with estuarine waters, the North Sea and a blacked out horizon.

The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry
The skies above Bawdsey, looking out towards Felixstowe Ferry

To my right, the skies are brindled with pinks and violets, the undersides of the lambs tails clouds tinged with amber. On the left where the River Deben splays into the sea, we watch as a tidal bore of darkness approaches, barrelling down the estuary and pushing at the still light over the beach which has now developed a silvery caul. In front of me, the light begins to peter out and the shoreline to my right becomes banded by grey- the sea, the shingle and the sky-as the Deben estuarine tide continues its exhaustive task of transporting the heft of stones, polished to a dull shine, dumping them onto an ever growing offshore shingle bank.

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Looking out from the jetty at Ramsholt

The sky seems to bulge inland and towards us. Out to sea, it is all blue: French navy and saxe, indigo, midnight and then, a nothingness settles lit up only by the perimeter lights of a cargo ship bound for the international port.. I feel like I am suspended in space: the lights of the boat club across the river and a chink of light from the porthole of a cruiser are the only things anchoring us as we sit on the pebbles and even they shift beneath us. Watching the night rush in left us a little breathless. Neither of us had seen a night seemingly as tardy and pressured for time and had the breeze aped Alice’s white rabbit and whispered “I’m late, I’m late” we would have accepted this with equanimity.

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Noght pushes towards Bawdsey from the North Sea which lies beyond the mouth of the Deben estuary

Our trip here was spontaneous, we’d forgotten that the Fourth of July is a date of some significance, especially here in East Anglia where American GI’s came in and our women married out. We were driven out of our Bury St Edmunds home by the torpid heat, a whole weeks worth of it, which had evicted the residual coolness from the stolid rows of Victorian brick. Our  house was gasping for breath and the whole town was so still in that strange yellow, layered heat that we could stand it no more. We grabbed our bags and made a dash for the edge of East Anglia.

Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Ransholt are surprisingly easy and quick to drive to from Bury, straight down the A14 and a turn off to drive through the undulating roads around Woodbridge,  Coddenham, and Alderton. The air remained close and still but the patchworked greens, acid jazz yellows and buffs of the fields flash by and a stray breeze lifts the hair from the back of my neck when we stop to buy some eggs. There are lanes marking the edges of pre-enclosure strips, ancient bridlepaths and sand clotted foorpaths hinting at a sea hiding over the next hill. I want to play the game we played as children- who can see the sea first- although in this case, we approach an estuary. The underlying Red Crag rock gives the earth a brick dusty hue, not dissimilar to the red of the Georgian deep south as we climbed the hilled sharp turn off towards Ramsholt. The Ramsholt Arms and a drink was our destination before a late afternoon walk along the shore of the River Deben,  a route hugging the pines and saltmarshes of the coastal walk that passes in front of the pub.

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Approaching the Ramsholt Arms and River Deben

The view from the inn’s carpark which crests the slope down to the waters and beer garden is a shock if you get the timing and the light right. Go there late afternoon on a hazy summer day and the water appears, blindingly metallic, shimmering like the steel of a razor blade through the ink dark woods. The anchored boats appear black against the water and the only relief from this binary watercolour is the neon orange of the buoys and flags woven through the halyards. The Strand borders a sandy, pebbly beach and beyond, a muddy strip beside the lazy waters where children happily mudlarked in the sun. There’s old sharks teeth to be found in the Red Crag, wizened corals and echinoids and shells a plenty from the exposed London clay which lines the shallow basin of the estuary.

The old sea defences
The old sea defences

As the tide turns, it gives up a hundred yards of glistening mudflats, pockmarked by the beak marks of oyster catchers and redshank and patterned with dragons teeth arrangements of old wooden sea defences: the groynes have rotted away to piles of semi carbonised sticks, slimy with seaweed and encrusted with barnacles, their rough triangle shapes a grim nod to the Anglo Saxon past. There’s sea lavender and purslane along the edges along with the saltmarsh and squeaky jelly like samphire – the Deben estuary possesses a beautiful and luminous bleakness from its quirky plants to the blank yawn of the estuary at dusk.

The Ramsholt Arms
The Ramsholt Arms

The Ramsholt Arms was once called the Ferry House because of the eponymous ferry which used to run to Kirton Creek and is now no more. The village was also the first landing on the north side of the River Deben after Bawdsey, making it strategically and economically important to the region. It waved off heavy cargoes of local brick from the many yards which lay along the rivers Deben, Stour and Orwell and it shipped coprolite (fossilised dinosaur dung, used for fertiliser). Barge quays once lined the banks which seem stunningly empty and haunted by comparitive inactivity now, apart from the flipped collar jollity of the weekending boat people. The village is more boat than house now.

The harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty
The harbourmasters boat, moored by the jetty

The parish church of All Saints, one of 38 Suffolk round tower churches presides over a startling view which stretches from the Martlesham Research Tower at one end to the Martello Towers of Felixstowe Ferry out towards the North Sea and the sodium lights of the cargo port emerge in the distance as the sun sets. The round tower was built of flint, brick and the septaria from the river bed, notably from  an area known locally as ‘the Rocks’, a place where anchors would foul regularly. The round tower appears as square from a distance but as you get closer, its oval shape appears, a seemingly magical feat which is also achieved by Beyton’s church, another round and buttressed tower.

