Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

48 hours in Harwich and Wrabness

Harwich Lighthouse ?exhibited 1820 by John Constable 1776-1837
Harwich Lighthouse // 1820 John Constable 1776-1837 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01276

Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above]  of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour  as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.

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The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here.  Ports are  a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.

Copyright Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Image of Harwich by Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal. 

Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”


[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]

t Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. beach hut and low lighthouse
View towards Harwich’s lighthouse by Chris Allen // CC 2.0

The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port  where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s  livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.

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An 1804 seafarers chart of Harwich by Graeme Spence

And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.

I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?

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Anchor in front of the Maritime Museum

John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth]  to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”

Copyright nick macneill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licenc
Image of Half’penny pier by Nick MacNeill via CC 2-0

Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP  and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.

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Ariel shot of Redoubt Fort by John Fielding //Flickr CC 2.0

Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.

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The Harwich floods of 1953/ imaga via Ruth Wright on Flickr/ CC 2.0

A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.

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The Electric Palace Cinema: photo with kind permission of the cinema

Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.

Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel  which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.

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Photo: courtesy of The Alma Inn

The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones,  the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.

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Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and  ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:

Delight of our appetites,
Oyster, flee the liquid plain;
Enter the pomp of the feast,
Leave this perfidious element,
And, since you must die, rather die in wine.

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There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”

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It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry  Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.

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It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.

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Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.

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Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry. 

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Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.

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If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank.  The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.

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The Stour estuary from Wrabness, the Royal Hospital School in the distance

Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.

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Wrabness foreshore by Roger Jones// CC2.0

There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.

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In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.

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Stour Wood at Wrabness by Peter Pearson// cc 2.0

I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).

 

 

 

Hidden tiger, crouching bluetits

Image of Bluetits fighting via Creative Commons
via Creative Commons

Don’t be fooled by their sweet exterior, a dumpling of blue-green and yellow bobbing from hedge to feeder to fence and then back again like tiny feathered globes. When blue tits arrive in your garden they arrive with a vengeance, all needle-slash of claw and lethal-weapon beaks and their fierce reputation has followed them across time and literature.

Blue tits [Latin name: Parus caeruleus] are not the star turn from a Hallmark card sent to us by Mother Nature. They might look as if they have just returned from a stint as cast extras in a Disney film, swirling around the head of a princess, tweeting words of love but in reality they are aggressive, furious balls of spitting ire and possessiveness. George Orwell knew this when he depicted the forensically precise beak work of this tiny creature as it gorges itself upon the feeders that householders hang up to attract it:

A blue-tit darts with a flash of wings, to feed
Where the coconut hangs on the pear tree over the well;
He digs at the meat like a tiny pickaxe tapping
With his needle-sharp beak as he clings to the swinging shell.

(Summer Like)

In the UK, blue tits start scouting for a nesting site in January and once they have chosen one, will defend it until they start nest-building in March and April.  The competition for a mate is fierce, their alpha male courting an avian Tarantella for human onlookers, their calls scolding and full of fury. Once paired, copulation happens to a soundtrack of high pitched notes, similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with freshly killed food. She will time the laying of her eggs so that they hatch just as the caterpillars on which they feed their nestlings are hatching and the babies emerge looking uncannily like miniature versions of the actor Tommy Lee Jones: all cross, feathered brows set above dark and irate eyes.

The adults brook no competition during the breeding season although later in the year they often move and feed in protective flocks, looping from one place to another in short bursts of flight. I had to remove a garden mirror after it ended up smeared with blue tit blood as a lonely male bird set out to attack and drive off his [rival] reflection and battered his own head half to bits in the attempt. They possess sturdy, well defined head markings with a dark blue-black eyestripe and a skull cap of brighter blue, set against their white cheeks and forehead which, in the case of my star crossed lover, darkened with blood as he wheeled and slew into the glass of the mirror.

His aggression shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after reading, years ago, about European great tits who enter bat caves and peck hibernating bats to death: “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a bat in this manner” reported Howard Saunders back in 1899 but seeing such a tiny bird driven to death by its own desire to mate was disturbing, even knowing their capabilities.

Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr
Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr

DH Lawrence was no stranger to this titan of the ornithological world and in ‘Two Blue Birds’ their pugilistic nature serves as handy metaphor for the swirling resentment and occasional outbreak of aggressive rivalry between the protagonist and the two women who unhealthily compete for his attention. Mrs Gee and her secretary rival are both dressed in cobalt blue silk, overly obvious maybe although that “blest blue bird of happiness” as Mrs Gee first calls him is soon engaged in a battle royal with another, at their feet:

“And as she was being blest, appeared another blue bird–that is, another blue-tit–and began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, I’m blest!

She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But ‘he’ was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.

“Get out!” he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. “Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.”

…”Aren’t they extraordinarily vicious little beasts?” said he.

“Extraordinarily!” she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. “Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!”

And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.”

Talking about blue tits and their reputation for aggression on twitter, I heard about a local bird ringer called Helen Bristol who has been subjected to the wrath of the tit family when going about her bird protection duties:

“We catch the birds in a fine mesh net ( mist net) and generally will check the nets every ½ hour and sooner if the weather is cold /hot/a bit blowy/drizzly,” Helen said. “At this time of year the tits go around in mixed flocks – most usually Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits and if you’re lucky Marsh Tits, although where I ring, the Bearded tits don’t join the gang. You can imagine this gang all feeding on or going towards feeders and the catch can be large, 25+ in one go.” 

Instantly you can see the potential for aggressive behaviour because of competition for food and the proximity of bird species in a smaller space, as Helen explains:

“Inevitably several get caught close together and that’s when the pecking starts. Generally it’s the Greats and Blues that hack into each other. Usually they’ll go for the eyes – not a pretty sight- which is why I initially take a look at the net to see which birds are close together, very tangled or too near the ground. Those birds come out first and are put into individual bags, before being taken back to the ringing station for processing.”

The tits obviously can’t kill with one blow to the back of a human’s neck but they seem to know how else to cause maximum irritation to a creature many times their size:

“The Greats and the Blues also attack the ringer, usually pecking away at your cold hands and causing a lot of language. You know what it’s like when you have a sore bit down the side of a nail? They seem to home in on that. I often get home with little peck marks all over my hands. I find it amazing that such small birds can cause such pain. At an owl sanctuary recently I was “bitten” by a tame petting Eagle Owl but that didn’t even bruise. It was a friendly “please stop”. The only other birds who peck/bite are woodpeckers and some sea birds such as gulls.”

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Aggression from other tits isn’t the only challenge these tiny birds face either. They have to deal with a form of brood parasitism which has seen blue tits and great tits engaged in a potentially bloody war about home invasion and who parents who. This happens when the great tit [Parus Major] fails to find an ideal place to lay its eggs and simply invades the nests of the smaller blue tit, who are half the size of these invaders. Being much smaller, the blue tit often capitulates, deciding to abandon their nest and fly away which, at least, protects them from being pecked to death or incurring severe injuries. Interestingly, the blue tit seems to have evolved a way of salvaging something from its loss with scientists reporting incidences of the bird re-entering nests taken over by great tits, and laying their own eggs in it, in the manner of a cuckoo. The resulting chicks temporarily assume the identity of their foster parents, recognising great tit calls as their own and behaving in species congruent ways. Known as sexual misimprinting, it tends to cease upon fledging and the adult blue tits birds revert back to their species specific behaviour.

The same doesn’t apply though, to great tits raised by blue tits. These tend to remain imprinted upon their blue tit foster parents, even trying to mate with other blue tits when adult. So why do blue tits not remain imprinted then? It has been postulated that perhaps blue tits lead a riskier and more rackety life than great tits and their smaller size [in comparison to a great tit, that is] means they have much to lose should they try to compete with other sexually mature great tits for food and a mate. So they go back to their own kind which is especially critical come the time when they need to raise their own brood.

A nest full of baby birds is a place full of conflict and competition: the needs of the adults have to be balanced against the needs of each chick and the brood as a whole. The parent birds are in competition with their own chicks for food and ensuring that their energy needs are met is a finely tuned thing. This is where humans come in handy, in providing supplementary feeding for birds throughout the winter hunger gap and when birds are nest building and hatching their eggs. A bird that meets the spring, well fed with fat reserves like a butterball turkey is more likely to be a winner in the mate stakes and will certainly have more energy to spend on wooing rather than desperately trying to build its strength up as natural food sources regenerate. Comely female blue tits probably aren’t terribly impressed by a bird more interested in a suet ball than the gentle curve of their saffron- yellow breasts.

So help all birds this coming winter by keeping them fed and remember that not all feeding areas are created equal in the eyes of smaller birds such as the tits. Larger bird feeders and bird tables tend to attract bigger, more voracious birds who are able to fend off tits easily and consume food faster, making it trickier for other birds to eat enough food to maintain body weight and causing them to expend precious energy fighting for their share. If your bird table has hooks to hang nut feeders, shells and fat balls from, alongside a large flat table top for larger birds to eat off, members of the tit family don’t tend to come off very well. Despite their supple, dexterous bodies and beaks, they can end up crowded out.

Birds from the tit family are aerial acrobats, able to feed upside down, contort themselves into the tiniest of spaces to extract food (watch a blue tit or coal tit feed from hanging coconut shells and you’ll see what I mean) and semi hover in the air to peck at nut feeders. So hang up feeders that only the tits can reach, filled with peanuts, fat, niger seeds and sunflower hearts. Hang them at different levels and, if you have a large enough garden, in different areas to discourage avian tit fights over food which waste even more calories and energy during a cold winter. These feeders may well attract goldfinches too but the blue tit can more than easily hold its own against them, giving you your own version of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Bluetit in the garden this winter and spring.

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Nick Stone writes Invisible Works
Thank you to Andrew MacDonald and Helen Bristol.

Pheasants…

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“Don’t go in there!”

The shout reached me a hundred yards down a rutted track, plashy along its edges where the water table rose up. The caution from my husband came just in time to stop me from stepping over a sagging chicken-wire fence to follow the dog walkers ahead of me into a stand of pines, forest-dark and upright as a Japanese etching against a sky the colour of porridge.

Ahead of me, a semi-circle of straw bales mouldered and sagging after a wet summer, and underfoot, discarded grain hulled by the sharp beaks of the thousands of young pheasants which are released from their pens into the countryside. They are now ready for the lucrative meets which will soon pepper our skies with shot.

Slades Covert, where I stood, lies next to the village of Gt Livermere and acts as an elementary school for game birds, a place for them to clatter around until they pluck up the courage to venture forth onto the open fields which surround their feeding pens.

This time of year country roads become the avian version of a crap shoot, as these immature birds have yet to become wise to what happens when feathers meet car bumpers: they burst out of hedgerows, putter about in the middle of the road and change their mind mid-crossing meaning our roads soon become decorated with brightly coloured smears as pheasant meets car.

We’d only stopped here so I could boost some dandelions, couch grass and assorted other weeds to take home for my rabbits from the road side but I’m a sucker for field-edge footpaths and cannot stop myself from wandering up them, even at dusk when the chances are high that I will have to navigate back using my phone torch and wearing the most unsuitable shoes.

Slades Covert by Bob Jones/ Creative Commons
Slades Covert by Bob Jones/ Creative Commons

I’d spent half the journey mourning the passing of every creature splattered on the tarmac and the other half delivering lectures on road safety to the partridge families that were scratting about in the washes of grit that are left after a cloud burst, those channels of yellow mud and tiny stones that braid the road verges. It wasn’t just game birds either; a kestrel was eating its fill of roadkill and another was further along the road, pecking at grit, perched on the verge and reaching down over the edge. He was clearly older and in possession of road wisdom. The surrounding field, clodded in brown and devoid of crops operate as a partridge fight club where the birds went for it, hell for leather, their wings rayed and furious as they flew at each other until one surrendered and ran away, head extended, a feathered stealth bomber in retreat.

Walk the back lanes of Gt Livermere in the late afternoon and the noise is deafening as hundreds of water birds return to the mere and settle down for the night on waters turning mercury grey as night approaches. The clamour rises for a time then starts to fall: ‘In a conversation expected to continue all afternoon…Where is? I’m here? An upward inflection in query and in response’, Alice Ostriker calls it, in her poem ‘Birdcall.’

Silhouetted against the risen moon were an inbound wedge of geese and ducks who skillfully wove a flightpath through the thick brush that lay between mere and us. The splashes as the geese settled onto the waters into a tight plump bounced around the fields. There was no wind at all to stifle the noise down on the ground, unusual for this exposed part of the county although up high, their powerful wingbeats rebuffed the wind, hurling and gliding.

Binoculars do nothing to close the space between us and birds in flight and seeing the mechanical struts and bolts of their extended wings only amplifies the essential mystery of flight. I know how the science works, but I am still wondrously unknowing at the same time. Staring up at the geese, my head tilted back as far as it will go, I turn slowly, 360 degrees and then again until dizziness overtakes and feel like I might swirl through the thick viscous grey of the skies, shedding the magnetic grounding in time and space which keeps me pulled tight against the sticky cracked clay of the field.

Up high, the birds looked down in flight and watched the world swing into shadow as Sunday evening draws the weekend to a close.

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Gt Livermere Church faces the mere.

Autumnal wooded walks in East Anglia

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Alison Uttley knew a thing or two about woods and many of her characters are creatures of them. From Susan in The Country Child who lived among the wooded scrabbly crags of the Peak District to the Little Grey Rabbit who was, to me, the perfect anima of those woodland trees, when Uttley said “there are many lovely small things- leaves and rain” she must surely have been thinking of the British woods in the Autumn.

Woodlands are magical places all year round but as Summer relaxes its hold and we slip into Autumn, they become ever more so, guardians of an imagination forged by the tales of childhood: remember The Forbidden Forest, Hundred Acre Wood and the acres of spike dark pine trees which inhabited the imaginations of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen? From the barcode trunks of pines in Breckland forests to the twisted moss-cloaked limbs of old oaks, trees are a gateway into a shared history and collective subconscious. Trees cloaked our little islands and provided us with the means to be safe, warm and fed and in turn they nourished a rich cultural heritage where specific stories, legends and songs told their local tale.

The Woodland Trust is desperately trying to save over 613 ancient woodlands across the UK, many of them at risk from development, pollution and the effects of viruses which attack specific trees and plants and increasingly at risk are the 256 threatened wildlife species who rely on them to develop and thrive. Over the last 10 years, over 100 of these woodlands have been lost and it is even more imperative that we familiarise ourselves with our local woodlands and the only way to do this is to use them regularly- and join one of the many conservation groups dedicated to protect and promote them for generations to come.

So this Autumn and the coming Winter, join some wildlife organisations, download their wildlife spotting guides then put on your boots and walk. Learn about the local dialect and the names for the things you will see and encourage your children to make up words for the things they see too, in the best tradition of our ancestors who were far more imaginative with words than we seem to be. Only through a workaday familiarity will be protect our East Anglian landscapes and allow them to grow in a dynamic fashion in harmony with the humans who, all too often in the past, have threatened their existence by holding too tight to the myth of the pastoral idyll which seeks to both preserve in aspic and alienate through idealisation.

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Here are some of The Millers Tales favourite woodlands across East Anglia. Some have facilities such as toilets, places to eat and drink and run regular events designed to educate and entertain such as bird ringing demonstrations, coppicing workdays, bug hunting and night walks to spot bats. Others are simply woods, a place to walk, sit and contemplate, a busy place for other creatures but hopefully less so for us; they offer us the chance to stop and watch and listen.

Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.
Arger Fen seen from a nearby hillside.

Arger Fen, which lies on the borders of South Suffolk and Essex, near Little Cornard,  is a small fragment of the wild wood that once covered Suffolk over a thousand years ago and the history of those who lived nearby is writ large upon it. The woods retain a sense of timelessness; apart from the conservation signs there is very little to remind you of the modern world and much to transport you away from it. Arger Fen protects species of plants and animals that you might not encounter very often; ancient stands of wild cherry (Prunus Avium) fuzzed with blossoms in the Spring, stag beetles, the hazel dormouse and barbastelle bats. Famous for its English bluebells which thickly carpet the slopes and glades, visitors can avoid trampling on them by using the boardwalks which also cross marshy areas and streams although stepping on them is at times unavoidable. Packed earth steps are cut into the banks at the heart of the wood, making this a woodland unsuitable for wheelchairs and flimsy buggies and there are no toilets nearby. The nearby villages of Bures, Henny and Assington all have lovely country pubs for a post walk repast.

Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org
Bacton Woods by Evelyn Simak : Geograph.org

Bacton Woods is basically a safari park for trees with over thirty species found in this beautiful woodland, close to Witton in North Norfolk on the Happisburgh road. The original woodland included Sessile Oaks and two of these, which are thought to be over 200 years old, still remain and the whole site was originally heathland before planting which is why you will see plenty of clumps of old gorse and broom. Keeping them company are Scots and Corsican pine, western hemlock, Douglas fir and larch alongside other broadleafs such as hazels, rowans and ash; bluebells, sorrell and dogs mercury carpet the woodland floor with seasonal foliage and blooms, making this a sensory pleasure at all heights.

Bacton Wood is more proactive with regards to entertainment: visitors can enjoy orienteering along three waymarked routes; ride or walk several trails which possess broad paths, bounded by natural leafy archways: this is the place to bring toddlers who enjoy Autumn leaf kicking. The blue trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches and walkers will be able to identify many woodlandtree species from the beech avenues, ‘short’ pines planted for seed collection and towering wellingtonia trees. The medium ability red trail runs along variable tracks with occasional benches to rest on,  passing through a conifer plantation and mixed woodland, a beech avenue and recently planted woodland where a ‘grandparent’ Oak lies and, finally, past the pond. The yellow trail (1.3miles) runs along well made tracks with frequent benches. From a clockwise approach it gradually loses height as it passes conifer and mixed woodland to the pond and then on to the ‘grandparent’ oak tree. This is followed by a 200m incline to a level walk past the wellingtonia trees, mixed woodland and an area recently cleared to encourage native broadleaf woodland.

Organised events include conservation work and children’s activities such as nature spotting walks and entry is free for under 3s (unless otherwise stated). The woods also have some decent mountain biking trails which include free drops from 7ft high to smaller, safer ones for beginners. Dirt jumps will allow freestylers to try out their tricks and these jumps are 6-7 feet high. Picnic areas are also provided and carparking facilities (about two and a half miles north of North Walsham) including disabled bays are provided. The nearest public toilets are in North Walsham town centre or on the B1159 at Walcott.

Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush
Beautiful Felbrigg colours by Dodo Matush

Lions Mouth at Felbrigg Hall is run by the National Trust and offers the Hall with all its amenities, parkland, lakeside walks and a  520-acre (2.1 km2) Great Wood which shelters the house. Of especial note is the well-known “Lions Mouth”, a beauty spot which can be reached from the main road A148 and is popular with walkers and ramblers.

Home to beech trees which may well prove to be the furthest north they can exist on this type of acid soil, rare fungi and lichens and (the fabulously named) slender lemon slug, the area is an ecological wonder-  parts of Felbrigg have SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) status. This is the place to be in the early morning when the mists are slow to burn off, when plovers, lapwings and barn owls screech, rise and fall, clamour and call to each other.

Birds aren’t the only creature on the wing though: eight species of bat have been recorded here, including woodland mammals such as Natterer’s bat and the rare Barbestelle. Felbrigg Lake is a good place to head for at dusk to see bat activity as they swoop through the clouds of midges and gnats which skein just above the surface of the water. Check out the mysterious Icehouse, hibernation site for many of the Felbrigg bats.

There are many marked walks available (see the NT website)  including 3 easy circular dog friendly options which encircle the Hall and old deer park. Two of the walks pass along wide, push and wheelchair accessible tracks and one takes you through the “Victory V” wood.  Planted  in 1946, it was designed to be seen as a “V” from the air. Felbrigg Hall organises a raft of events for all the family, marking popular calendar dates such as Halloween and Christmas. Booking ahead is advised.

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Longthorpe Woods by Woodland Trust

Londonthorpe Wood and the Belton Estate, Lincolnshire– Here’s a handy clue as to the age of a woodland: If there is evidence of wood anemone and enchanter’s nightshade, the woodland is a venerable one. Londonthorpe has a healthy population of both, dating back to more ancient woodlands among its newer oak and ash saplings (planted in three phases from 1993-95) and also boasts trees planted back in 1856, in memory of the Crimean War. More intriguing are the ghost sightings spoken of by locals and visitors: a headless coachman whose stagecoach rattles its way along Five Gates Lane and estate entrance; the chilling feeling that apparently creeps along the spines of visitors to Belmont Tower which can be found close by. One visitor to the woods reported “a huge red handprint firmly on his neck and a choking sensation. The handprint remained for half an hour.”

The village name  derives from the Old Scandinavian, lundr+thorp, meaning an “outlying farmstead or hamlet by a grove and groves aplenty we have here alongside a range of habitats from mature woodland to a pond, separated by roadways. Grassy paths wander circuitously through open meadows with a healthy population of Spring and Summer wildflowers and  there is also a wide range of species that call it home, including woodpeckers and grass snakes. The site lies on the edge of Grantham and the National Trust’s Belton Park, the Woodland Trust property and surrounding farmland. The new planting consists of mixed, mostly native, broadleaved species with ash and oak and the site contains many veteran trees – remnants of older parkland planting and the old hedgerows that transect the planting site.

Belton Estate has dramatically wide woodland paths with sweeping vistas- one of them culminates in Belmont Tower itself. The Belton Estate is rich in wildlife and covers about 1,350 acres (750 acres of which is designated deer park and includes a mysterious site of a deserted medieval village called Towthorpe. The ruins are close to the Lion Gates and towards the River Witham.  Keen eyes will spot the signs of earthworks and evidence of the ridges and furrows associated with medieval farming methods.

Long Melford Country Park
Long Melford Country Park

Long Melford Country Park– Formerly known locally as Rodbridge Corner Picnic Place, this little pocket of woodland, open grass and former gravel pit waterways borders the River Stour on its western and southern boundaries as the river wends its way from the village of Long Melford and onto Sudbury. Close to Clare and Cavendish and the town of Sudbury with its beautiful water meadows, the park is a lovely place to spend a few hours or explore as you walk the various river routes of South Suffolk. Formerly called Rodbridge Corner Picnic Grounds, this is my old stamping grounds, easily walked with youngsters and providing swiftly changing landscapes.

Established in 1967 from gravel pits used to construct the WW2 airfields that dot the local region, the park is well used for walking, angling and is home to many white poplar trees which shade the riverpath. The ponds are rich in aquatic insect life, dragonflies and damselflies, Roach, Bream, Tench and Pike, and make good breeding sites for Coot, Little Grebe, Moorhen and Mute Swan. Well established rabbit warrens pepper the earthbanks and dips in the terrain caused by the former excavations. Bring binoculars because you may well see otters and kingfishers dipping in and out of the muddy banks which are thickly lined with bullrushes and clumps of waterlillies. The river paths can get muddy after it has rained but most of the park is accessible if a little bumpy underfoot for wheeled visitors. There are two areas of grassland, with the southern area allowed to grow naturally, crossed by mown paths, picnic tables and chairs and a toilet.

Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org
Hainault Country Park by the Woodland Trust.org

Hainault Forest Country Park– Having retained its Green Flag Status for 2015/16 from Keep Britain Tidy, this large woodland space which lies just outside the Romford stretches was one a haven for vagabonds and n’er do wells and also provided shelter for fugitives from London’s plague filled streets. Nowadays, the park is a haven for families and the only creatures hiding in the trees are creepy crawlies such as giant spiders and a grim reaper, which are all to be found hiding in the mile long monster trail. At dusk, the coppiced hornbeams cast spooky shapes for those of you seeking some Autumnal and Halloween fun (the park is dominated by veteran hornbeams – around 12,000 of them) and there’s an adventure play trail too. This is beautifully designed with climbing posts and rope bridges, adventure play towers and a circular swing in the shape of a spiders web (perfect for children who have disabilities) plus woodland trails with site specific sculpture and wildlife information to spark their imagination and help them become fully engaged with their surroundings.

And that’s not all. There’s a boating lake and Foxburrow Farm, an all weather animal petting area with badger faced sheep, nubian goats and mangalitza pigs among the many attractions. Guided walks, segways and orienteering are also on offer plus a land train which takes passengers on a scenic 15 minute ride departing from the zoo and travelling around the lake and surrounding areas. The route is not fixed and varies year round according to the weather. The park has toilet and changing facilities, carparking and plenty of places to picnic.

Nowton Park
Nowton Park

Nowton Park, West Suffolk– A woodland park in the grand Victorian style, this was once the grounds of a large home and is now managed by St Edmundsbury Council who fund a wide range of nature related activities for all the family. Located on the outskirts of the town (there’s a bus service which stops nearby), the park has a cafe, changing facilities and toilets plus a small adventure playground but the real fun is to be found in its various habitats from open flower studded meadow to bluebell and harebell edged woodland walks. Scramble over logs, join in with bat walks and nighttime stargazing and look out for the wild and wacky trees planted by the Victorians:  a lightning struck Douglas fir; a catalpa (Indian bean tree) that appears to be consuming a fence; yews that spin and twist and finally, the giants of the tree world- the redwoods.

In addition, felled tree trunks have been left in situ for children to swarm over and ape the Enid Blyton-esque childhood antics that modern life sometimes deprives them of. The east and west arboretum and folly woodland walk has been newly landscaped with sinuous bark litter covered walkways curving around specimen plants, camellia, Cedars of Lebanon and a flint and stone tumbled folly. There’s also a folly and pond  planted with a Japanese feel- willows, specimen trees and bushes, airy, light with the branches traced against a more visible sky.

Tyrells Wood, Norfolk- is a well used broadleaf wood, quiet and off the beaten track (it runs parallel to the A140 to the west and Ansons Lane to the east) and dating back to the ancient woodland site at its centre. The Boscus de Grischave can be found in records dating back to 1251, is indeed thought to date back to the Ice Age, and it is home to veteran hornbeams which have been pollarded into fat twisted trunks and the elderly relics of coppiced hazels.

Tyrrells Wood is arguably at its best in the Autumn where a roundabout route takes walkers past oaks which once provided the great and good of Norfolk with the finest of timber, birch and ash, and yellow field maples turned butter gold by the warm days and cold nights. Rowan berries and haws light up the brush, glowing as red as the eyes of the woodland creatures whose gaze are caught in the beams of torches at nightfall. The silver patched trunks of the birches shimmer in  the gloaming, their lemon tinted leaves strafed and spinning from gusts of wind which appear to swirl out of nowhere. There’s no way markings or facilities as such: this is a place to savour as is.

Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Entrance to Priestly Wood by Roger Jones / Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Priestley Wood, Suffolk is a dream of a place for eagle eyed plant spotters with more than 130 species recorded here, making it an important SSSI. Located in the parish of Barking in the Gipping Valley, there are over 24 miles of public footpaths in the vicinity and the ancient woodlands of Bonny Wood, Priestley Wood, Swingens Wood, Park Wood and Ditch Wood provide a timeless natural habitat for flora and fauna. Priestely Wood is now owned by the Woodland Trust and we are allowed to wander its many paths. Part of Bonny Wood is owned by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust with paths open to the public.

Deep in these woods, grows a lonely wild pear, miles away from the only other one which exists in the country and you’ll find several varieties of wild orchids cowled away in the undergrowth alongside ramps in the Spring, the broad leaved helleborine, foamy blossoms of anthriscus and carpets of woodruffs with their proudly Tudor leaf-ruff. Their names are testimony to folklore, quirk, legend, and utility, in the case of the pignut. Barren strawberries, the bulbous buttercup, yellow pimpernel and creeping buttercup are all names to recite to your children and make them laugh. Tell them that harebells (campanula) are sometimes known as fairies’ thimbles and were thought to shelter fairies who were at the beck and call of witches and wished to have no more of this.

The tree cover is mixed broadleaf: a hotchpotch of ash, cherry, oak, hawthorn and hazel with a few small leaved limes and hornbeams lurking behind their more common neighbours. Nightingales surf the sky here, high above the surrounding fields, we are in the farming heartland of the Gipping Valley proper, close to Stowmarket which is home to the Museum of East Anglian Life with its insightful documentation of the people who have made this part of the country their home. Autumn is dramatically beautiful, the best time of year to come here in my opinion but Spring is no slouch either: Priestley Woods are one of the best places in England to see the bluebells so make sure you bookend the year with visits to this magical and simple place. Parking is not the easiest, there’s no public toilets.

Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust
Old Woods (image courtesy of the Woodland Trust

Old Wood Norfolk– gives lie to the erroneous belief that Norfolk is flat which anyone who has cycled towards the Northern coastal areas of this county will laugh mirthlessly at. In Old Wood, undulating and marked pathways lope over ridges and slopes, suddenly raising the game (and youjr heartbeat) with their sudden and unexpected inclines. We’re just outside Sheringham and the land here is in a hurry to get to the North Sea, reaching its third highest point in this county, some 96 metres (314ft) above sea level. Take time out here to enjoy the views northwards across the tree line towards Sheringham and the North Sea beyond and gaze at a landscape which is slightly different from inland woods with its sandy heathland, acid soils which support a springy grass covering much beloved by the adders and slow worms which bask here on warmer days. There’s predominately coniferous woodland here- Douglas fir and Corsican pine- but the Woodland Trust intends to restore the site back to mixed broadleaf and heathland. Free parking is provided, some 500 metres away.

Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Pigneys Wood by Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Pigneys Wood, Norfolk might be small but it is mighty, having been recently purchased in 1993 and since then, this little wood a few miles from North Walsham has been extensively redeveloped. The site is a remarkably diverse blend of mature and new mixed woodland and some low lying wet grassland. Some 20,000 trees of 40 different species have been planted alongside other features such as a renovated barn, reed beds, and information boards on wild flowers, butterflies, trees and birds.

