A house in the clouds and a town lost beneath the waves
Down the centuries this long stretch of coast has been at the mercy of wind and tide, which can change the seashore overnight. Orford was once a prosperous seaport; at Aldeburgh, houses stood where there is now only shingle; and at Dunwich the most prosperous town of Norman Suffolk is now under the sea. Today Aldeburgh attracts music-lovers, while Minsmere offers one of the country’s finest sites for birdwatching.
A solitary gravestone near the edge of a shallow cliff, with rabbits nibbling the turf and sand martins wheeling overhead, marks the death of old Dunwich. The stone is the last survivor of All Saints’ Church, which collapsed into the sea about 1920, following Saxon, Norman and medieval Dunwich into the waves, carried away by the relentless erosion of wind and tide. It is said that at times the submerged church bells can be heard, ringing out a warning of an approaching storm.
BIRDWATCHING AT MINSMERE
For almost 100 years avocets failed to breed in Britain, but they returned to the east coast in the 1940s when most of it was closed to the public because of the war. Now they breed regularly at the RSPB’s Minsmere Reserve, which is also the home of the rare marsh harrier and some 100 other breeding species.
In Saxon times Dunwich was a flourishing port on the River Blyth, with its own bishop and grammar school. Norman Dunwich was even more prosperous, with three churches, several chapels, and as many as 5,000 inhabitants. Erosion was kept at bay by the simple expedient of piling brushwood, weighted with stones, on the shingle – done each autumn, this was quite enough to give protection for the following winter. But in January 1326, in the course of a single night’s storm, 1 million tons of sand and shingle were banked across the harbour mouth, cutting it off from the sea and diverting the River Blyth northwards. This effectively killed the town’s trade. Merchants and citizens moved away, and Dunwich was abandoned to the elements. Year after year the sea took its toll; whole streets and buildings tumbled from the cliffs, and by 1677 the waves had reached the market place.
Apart from the gravestone, old Dunwich is recalled by the remains of the leper chapel beside the Victorian parish church, and by the archways of a medieval friary, which can be seen beside the road. There is an excellent little museum on the town’s history.
This 214 acre expanse of sandy heathland, owned by the National Trust, stands on a crumbling cliff 2 miles south of the ‘lost city’ of Dunwich. Open all the year, it has a shop and information centre, and a large car park by the old coastguard cottages at the top of the cliffs. A waymarked walk leads round the edge of the heath, and gives a good idea of the varied terrain contained within such a small area. To the south, Sizewell nuclear power station can be seen across the wetlands of Minsmere.
About 2 1/2 miles inland from the crumbling cliffs of Dunwich lies Westleton, a village as English as the archers who once practised on its green; as tranquil as its village pond and as old world as its thatched-roof church.
St Peter’s Church has stood on a rise near the green since 1340, an unprepossessing building with none of the grandeur of the great Suffolk churches built by wealthy wool merchants in the 17th century. Prosperity, it seems, passed Westleton by, and it is none the worse for it.
To the north-east of the village is Westleton Heath, one of the last surviving examples of Suffolk heathland where sheep once grazed. It encloses a nature reserve and is a splendid area for walking.
A 1,500 acre expanse at the mouth of the Minsmere river is administered by the RSPB as a bird reserve. Its mixed habitat, consist- ing of reedbeds, artificial lagoons and islands, together with heath and woodland, shelters the greatest variety of breeding birds of any reserve in the country. More than 100 species of birds that breed there include nightjars, woodcocks, nightingales, marsh harriers, bitterns and avocets; and there are many migrant species.
Shore birds can be watched from a large public hide reached along the shore from the National Trust car park on Dunwich Heath and open at all times. To visit the main reserve, permits must be obtained from the reception centre in the reserve; visiting dates can be obtained from the RSPB.
The magnificent ruins of the abbey stand on the west side of the B1122, 1 mile north of Leiston. A footpath leads to the abbey from the outskirts of Leiston, but it is very overgrown. Founded at nearby Minsmere in 1183, the abbey was rebuilt on its present site in 1363. The brick and flint remains are substantia], and include a good deal of the transepts, presbytery and lady chapel. The Georgian house inside the ruins is used as a religious retreat.
Much of Leiston village was built by Richard Garrett, the 19th-century railway pioneer whose firm built the Garrett locomotive.
The first of two nuclear power stations planned for the site was built in the early 1960s and first produced power in 1966. Its vast grey bulk, supplying a network of enormous pylons, dominates the shore for miles. Producing enough electricity to power a city the size of Bristol, it stands on a 245 acre site and uses 27 million gallons of seawater per hour to cool the reactors. The warmed water, which returns to the sea through two large structures resembling oil-rigs offshore, attracts fish to the area, and the beach is popular with fishermen. A Nuclear Exhibition and Information Centre is open on weekdays.
Sizewell village consists of a few cottages, with boats on the shingle. In the 18th century it was a notorious smuggling village, where a record 8,000 gallons of gin were once landed in one night. Its beacon light was last used in 1918, as a navigation aid to British warships which took their bearings from it before bombarding Zeebrugge, in Belgium.
