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CLOSE TO HOME (SUFFOLK COAST)
House & Garden, October 2003


Are you with Swinburne, throwing yourself into the Atlantic surf or with Byron, cutting your way neatly across the Hellespont. Are you a BBL – a British Beach Lover – or does the very idea fill you with an instinctive shudder and a yearning for the Aegean? The Suffolk coast is only for the confirmed BBL. Indeed it might be taken as a defining test. Its charms are as subtle as a faded water colour: an undulating landscape of well tended farms broken up by patches of heath, pine forest and lots of marshland. The coast is everywhere, for the five estuary fingers of Suffolk extend deep inland to grip the county like a tenacious claw. The tide is forever moving, exposing mudflats, shifting vast gravel banks and threatening dykes. It is a place where the habitual American misconception of England - of a low lying land slowly slipping under the sea with all its institutions gloriously intact - is actually happening.

Dunwich is spell-binding – not for what is there – but for what has gone. The sixth greatest town of medieval England with its dozens of churches has been entirely consumed by the sea, leaving only Greyfriars monastery on the cliff face. The ruins are occupied by piebald ponies and the bulk of visitors come for the fish and chips, served in a long tin hut beside the pebble shore. An old major walks his spaniels beside half a dozen leather-clad bikers, a single-parent father shelters his sons beneath a fishing umbrella. All are marked out, by a silent glint in the eye, as confirmed BBL’s.

Southwold is a gem of a seaside-town with its pair of distinguished old coaching hotels, brewery, museum, and much photographed beach huts. Sand-castle builders should walk south and cross the estuary to Walberswick followed by a pint at the enchanting Bell Inn. Southwold’s seaman’s library has recently been immortalized by W.G.Sebalds ‘Rings of Saturn’ - a walking tour of the coast that links the sleepy charms of Suffolk to tectonic movements in world politics and literature.

None of this was news to Aldeburgh, where the density of musicians, artists and writers threatens to eclipse Hampstead. This seemingly modest town of two streets set back from the sea (the gravel shore still littered with fishing boats, shacks and rusting winches) is a cultural force to be reckoned with. The summer music festival, mostly staged up-river at the old Maltings concert hall at Snape, has managed to remain at the innovative cutting edge of European music and yet also be an essential part of the Suffolk summer. It is also typical of Aldeburgh that the local bookshop has become the epicentre of a new literary festival in March while the local cinema thrives on documentaries. Avoid Thorpeness – a bizarre inter-bellum estate agents joke mated with a New England country club that is perpetually threatened by a nearby nuclear reactor.

Orford, complete with its perfect Norman Castle, church, Butler’s Oystery, a choice of pubs and perfect isolation on the banks of the Ore makes for a perfect introduction. The now defunct weapons testing station (looking on the distant shore like an exotic group of Chinese pavilions) only adds to the sense of unearthly calm.

Shingle Street, where the Ore reaches the sea, is one of Suffolk’s best kept secrets. It is a vast bank of shingle, surrounded by marsh, with a picturesque scattering of houses, a lifeboatman’s barracks, a safe tidal pool (the currents here are treacherous) and a mournful buoy-bell warning ships off the sandbanks. There is not so much as an icecream van to break the silence, though a local child had thoughtfully left a bowl of radishes on some drift wood and then tired of playing shop. From Shingle Street it is a four mile walk south along an entirely empty shore to Bawdsey Manor. If you wave a baton at the quay, the ferryman will row you across to Felixstowe and ‘civilization’.

There are pubs in many of the inland villages; the Ramsholt Arms above a beach on the Deben estuary is deservedly popular. Pin Mill has a tide-washed pub up the river Orwell from Felixstowe is a last blast of Suffolk civilization before you pass into Essex. Surrounded by tidal drift, mudbanks and house-boats it’s gloriously dark and smokey interior has a blackboard menu full of fish and a row of beer barrels behind the bar.

Here we tried to make sense of the Suffolk coast’s one site of international importance, the Anglo-Saxon ship-burial at Sutton Hoo; a tomb that might never have held a corpse, that reeked of dragon-fights, the doom-laden verse of Boewulf and of treasures manufactured in the distant Byzantine palace-workshops of Constantinople. It seems that the ghost of the hero-prince beneath the mound was offered human sacrifices well into the Christian period. I was suddenly touched with the thrill of being English. Suffolk is certainly that.

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