Despite its small size, Pigneys Wood is remarkably diverse, supporting a wide variety of trees, including a ‘listed’ 450 year old oak and its water features make it attractive to visiting children alongside the fauna that make their home here. There is a ‘scrape’, a shallow pond, which attracts migratory and wading birds and a dipping platform for children has been created alongside an interactive tree identification trail and guide. Dawn and dusk visitors stand a good chance of bumping into deer and barn owls can be watched as they swoop low over the open grassland. and a bird hide is under construction.  There’s designated walks bordered by native hedgerows and provision for wheelchair access alongside plenty of viewing points where you can sit and enjoy the view or use the picnic facilities of which there are three. Dog walking is permitted throughout the wood but between March 1st and July 31st there are designated areas where dogs are not allowed unless on a lead.

Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods,
Pathway into Pretty Corner Woods, Geograph.org

Pretty Corner Woods, Norfolk is a Green Flag award winning site, jointly run by the Woodland Trust and the NNDC countryside team. With a lovely tea rooms and garden surrounded by a pretty wood to walk in, and despite its obvious popularity with tourists and locals, the woods manage to maintain a sense of tranquility rare in the busier months of the tourist season.Upper Sheringham in North Norfolk was first established in 1926, originating as a wooden pavilion. Originally a wooden pavilion, the tea room scores bonus points for its wood burning stove, dog friendly grounds and both indoor and outdoor.

Autumn sees the woods ablaze with colour, competing with the sensitively planted gardens surrounding the tea gardens and dipping ponds. You’ll see bats, butterflies and buzzards; hear woodpeckers before you see them and see barn owls before you hear this most silent of birds. The woods and heathlands are thick with red campion, dogs mercury and wood sorrel and deer are often spotted nibbling the seedheads from the tall grasses. Country Rangers organise a myriad of events (booking advised in the busier months) and alongside summer festivals, you’ll have the chance to participate in woodland crafts such as bodging and archery. This Autumn, the site is trying to raise awareness of the plight of the bee with a craft sale in its shop.

There is free car parking and a picnic area if you prefer to bring your own food. There is a bus stop situated next to the woods with good links to Sheringham and the surrounding area.

The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks
The Walks in Kings Lynn- Image from http://www.fieldsintrust.org/The-Walks

The Walks, Kings Lynn in Norfolk  might not be a woodland in the strictest, most romanticised of senses, but having been originally conceived as an urban space somewhat different to the grand Victorian park, the Walks still works well as a promenade for locals and a green lung away from the hustle of central Kings Lynn. It is the only surviving 18th century town walk in Norfolk and provides historians with a fascinating insight into changing fashions in urban planning and forms a vital part of Kings Lynn’s social record over its two centuries of development and revision. It’s a wonderful place as it stands, injecting Autumn deep into the concrete and brick of urban Kings Lynn.

The Walks entrance
The Walks entrance

Built originally upon a central historic spine earthworking and identified, by Norfolk Landscape Archaeology, as ‘part of one of the most complete systems of earthwork town defences in eastern England’, the earthwork mounds, banks and watercourses imbue what would otherwise have been a flat site with a softly undulating form. These gentle ascents are home to shrubberies and plantations (‘Seven Sisters’, seven trees planted in a circle in 1760), a medieval pilgrims trail, and a tree lined walk with semi-circular seating areas. The trees are regal, all 800 of them, offering a sturdy and venerable home to squirrels, woodpeckers and a myriad of creatures. They shed leaves in their thousands, piles of rust, gold and orange to kick up, collect and take home. The highest point of the Walks is the Grade 1 listed Red Mount which houses a unique 15th century chapel and provides visitors with elevated view points of the landscape from the structure itself and from the mound which partially surrounds it. The Red Mount houses a unique 15th century chapel. The landscape itself is Grade 2 and has been preserved via a 3.4m restoration project with a cafe, play and games area having been created.

Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty
Bulls Wood, Cockfield has guilder rose berries aplenty

So tranquil and hidden that encountering other people here tends to come as a surprise, Bulls Wood near Cockfield in West Suffolk are a bit of a local secret. Park up on the concrete concourse at Palmers Farm next to the woods and enter a wood which is one of the last pieces of the ancient Cockfield woods which were referred to in the Hundred Rolls of 1279.

Especially beautiful in Spring, this is also a place to come in Autumn for a subtle show of colour and change as the tres shed their leaves and reveal their essential selves. Spring sees rare oxlips carpet parts of the woodland floor and the Early-purple orchid is also plentiful here alongside the spurge-laurel, wood anemone and herb-paris which tend not to be associated as strongly with ancient woodlands. There’s Autumn birdsong too: tawny owls swoop low through glades denuded of leaves, long tailed tits loop through the air and treecreepers and chiffchaffs make the woods their home. The traditional method of coppicing encourages wildlife and local volunteers take charge of this. Trees local to the woods include ash, hazel and field maple while the oaks are normally left to mature into standard trees. Dogs on leads are welcome.

Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace
Wayland Woods by Ashley Dace

Wayland Wood in Norfolk is reputed to be the site of The Babes in the Wood legend and is the not so silent keeper of a tale which inspires both sadness and sheer horror in all who hear it. The wood is no silent witness either:  this is one of the more densely planted, wilder Norfolk woods, said to be haunted by the souls of the young abandoned brother and sister whose ghostly cries for help are echoed by the creatures who make the woods their home. The darkness is literal too because this is not only one of the counties largest woods, it has also been intensively coppicedsince the 10th century and its thick cover is a result of the traditional woodland management techniques which have heightened its ability to support such diversity of flora and fauna, making it a SSSI. These woods are a survivor of the great forest that once covered much of England, dating back to the last Ice Age and the nearby Thompson Common is renowned for its pingos, a series of 300 shallow pools which provide a home for water beetles and dragonflies. These circular ponds were created during the Ice Age when water beneath the surface froze to form lenses of ice, pushing the soil upwards. Starting in nearby Stow Beddon, the Great Eastern Pingo Trail is an eight-mile walk that encompasses this phenomena and many other local sights.

Walk here and enjoy a splendid mixture of tree species: hazel, oak, downy birch, bird-cherry, sallow, ash, hornbeam and field maple alongside over 125 species of flowering plants. The ground is thick with bluebells, water avens, yellow archangel and wood anemone, whilst the early purple orchid is happily established here alongside the rare yellow star of Bethlehem. As you’d expect, the air is filled with the sounds of woodland birds including breeding nuthatch, bud stripping bullfinches, and the marsh tit and the bird cherry trees grow freely here, providing a home to the only naturalised Golden Pheasant population. Over 25o types of moth are on the wing come dusk, one of the best times to walk here if you bring a torch to light your way although the crepuscular gloom does bring home the sadness of a tale which saw two infants left for dead in the woods because of the usual motives of money, ownership and avarice.

Dunwich Woodlands
Dunwich Woodlands

The woods at Dunwich, Suffolk is undergoing a process of rewilding which will see it transformed back into indigenous coastal healthlands and the existing conifer plantatiions removed. However, it is still a strikingly rich mosaic of woodland, heathland and wooded pastures which abuts a romantically desolate coastline designated as an AONB. Grazed by wild Dartmoor ponies, there are numerous walks and trails past hedgerows bursting with life and the heavy honeyed scent of gorse from the heathland which edge the approach roads to the village. Gentle climbs offer sweeping views of Dunwich and the sea where the majority of the ancient village lies, having succumbed to sea storms centuries ago.

Dartmoor ponies grazing the open areas, Dunwich Forest is being transformed From a conifer plantation into a rich mosaic of woodpasture, wet woodland and heathland. Radar gate on Sandlings walk entrance, all other kissing gates motorised wheel chair/buggy accessible. Some rides may be difficult for non-motorised wheel chairs, particularly in wet weather/winter.

Dunwich tree canopy
Dunwich tree canopy

From the beach car park this route heads inland along leafy bridleways and through the woods of Dunwich Forest. Although much of the planted stock in this area is coniferous, giving a background of consistent pine, it is a walk with infinite variety as the hedgerows and deciduous glades constantly change with the seasons. During spring and early summer the swathes of gorse add an extra dimension with their vibrant yellow flowers and sweet aroma. On the return section of the route there are a couple of gentle climbs that ultimately lead to great views over Dunwich and toward the sea. Summer is also a great time to make sure you visit the garden of The Ship at Dunwich as it is home to England’s oldest fig tree – believed to be over 600 years old – and it looks magnificent in full leaf.

Footpath towards Bonny Wood
Footpath towards Bonny Wood, Geograph.org

The ancient coppiced landscape of Bonny Woods near Needham Market can be traced back as far as 1251 and is part of the Barking Tyewoods which are a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Although the Suffolk Wildlife Trust states the woods are at their best in the Spring when wood anemone, woodruff and herb-paris bloom, Bonny Woods are still beautiful in the Autumn and Winter when it reveals its historic bone structure and the shape of the trees tell a story of land management.  The woods have been variously owned by Elizabeth the First (1561) who purchased them from the Bishop of Ely and sold on by James the First in 1611.

Badger live here and at certain times of the year, you will be amused by the mating displays of woodcock as they strut and mince about at dusk. Mowing, coppicing and raking by the SWT keep sunny rides open and locals enjoy walking dogs here although they must be on leads. Park in Barking Tye Village Hall car park .The woods do not have disabled access.

The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes
The Kings Forest surrounds Lackford Lakes

Lackford Lakes, in West Suffolk is one of The Millers Tale’s favourite places to walk in because of the diversity of habitats it offers and extensive programme of family events. Abutting West Stow Anglo Saxon Village, the SWT managed reserve has been established on flooded gravel pits which feed a labrinyth of reed beds and marshes, lakes, waterways and wooded areas adjacent to the remarkable Brecklands landscapes. An Autumn walk here will reveal tree lines ablaze with colour, a fiery backdrop to lakes which are home to cormorants, grebe, egrets, swans and Egyptian geese among many many species. Come in the hour before dusk and watch the cormorants prepare to roost in the trees which grow on little islands in the largest lake. Silhouetted against the sun, they extend their wings to warm them before night removes the heat from the sky and look, for all the world, like a Japanese painting.

Lackford at dusk
Lackford at dusk

Other birds including shoveler, lapwing, goosander, bittern and goldeneye depend on the lakes during the autumn and winter months. The broadleaf and coniferous trees that make up the Kings Forest are a distant echo of the small wooded walks which wend their way from bird hide to bird hide, with stands of birch, hazel, blackthorn and oak. The paths wend their way alongside meadows and the scrubby Brecks with their small scale mosaics of sedums, lichens and mosses. Kingfishers and otters fish and live here along the small streams, ponds and reedbeds and the bird hides provide daily opportunities to watch them- ask rangers for advice as to the best times and places or check the whiteboard in the education centre entryway where visitors record their sightings. Dipping ponds are kept for kids to use with rangers to guide and explain and the education centre offers tea, cakes, a close up view of bird feeders and the nest cams.

A large part of the reserve is accessible to buggies and wheelchairs and the hides are ramped.

North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust
North Cove from the Suffolk Wildlife Trust

North Cove between Beccles and Lowestoft offers a relaxing walk amid mixed wetland habitats: grazing marsh, wet woodland and pools nestled along the Waveney Valley. The ponds, dykes and meadows are important habitats for marsh ferns, bog pimpernel and golden saxifrage whilst the mature woodland is home to birds such as the warbler, siskin, redpoll and all three types of woodpecker. Woodcock nest and feed in the scrub and young carr and sparrow-hawk hunt here their swift swooping flight low to the ground and ascending flight clear against tall and wide Suffolk skies.

If you like dragonflies, this is the place for you and late summer will find grass snakes and common lizards soaking up the last of the suns heat before late Autumn and Winter sees them retreating. Cattle graze here and provide and important management service, keeping scrub at manageable levels. The Beccles Bird Society co maintains the site alongside the SWT which gives some idea of its avian importance. The woods form part of  Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Suffolk Broads Living Landscape which is a project intending to develop a rich landscape of wetland habitat from Lowestoft to Beccles. This will be home to a host of unique Broadland species such the rare Norfolk Hawker dragonfly.

The plant hunters of Suffolk

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Cedars of Lebanon on Hardwick Heath in Bury St Edmunds

Suffolk is an unusual place, irregularly defined more by water than its land which has presented a peculiar and unpredictable challenge for various invading forces. However it has also been the home of people who travel far beyond its confines in their own lifetime and the results of these expeditions can be seen growing in our gardens and parks and town centres.

The tales of the great plant hunters are epic, ranging across seas and the unmapped heart of continents. Often centred upon the grand male narrative, these treks were deemed unsuitable for women although some did manage to penetrate the closed world of botany and plant collection. Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, of whom we will hear more from later, said this, barely 100 years ago: “Gardening, taken up as a hobby when all the laborious work can be done by a man is delightful, but as a life’s work [for a woman], it is almost an impossible thing.”

Think of David Douglas who sought out and introduced the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), Escholtzia (Californian poppy) and lupins and ended up dying after falling into a pit designed to trap wild bullocks in Hawaii and Alice Eastwood who rescued the herbarium at California Academy of Sciences after the building was felled by the big San Francisco earthquake and fire, by clinging to the banisters. Then there’s Paul Winder and Tom Hart-Dyke who went to Columbia and Panama in search of the rare orchids and were were kidnapped by Farc guerillas, remaining captive for nine months in more recent times: this has never been a sedate and genteel past-time. Plant fever, that glint eye obsession for discovering the new, whether that be a plant or place to forage for them has driven humans to trade in and import plants since the Romans first imported plums, walnuts and roses into Britain and elaborate preparations were made to store and transport plant material home, from Wardian cases to mule trains clinging precariously to scree covered mountain slopes.

Two of the countries most famous botanists and plant hunters came from Halesworth in Suffolk: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker who went on to become scientific confidant to Charles Darwin and became Director of Kew Gardens between 1865-1185 and his father, Sir William Jackson Hooker who was Kews first Director and Regius Professor of Botany at Glasgow University.

Joseph Hooker combined a thirst for discovery and an inexhaustible hunger for travel with rigorous taxonomic innovation and investigation which soon led to a developing reputation as the foremost botanist of his time. Beginning his career as an assistant surgeon on HMS Erebus for Antarctic expeditions (a way of overcoming a lack of fiscal means by which to fund his own expedition), he roamed the southern oceans, India and the Himalayas, even getting himself imprisoned by the Rajah of Sikkim for ranging far into territories he had received no invitation for- Tibet. If you wander around a plant nursery of a weekend, check out the labels on Rhododendrons because the varieties with ‘Hookerii’ as part of their Latin name were his Indian discoveries: 25 of them in total and Hooker was hugely responsible for the passion the Victorians had for these plants. The restored Victorian gardens at Nowton Park in Bury St Edmunds and the Edwardian gardens in Brandon are both home to giant specimens, their apparent domesticity and British suburban ubiquitousness giving little clue of the real dangers involved in bringing them here. Hooker adored his plants but he was no romantic with his head in the clouds and he didn’t suffer fools either: he collected plant specimens whose discovery really put him through the wringer. As he commented about the rhododendrons one day, ” If your shins were as bruised as mine after tearing through the interminable rhododendron scrub of 10 – 13 feet you’d be as sick of the sight of these glories as I am.”

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Joseph Dalton Hooker

In those extensive diaries now being digitised at Kew, Hooker frequently expounded on the arduous nature of his expeditions: “I staid [sic] at 13000ft very much on purpose to collect the seeds of the Rhododendrons & with cold fingers it is not very easy… Botanizing, during March is difficult. Sometimes the jungle is so dense that you have enough to do to keep hat & spectacles in company, or it is precipitous… certainly one often progresses spread-eagle fashion against the cliff, for some distance, & crosses narrow planks over profound Abysses, with no hand-hold whatever” as he wrote to William Hooker from Darjeeling in 1849. Joseph took few luxuries with him: apart from the tools of his trade he packed a supply of cigars for each evening and a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff named Kinchin. A devoted companion, the dog one day fell to its death and was swept away by a river.

Described as ‘an interrogator of the natural world’, Hookers work helped to support Darwin’s Theory of the Origin of Species because he understood botanical context- he interpreted what he saw around him and his own publications were many. Containing exquisite botanical illustrations, works such as the Rhododendrons of Sikkim Himalaya and the Colonial floras of New Zealand and British India culminated in The Genera Plantarum, prepared with co-author George Bentham over more than 25 years and published in 1883. It has been called the most outstanding botanical work of the century, describing over 7,500 genera and nearly 100,000 species. The work underpinned the Bentham-Hooker model for plant classification.

Joseph’s father, William, the first Director of Kew Gardens came to Halesworth to take up the position of superintendent of the brewery, staying for eleven years until his botanical passion drive him to London and his directorial post at Kew Gardens. His son clearly followed in his footsteps and mighty ones they were too: he increased the size of the garden from 11 to 600 acres and oversaw the construction of the Palm House. On 1 November 1865, Joseph succeeded his father as Director of Kew Gardens, aged just 48.

One of my personal favourites of all his plants is the Winter flowering Sarcococca ‘Hookeriana’ which is possessed of an understated appearance but a fragrance that is anything but. Tiny lime green pendulous blossoms, dangling from the undersides of leathery leafed branches give off a powerfully spicy and verdant sweet scent which wends its way down our garden and into the kitchen whenever we open the door. Often used by municipal gardeners because it is tough and low maintenance, the Sarcococca often makes its home outside multi-storey car parks, on median strips of urban clearways and on council office borders and most of us walk past without paying it a moments notice.

But unlike many of you, when I think of the plants that best typify Suffolk, what does not spring to mind are romantic images of rose bowers, cottage gardens or woodlands with great hazy swathes of bluebells although all these are without doubt easily found in our county and much celebrated. I think of the Scots Pines and Cedars of Lebanon standing sentinel in the grounds of the West Suffolk Hospital and on the neighbouring Hardwick Heath. They populate the ancient and characteristic twisted pinelines of the Brecklands (‘broken lands’) and tall cedars grow among the yews in St Mary’s churchyard in Barking near Needham Market, a legacy of its 19th century vicar, Robert Uvedale. He was another botanical enthusiast who collected seeds from around the world and was believed to have planted one of the trees at his former home, Uvedale Hall nearby after a pupil brought the seeds back from Jerusalem.

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Around 1860, Joseph Hooker developed a yen to visit the Cedars of Lebanon that grew in the eponymous country and in Syria too, despite strong advice to not go because of the civil war that had broken out between the Druze and Christians. Many thousands had been massacred. Even Darwin counselled against it, telling Hooker ” ‘For God’s sake do not go and get your throat cut. Bless my soul! I think you must be a little insane.” As he arrived in Damascus in the October, his diary told of what he encountered: ” The Christian quarter had been reduced to ruins piled high, heaps of mutilated corpses” but the expedition found, what they believed to be the only remaining group of these trees on Mount Lebanon, about 400 of them with an estimated age was 350-400 years. Hooker collected the seeds and added to the UK population of a tree which has gone on to contribute so much character to our landscapes, both rural and urban. Its shape is etiolated and those distal flat level branches with their clearly defined clouds of bristly leaves are well suited to the coastal regions where it provides tall shade for the wild ponies that graze there and shelters the acid yellow gorse that perfumes the late spring air. Reminiscent of the region from which it originated and mentioned in the bible, “the righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon” (Psalm 92 v12), the tree has been a great success and is my living memorial to Joseph Hooker.

Hooker’s own botanical illustrations straddle the fields of art and science being both wondrous objet d’art and scientific record. The history of botanical painting and illustration stretches back centuries, being used for medicinal purposes (Culpeppers) alongside its aesthetic and decorative properties. In Santon Downham, the Iceni Botanical Artists now offer tutorial workshops free of charge to the public at the village hall, funded by the HLF ‘Breaking New Ground’ project. There are guest speakers, the chance to gain skills in watercolour and receive tuition on how best to depict local flora from Breckland wild flowers to its fungi and pine tree landscapes. Artists can tap into a landscape suffused with stories which stretch back to the Stone Age: rabbit farming, glacial pingos, flint mines and over 12,845 species of plants and animals.

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.

Great Livermere- a walk through its ghostly past

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Extending along Ampton Water and just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, the little village of Great Livermere boasts two famous ‘sons’: William Sakings and M.R. James, writer of the quintessential English ghost story which were sometimes set in the village, of which more later. Sakings was a falconer to three Kings in succession during the seventeenth century and he is commemorated by an engraving of a falcon on a hanging sign in the village. He lies beneath a tombstone in its graveyard marked by an inscription of the date of his death (1689).

The village takes its name from the reeds and lake which was channelled by local landowners in the 19th century and its name ‘Livermere’ was first recorded in the year 907 a.d, making it one of the earliest recorded to survive. Translated as ‘the lake where rushes grew’ from the pre 7th century Olde English ‘laefor-mere’, these rushes were widely used domestically for heating, flooring and roofing and the waters are made up of Broad Water and Ampton Water.

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Great Livermere is located on the bottom of a flat valley grassland with peat and silt underfoot as you approach the water. This gradually yields to the flint pocked friable Breckland soil as the footpaths rise upwards towards the Brecks proper, a landscape of gently rolling plateau and free draining sandy soils overlaying drift deposits of either glacial or fluvial origin. These were left behind by the Ice Age as it pushed back from East Anglia. There is chalk, but acid sand is the more common and these dry mineral soils and the general absence of watercourses further into the ‘Broken Lands’ gave rise to extensive areas of heathland or acid grassland that, historically, were used either for sheep grazing or for rabbit warrens. The buildings scattered around the church tell this geological story with the red bricks of south east Suffolk giving way to the yellow, buff and white of the north west, matching the colour of the fields that swell uphill from the village. Flint is also widely used in Breckland as a walling material and there is plenty of evidence of it, half buried in the rough two lane track that skirts the mere.

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There are well defined stands of trees dotting the landscape; some Alder Carrs and a few plantation woodlands, the latter in the classic rectilinear pattern and the traditional pine lines that are typical of the Brecks make dark slashes against the horizon. Today the sky is high with the fields rising up to meet it, a change from the all too recent crepuscular grey skies of the winter which pressed down on the land like an upturned pudding bowl. The light is pale blue and clean; the contrasts between the darker ploughed earth with the paler set aside, the olive of the pines and the straw colours of the deadened grasses are easily discernible.