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Footpaths take you up to the church which perches high above the estuary

The church may well have had an important function as a look out with its all seeing position over a part of the UK which was deemed to be both vulnerable and strategically important with its multiplicity of river conduits and dank, hidden creeks: a highly permeable coastline. Watery landscapes have always attracted plotters and maleficence although the unfamiliar invader might well meet their match at the hands of the sunken, hidden rills and deep channels which snake through the gorse and reeds that edge the coastal pathway and Strand. There’s a sunken lane which also snakes its way to the church, hidden deep between tall banks which burst forth in poppies, grasses, cow parsley and nettles in the spring: a precious reminder of a time when these lanes were more common: sadly most of them have been allowed to sink back into the landscape or have been turned into roads, proper.

All Saints Church at Ramsholt
All Saints Church at Ramsholt

The church stands eight feet or so above you as you climb and steps cut into the banks of the lane provide access to the beautiful churchyard. The whole place is ethereal, other wordly yet strangely pragmatic, and inside the church, a chart dating back to 1287 seems to indicate its function as a useful seamark, helping to keep watch against Viking invaders during the time of the Saxons. The burial site of a rather important Saxon, replete with golden wordly goods and precious stones, is, after all, only a few miles inland at Sutton Hoo and although the Ramsholt parishioners weren’t buried with such riches, they chose to be buried facing that glorious view which is the greatest jewel of all- the north of the church which looks away from the river has hardly any graves.

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Bawdsey Ferry by Martin Hardie from the V&A Collection

Moving on to Bawdsey, a place which we’d never visited but gazed upon on many an occasion from the opposite shores, the light was fast fading. The Bawdsey Peninsula is home to Bawdsey Manor, a top secret RAF research establishment  purchased by the RAF in 1936 where the Chain Home (CH) RDF (radar) system was developed during the fraught war time years. From Bawdsey, a chain of radar stations ran around the south coast to defend Britain during World War II and the Transmitter Block Museum tells the story of radar, and how Bawdsey helped win the Battle of Britain (For opening call 07821 162 879) . This part of the Suffolk coastline came under special measures during the war and only ‘essential personnel’ were afforded access-even the ferry was closed to the public during WW2 after managing to survive from the 12th century, although it is open now and a very popular and atmospheric way of travelling between Felixstowe and the Bawdsey Peninsula.

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The vulnerability of the region to attack and spies is underscored by the 1943 bombing of the church which saw it totally destroyed.  St. Nicholas’s Church was built in 1954 on the site. When war was declared against Germany in September 1939, fears of a possible commando raid on the group led to the development activities being relocated and, in 1940, the British Army staged a training landing against Bawdsey, having warned the station’s officers that the attack would be taking place. However, an administrative oversight meant that the sentries were not warned and when they spotted rubber dinghies approaching the beach area, they released gas-filled barrels and set them alight with tracer fire from the cliff-top machine-gun posts. As the sun rose over Bawdsey Beach the next morning, the sentries “found the beach covered with dozens of charred bodies” that they at first thought were Germans dressed as Army soldiers. The story was declared secret until 2014, but was leaked in 1992.

The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Felixstowe Ferry boat club, facing the beach at Bawdsey where we sat/ Nigel Freeman/ Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bawdsey Beach has a seasonal cafe, raised above the beach and beach front road which peters out in front of three 30’s arts and crafts style houses (one of which can be rented for holidays). The pebbled shore extends out to sea, divided by groynes until you reach the North Sea where super tankers and cargo ships are escorted into Felixstowe, one of the largest cargo ports in Europe. Lining the road in front of the sand were VW campers and children warmed themselves by barbecues, scrooched down below the groynes as they ate and watched the sun set. You travel back in time here, in part because for so long Bawdsey was closed off, protected from people and civilian development and in part because there simply is nowhere else to go. This is the end point, a still point and it orders you to stop and retrace mentally as well as literally. Bawdsey is Enid Blyton. It is Arthur Ransome and Glenn Miller and Shine on Harvey Moon. You expect the locals to wear thick khaki cotton, to have their hair set in pin curls and wear tea dresses, hair in a victory roll. When a sleek and modern BMW purrs along the sea front, it jars.

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Looking out to Felixstowe Ferry

Felixstowe Ferry is gruffer, from its black pitch fishermens huts to the tangle of utilitarian fishing nets and buoys which lace the gangways and cement walkways bordering the quay. MR James set Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad on the nearby golf course, there’s the stately warning of the martello towers ( this bastion of defence is one of five built on the coast between Felixstowe and Aldeburgh designed to protect us from the wrath of Napoleon) and the embarkation point of the ferry taking you over to Bawdsey. If the ferryman isn’t within sight, locals will advise you to raise the bat and wave it to alert him. There’s fish to be hauled in and sold from boats, huts and ad hoc shops and several places to eat from the  Boathouse cafe  to the Ferryboat Inn originally built in the 15th century as a home for the harbourmaster, facing the heath. The boatyard itself started up in the late twenties and made its own wartime contributions too- it used to build quite a lot of boats for the Royal Navy, including motor boats that were useful modes of getting about during those war years where Glenn Miller and his band provided respite from the business of trying to survive.

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