This unique holiday village was laid out before the First World War by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a dramatist and author. It was planned around a specially dug 65 acre lake, only 3 ft deep, called The Meare. The houses, built mainly of heavily disguised concrete, are in many different styles, including Tudor, Elizabethan, and traditional 18th-century East Anglian tarred weather-board.
The two most unusual buildings face each other, up a track called Uplands Road. They are The House in the Clouds, originally a water-tower, and a fully restored post mill. The mill, built in 1803, was moved to Thorpeness in the 1920s, and is now a coastal information centre.
Small boats can be hired on The Meare. Swimming from the shingle beach is safe, except 1 mile to the north, at Thorpe Ness, where large holes are formed in the shingle by strong winds and tides.
A long main street of Georgian houses and older cottages, a wide strip of shingle, small huts selling fresh fish, and a smartly painted lifeboat on the beach – these are the first impressions given by the delightful little town of Aldeburgh. It has probably been settled since Saxon times (the name may mean ‘old fort’, Atdburh in Anglo-Saxon). In the Middle Ages and later it was a prosperous port and fishing centre, it became a seaside resort in the early 19th century, and since 1948 it has won world-wide fame for its annual Music Festival in June.
Old Aldeburgh lives on in its half-timbered Moot Hall, built about 1512. The local council still holds its meetings upstairs, and the building is open to the public in summer, when old maps and other documents are on view. The Moot Hall is now almost on the shingle, but in the 16th century there were three roads, since washed away, between it and the sea.
The poet George Crabbe was born in Aldeburgh in 1754. His best-known poem, The Borough, describes the harsh life of the Suffolk coastal folk of his day; and Benjamin Britten used Crabbe’s pen-portrait of the savage and tormented fisherman Peter Grimes as the basis for his first and best-known opera. At the time of his death in 1976, Britten had been directing the festival for almost 30 years. Aldeburgh’s church of St Peter and St Paul has a memorial window to him by John Piper, and a memorial bust of Crabbe is on the wall near by.
South of the town is a massive sea-wall, wide enough for cars to drive along and park. Boats can be launched at Slaughden Quay into the River Aide. From there the river flows for 10 miles parallel to the sea. The Martello tower south of Slaughden is the northernmost of the chain built against Napoleon in the 1800s. A short way south of the tower the shingle is Ministry of Defence property, and there is no public access.
Swimming is safe, and there is fishing from the shore for plaice, sole, flounder, bass and cod.
These magnificent red-brick Victorian buildings, built to process barley, stand at the navigable limit of the River Aide. Though several of them still carry out a workaday role as stores for barley and offices for grain merchants, the Maltings are famous throughout the musical world for their concert hall, which was converted by the organisers of the Aldeburgh Festival in 1967, burned down in 1969, and restored the following year.
The Maltings complex now includes a teashop, an art gallery, a craft centre, and the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies, named after the composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears, who were largely responsible for establishing the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. The mown grass between the Maltings and the estuary provides a fine setting for two sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
Visitors can walk out on to the marshes, but the paths are covered at high tide.
ALDEBURGH: A TOWN HOLDING THE SEA AT BAY
A sea-wall and rows of breakwaters hold back the sea that has shaped Aldebttrgh and its history. Water laps the shingle where 300 years ago stood streets of houses – the homes of men who sailed with Drake in Pelican and Greyhound, built in local yards. But the sea ended shipbuilding when the River Aide silted up, leaving Aldeburgh with only its charm to nurse and cherish.
Once an important fishing village, renowned for its herring, salmon and sea trout, Iken is now a scattered hamlet built on high ground above the marshes of the Aide. St Botolph’s Church, reached down a narrow cul-de-sac, is a sad place, as its thatched roof was burned down in 1968 and has never been restored. At Ikencliff, 1 mile west of the church, there is a large picnic site with fine views across the reeds and mud-flats of the Aide. A footpath (impassable at high tide) leads to Snape Makings. Birds to be seen include shelducks, redshanks and herons.
Today Orford is little more than an attractive village of mellow houses round a small square, with a road leading down to a quay.
That Orford was a more important community in earlier times is shown by the scale of its magnificent castle keep, built in 1165 by Henry II to control the prosperous and independent-spirited East Anglians. In those days the spit of shingle that now stretches 6 miles south-west from Orford Ness ended near the quay, but the gradual growth of the spit cut Orford off from the open sea, and the town’s prosperity declined. In 1722, Daniel Defoe wrote that Orford ‘is now decayed. The sea daily throws up more land, so it is a seaport no longer’.
North of the town the river is called the Aide, while south it becomes the Ore. Boats can be launched from the foreshore, but permission is needed to use the slipway. A notice on the quay warns that bathing is dangerous.
The 90 ft castle keep, unusually constructed with three turrets, is open daily, and gives magnificent views from its battlements. Towards the sea, the most prominent landmark is the red-and-white lighthouse on Orford Ness, with various Ministry of Defence structures on the foreshore. Birdwatchers bound for Havergate Island take a boat from Orford.
A good hour’s walk starts downstream along the river-wall, then returns inland to the castle.
SYMBOL OF POWER Orford Castle was built by Henry II in the 12th century to regain royal power in East Anglia.