Back beside the Mere, the low trees and scrub cling to the margins of the mere, roots lumpen and risen in the manner of the more tropical mangroves and the mud of the Mere is embossed with the footprints of the thousands of birds which live and breed nearby. Between the church and the Mere lie reeds and sedge in tones of creamy sand and buff that camouflage the stone of the church on a hazy day. There are clumps of gorse that provide cover for the many pheasants that are bred for the local shoot. The winds swirl and flatten the grasses, blow them this way and that ways whilst the rough pathways give way underfoot to diddering East Anglian bog and metal gangways lead far out across the lake, ending in bird hides used by shooters.

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Typically, the Norman church is guarded by tall yews planted by its metal gates. As in many many church yards, the yews were planted to provide the right materials to fashion long bows with, their combination of strong rigid wood with a flexible fibrous layer made the best kind of bow and the trees are unpalatable to livestock and imbued with folklore. Outside, looking up we can see that the semi completed tower is topped by a weather-boarded belfry. The architecture is democratic with windows from almost every period, but the heart of the church is its Norman nave, despite the north side windows with their stolid traceries of wood which line a battlemented vestry in a kind of homely version of Gothic. The church itself is solid; it lacks the delusions of grandeur that are the affliction of many an East Anglian place of worship and seems a good example of a ‘does what it says on the tin’ kind of church. The curious local light easily penetrates inside as there is no stained glass to interfere with its trajectory. The ghosts of elderly wall paintings can be seen on its walls and these are slowly being uncovered and restored, my fingers traced the vestiges of a cross and a fleur de lys in ochre and siennna. Lead paned windows have deep stone sills where someone has scraped a ‘W’ (or might it be a ‘M’?) and the view is of graves.

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MR James is understandably in this church from the memorial in the chancel to the existence of his own fathers period of time spent here as Rector circa 1865. James grew up here and used the village as a setting for many stories including his last one, ‘A Vignette’ (1936) based upon Livermere Rectory where the prose tells us of ‘an iron gate which admits to the park from the Plantation’, and a ‘wooden gate with a square hole’ which an apparition peers through’. Also set in Gt Livermere is ‘The Ash Tree’ and in the graveyard of the church can be found gravestones inscribed with the name ‘Mothersole’ which is the name carried by the ghost of that same tale.Should you have time to spare, travel a few miles to nearby Bury St Edmunds and discover the places he wrote about as an academic, (the Abbey) and the inscriptions on the graves of the monks in the Chapter House within the ruins of the Abbey which he was responsible for.

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James may have been conventional in his beliefs and his younger life especially  ran a deeply conventional course as a Christian scholar that informed his work. His ghosts, while usually malign, were embedded within stories that considered themes of good and evil. The ‘veinious spiders’ of his tale ‘The Ash Tree’ terrified me when I read it with their creeping and silent object of terror spirited up by the ghost of a young woman (Mrs Mothersole). She haunts those (the squire) who wrongly executed her for witchcraft (the place of execution would have been Bury St Eds) and her story continues to haunt me to this day. MR James, in response to questions about his own beliefs regarding haunting, stated that he was prepared to consider the evidence but his last story, ‘A Vignette’ published shortly before his death and about a young boy who recounts an experience of being watched by a ghost through a hole in a gate is in the first person and is deeply suggestive of a personal encounter. Never denied or confirmed, this mystery only adds to his effectiveness as a teller of great ghost stories.

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He was sensitive towards, and able to respond to, the strange and macabre undercurrents that permeate the Suffolk landscape and allow such folkloric tales to gain a foothold by the firesides of locals as they gathered during long dark winters to tell stories. MR James mastered the art of creeping unease; that sense of eeriness and dread that humans are susceptible to, and he understood how to embed unease into the landscape so that a glance out of the corner of an eye or a second look turns the familiar less so.

Great Livermere is a place where the thin veil between matter and spirit, an idea much espoused by the Victorians, appears to be alive in the landscape, suffusing those stories told by locals of hauntings and strange inexplicable happenings. The village is redolent with them and within two minutes of leaving my car, I was approached by villagers keen to tell me of the places reputation as ‘most haunted’ and about local resident Beryl Dyson, who has spent decades researching and retelling the many accounts of ghostly happenings- at least fourteen documented phantoms according to her- which she believes are attracted to the village because of its Mere. This place with its luminous clear light, distinct eco system and habit of swallowing noise only to replace it with the sound of wind brushed grasses and bird cries is where, she says, the conscious mind becomes uncoupled from the thoughts driving it. As MR James wrote,the Mere is where we go to lie beneath the waving fern and beetle hum, where ‘from off the mere, above the rooks the hern/ come sailing, and rooks fly calling home.’

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Dog walkers from the village have been somewhat discombobulated to find a ghostly figure of a woman walking next to the churchyard wall in the early hours of the morning and Beryl has written of making her first acquaintance with beings from another dimension aged between six or seven when she saw a strange male figure near the rectory gates. Describing him as “a little chap…who wore the clothes of a jester, the collar had points on it and he had a shaven head and stood in front of me and grinned” in her book,  Great Livermere a Parish with Ghosts, this is an image much beloved of folklorists and a common Celtic trope or motif.  Other villagers concur that they have had similar experiences. From monks, incongruous ploughing horses and grey ladies to the common ‘Black Shuck’ of Suffolk and bicycle riding ghosts, the apparitions have been varied. Interestingly, Dyson believes that MR James may well have seen the same ghost as her, the jester, and imagines it as the ghost that haunts ‘A Vignette.’

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Beneath an unusually trenchant early spring sun and unseasonal temperatures of 17 degrees, we walked through the gate at the back of the St Peters churchyard and entered the grassy rim of the Mere which runs parallel to the church. We walked along gangways through the sucking mud until we arrived at the waters edge and looked back at the church through seas of cornsilk sedge and pollarded clumps of dogwoods growing new red shoots. We could see the metallic grey blue of the water blinking as the rays hit it, a million tiny pinpricks of diamonds glittering on the surface, broken only by Vs of water fowl, the white fronted geese, coots and common and Arctic terns. We saw and heard water rails, common pochards and swans and the ungainly Egyptian geese as they tore up great gouts of muddy grass. The plumage of the shelduck with its white chest, brown barred body and tan striped wing appeared enamelled by the sun, as shiny and poreless as sealskin as we watched it through our binoculars.

11019576_1606444612926510_8150682106061838482_nLaying on my back on the track I watched a goshawk spread its wings out to the sun and hover, seemingly motionless before returning to the cover of the nearby pines whilst four kestrels soared in a double helix as the thermals pushed them ever upwards until they were out of sight of even the binoculars. Pied wagtails worked their way into thickets of dead brush and a buzzard dipped in and out of fields blanketed in the chaff of last years harvest. The light was clear and penetrating and it would be a good dusk for hunting.

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The track continues past the feeding stations, birds turning tail hysterically at our approach, stretches out towards farmland, bears right onto a shady track through a copse then takes us to a bridge that edges a rectangular body of water (Longwater) on the left. The official footpath on the right as you approach Longwater has been blocked by deliberately torn young trees, apparently discouraging walkers from rounding the near side of the water where the birds are encouraged to congregate. As you walk towards the west side of the Mere, the deeply rutted track opens out onto the wider landscape with flinted half ploughed fields and plantations spiked by a few lonely cedars of Lebanon surrounded by mixed broadleaf. The horizon ahead of you is a soft crest of a hill bisected by the track which will take you on a four mile loop around Ampton Water, Oldbroom Plantation, across Gt Barton road and back to the war memorial in Gt Livermere, your original start point.

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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.