Oh, it was GLORIOUS!
After some discussion and because of timings and logistics, we decided that for the third and final leg of the Suffolk 60 we would travel south-north, back from the end to Chillesford.
You see, the Suffolk Coastal path ends at Bawdsey, by the passenger ferry to Felixstowe ferry (see pic) and that means a crossing to the Felixstowe side and another two and a half miles to the station and a sweaty train ride to Ipswich and… You get the idea. Whereas the Textiliste was prepared to drop us off in Bawdsey and pick us up, once again, in Chillesford. Neither the Lawyer nor I were prepared to demur and Dog was bought off with chicken.
At the bottom corner of rural Suffolk, north of the River Deben, it is truly isolated. Across the river, Felixstowe (while still in Suffolk) is a busy port and the surrounding land is domesticated and sanitised. But this side, it is a little bit of time lost.
The path clung to the shoreline as we set off north, light of step given the lovely weather. Even the prospect of tromping through shingle didn’t put us off – well, not for a few hundred yards. Even though it was a couple of miles along the beach the sense of being alone was the perfect antidote to groaning calves. Out at sea the real world chugged up and down – ferry boats and tanker ships, small yachts and skiffs and speedboats. But here, one eccentric old boy pulling up sea cabbage apart, we saw no one. Above us, on the cliff we saw a peek or two of Bawdsey Manor. There was a gulag like fence and lighting too – later we passed a Young Offenders’ Institution so maybe they were linked. But down to the beach it was the ancient groynes and the remains of military defences long since abandoned.
Martello towers were built along the coast from Suffolk to Sussex to defend against the expected Napoleonic invasion. These towers are three metres thick and housed a garrison of up to 30 men who would repel any invaders. So substantial were they that they still stand and several have been converted into homes. The lack of windows is made up by the natural light that floods in glass roofs.
Alongside the remnants of our last war with the French stand the remnants of our last war with the Germans. The combination of shingle beaches and flat land behind was seen, in 1939, as the perfect place to invade. All along the coast there are small gun emplacements and concrete blocks – tank traps – between bigger emplacements and watch towers. Still these buildings and blocks remain, testimony to a battle long since over but whose scars, physical and emotional pop up from time to time in unexpected places. Just this week we have seen a series of events to remember – not commemorate – the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. Today we can stand back and see it as just a war, possibly necessary in some historians eyes but, nonetheless, involving the most egregious loss of life. Given anyone still alive from that point would have been a baby the personal memories of it have faded and it is easier to analyse. It is not so easy, with survivors of the second world war very much alive, to be so sanguine in our analysis of its causes and, especially effects.
It is easy, however, to imagine the fear, the exhilaration, the boredom of the men (it would have been men) manning these facilities. Partly they were the first line against any invader (though that possibility, while not remote in 39/40, must have seemed far enough off to be put to the back of their minds) but mostly they were the first people to be aware of the next air raid. Searchlights would scan the sky as the drone of prop planes filled the night air. They knew, if they could bring down even one plane, lives would be saved. Did it become ‘just a job’? A matter of routine? Or was it always emotion filled, disappointment and worse filing their hearts if they failed to down the enemy? Is it any wonder that, often, the survivors say the war was the best time of their lives as well as the worst? That mix of excitement and horror making then seem ‘alive’ in ways that pushing a pen or digging a field never could? Only now that I see conflicts around the world and read about and listen to the participants do I begin to understand the young people (no longer the exclusive preserve of men) involved and wonder at their enthusiasm for the fight, whatever it may be. Only now does Dickens – ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’ – make any sense.
Further along we arrived at Shingle Street, the first habitation after Bawdsey. It is just a line of houses and chalets, barely defendable against the rising sea water. Living here, in the winter, must be tough even if, today it seemed a fair enough compromise between the beautiful raw isolation of the summer and the threat of inundation of the winter. A sign told us that the much loved pub had been blown up during WW2. This ‘explanation’ comes from a Guardian article in 2009:
..while Shingle Street itself has been the subject of fevered speculation ever since it was evacuated in 1940. Conspiracies include rumours of a German landing and a shoreline littered with burning bodies, schemes to protect the coastline with an impenetrable barrage of flames and the testing of experimental chemical bombs. Four dead German airmen were certainly washed up on the beach, and weapons testing did result in the Lifeboat Inn being blown up. As for the rest, the conspiracy theories rumble on..
Creepy eh? As is so often the case in these tucked away spots, secrets lurk, corners are there to be filled with lies and duplicities. A perfect setting for the writer in me!
Once again the path skirted the shingle; for a while it looked like it would be a tiresome tromp but soon enough the path moved a hundred yards inland onto the sea wall – really just a mound of mud – and allowed us to make a good pace, past the Young Offenders’ Prison and on until we drew alongside the start of Orfordness. I have posted on this weird and wonderful spot before. If you can get yourself to Suffolk, go there. If you write GO THERE. It is unique in both its history and its current topography and natural history.
The rivers that have helped create this isolated spit, the Ore and its tributaries the Alde, the Iken and the Butley, flow out to sea near here. Our route took us along the Butley until we reached the passenger ferry to the Ness itself and then inland to Butley. It was nice to have a change of scenery The threatened rain started then stopped. We saw yet more crops and pigs and the oddest selection of farm vehicles. At one point we scrumped some plums – oh god, were they good? The final stretch of road was closed for sea defence works but the workmen let us past. ‘Oi Roight!’
And before we knew it we were at our finish, a mite early, and had time to massage our feet before the Textiliste turned up with water and crisps.
App says 27,000. My feet couldn’t give a stuff; we’d finished!
And here are some other pics: