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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Walk 35 Aldeburgh to Southwold

Walk 35  Aldeburgh to Southwold (Suffolk)

(First leg of English coastal walk – Broadstairs in Kent to Berwick at the border with Scotland).

Map: L/R156
Distance: about 12 miles
Difficulty: mostly flat  
Terrain: paths, beach
Access: Parking at both ends
Public transport: Not easy. OK to get to Aldeburgh from Ipswich and surrounding towns by bus e.g. the 64. Unfortunately, there appears to be no direct link back to Aldeburgh or Ipswich by bus from Southwold. It really depends on where you are staying.

This walk begins and ends with visits to attractive and interesting towns. To the south of Aldeburgh, past Fort Green (Aldeburgh means ‘old fort’) are the marshes and access to part of Orford Ness. I did not go further south than this point as I wanted to ensure I could complete the walk on a winter’s day. The walk along the front at Aldeburgh is very pleasant with some attractive buildings to look at. One of these, a white detached cottage called Paradise, appears to be in the middle of a car park!

Aldeburgh was once well known for building ships including Francis Drake’s Pelican and Greyhound. Fishing smacks for the rough seas around the Faroes and Iceland were also built nearby. Fishing is still evident here and boats with nearby fisherman’s stalls selling a variety of seafood – good smells and colour. In 1870 a local man came up with the idea of drilling holes in the side of his ship so that the hold would fill with water and newly caught cod could stay alive until the return to port. As far as I can tell this was not terribly successful.

Further along, just past the war memorial, is the Moot Hall. This old building was once the main meeting place in the centre of the town showing how much the beach has eroded at Aldeburgh. Nearby is a church where, before the advent of modern lighthouses, local people burned barrels of tar on the church to guide returning fishermen.

Just north of the town is the expanse of Aldeburgh beach with its striking shell like sculpture. This is a memorial to Benjamin Britten who died in 1976. He was the founder, along with his partner Peter Pears (a baritone singer), of the Aldeburgh music festival. The sculpture, unveiled in 2003, is called the ‘scallop’ and is made of stainless steel. It is controversial as some locals feel that it spoils the view out to sea. It is engraved with: 'I hear those voices that will not be drowned'. This comes from Britten’s adaption of the opera Peter Grimes which was originally written by local poet George Crabbe in the 18th century.

About three miles walk up the coast is Thorpeness. This was originally built as an Edwardian holiday village with the houses designed in a variety of styles including Tudor and Jacobean. It is worth a walk further inland to get a closer look at a most remarkable building which can be seen from near the coast. A tall looking building called ‘The house in the clouds’ is in fact a water tower disguised as a house!
When I walked further to the north from here there were digging machines constructing flood defences and some diversions to the path. Some of the sand dunes along this part of the coast are collapsing. The next landmark is striking but probably less agreeable - depending on your point of view. Sizewell Nuclear Power Station with its large ball can be seen from some distance away. There are two nuclear power stations here, I believe Sizewell A has now been decommissioned leaving Sizewell B built in the early 1990s as the only large pressurised water reactor in the UK.

Some of the walk from here is on the foreshore before the path cuts inland to Dunwich (pronounced Dunich) through an attractive nature reserve. Dunwich is an ancient and historic place – it was originally the capital of East Anglia. In Saxon times St Felix spread the Christian word from his base at Dunwich. In the middle ages it was one of the largest ports in Western Europe with a population of 3000, and 8 churches. In 1286 a storm swept most of the town into the sea and the harbour went next in 1328. 400 houses were destroyed in a tempest in 1347. Erosion has continued and all 8 churches have vanished. Legend has it that in storms you can still hear the church bells ringing.

Many writers and poets have been attracted to Dunwich including the American author Henry James who wrote stories and verses about it. On the walk inland are the remains of Dunwich Greyfriars which, at the time I visited, was being restored by English Heritage. Greyfriars were the ‘social workers’ of medieval society.

From this point the path moves away a bit from the coastal edge to pass alongside marshland. The next landmarks are Walberswick and the River Blyth. The village is known among painters for the clarity of its light. I understand that it is possible to cross the Blyth by ferry but, at the time I went, this was not running so I walked up the southern bank of the Blyth and crossed the bridge and down the north bank to Southwold. The banks are attractive with much boating activity. The marshes surrounding the green knoll on which Southwold stands have saved the rather genteel and attractive town from over development as they cannot be built upon.

Cannons pointing seawards over the cliff tops are situated on the southern side of Southwold. These were sent here by Charles 1 for protection against privateers. Attractive greens intersperse the housing – there were houses here in the 17th century but they were destroyed by fire. Southwold was once a major fishing post but lost its status because of the gradual appearance of a shingle bar across the harbour entrance.

The decommissioned lighthouse cannot be missed as you approach the town. If you enjoy beer (like me) you will be interested to know that Adnams is brewed nearby (Broadside is my favourite). Just off the coast here at Sole Bay in 1672 a combined English and French fleet fought an inconclusive battle against the Dutch. Many months after the corpses from the battle were washed up on shore and local people could earn a shilling by recovering a burying a body.

Walking further north there are many colourful beach huts. I am hoping that the pier is still like it was when I visited a couple of years ago – I believe it has been up for sale. It is well worth a visit, interesting features include: a fascinating water clock, a brilliant amusement arcade with quirky games e.g. cross the road with a zimmer frame, a pier tide recording device and good quality cafes and shops. The original pier, 810 feet long, was built in 1900 as a landing stage for steamships that travelled from London Bridge. This declined in the 1930s as more people travelled by road. In WW2 the pier was sectioned in fear of a German invasion, a sea mine struck it in 1941 destroying a section and in 1955 it was reduced to 60 foot by a storm. In 1987 it was privately bought and rebuilt and, by 2001, it was at its current length of 623 feet. I hope any new owners have kept it the same as it is a unique experience.

Snaps show: lighthouse at Southwold; zimmer frame game on Southwold Pier; water clock on Southwold Pier; River Blyth; walk into Southwold; front at Aldeburgh; Benjaman Britten sculpture Aldeburgh beach; Aldeburgh front; fisherman's stall Aldeburgh.

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