4th April 2013
The wind is, according to today’s weather charts, veering between force 5 and 6. It is coming from a north easterly point of the compass, meaning cold, and it also bears snow, persistently and of varying intensity. Walking into wind over ten or eleven miles can be a morale-sapping experience and snow, like Jerome Kern’s smoke, gets in your eyes. We are, therefore, walking backwards.
Not really backwards, but, rather than starting our first leg of the Suffolk coast at Catterwade, approximately the head of the Stour estuary,and then walking eastward along its northern bank toward the lower reaches at Shotley Gate, we have, instead, opted to start at Shotley Gate and head back to Catterwade, in order that that the wind might be, at least partly, behind us.
Avid readers will, of course, recall that towards the end of last year, we were undecided as to where we might walk in 2013. We thought of following in the footsteps of John Clare from Waltham Abbey to Peterborough; the Essex interior also beckons, and of course, the Suffolk coast. We convened at Ebb Tide Towers, en masse, to discuss this in detail. Ebb Tide and Master F. were there, Miss Terri, competition poker player and connoisseur of fine wools was there, Florence was there, Clare Balding (most promising newcomer) was there, as well as a throng of well-wishers. Maps were consulted, diagrams were pored over, dates on calendars ringed, curry was eaten and wine drunk. Unfortunately, the following morning we couldn’t remember the result of our deliberations and so decided on the Suffolk coast because Ebb Tide is currently much struck by The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald.
This time last year, we had pretty much completed six legs of our Essex Coastal walk, we’d experienced bright sunshine as we travelled the Essex Riviera – Walton, Frinton, Clacton, Jaywick round to Brightlingsea. This year, however, we have done nothing collectively, and set out despite the forecast of snow, for fear that otherwise we will become pot-bound. Also, one of our number has to undergo cranial drainage in the not too distant future, and this medical procedure will put him out of action for a couple of months, so it seems important to make a start.
The Stour valley forms a considerable part of the border between Essex and Suffolk. The estuary, in the manner of estuaries on this coast, is broad and shallow, extending between the two counties for about ten miles from the sea to a point between Catterwade and Manningtree, where it abruptly reveals its origin in the modest river itself winding down through Dedham Vale, and before that, Sudbury, Haverhill and beyond. Perhaps partial origin is more accurate, for these estuaries are as much formed by incoming tide as by the action of the rivers that feed them.
The mouth of the estuary actually represents the convergence of two rivers. As well as the Stour, the River Orwell flows down from the north. Harwich, a small port with a history, stands on the Essex side and Felixstowe, an extremely large deep-water port with a palpable present, stands at the tip of the Orwell bank. The peninsular that divides the two rivers is tipped by Shotley Gate, and it is from here that we set back westward.
There are birds in their thousands on the mud flats. This area of water is famously an avian hotspot, and there are a mass of waders – redshanks, Curlews, as well as the usual varieties of duck (lots of shelduck) and hordes of geese – Brent, Canada, Greylag, presumably massing in readiness to fly to Siberia, Scandinavia or wherever, although I would think they might wait for the easterly wind to settle before departing, or perhaps consider Buckinghamshire as a summer destination. The southern, Essex side of the estuary has extensive nature and bird reserve run by such as the RSPB and Essex wildlife. There is less evidence of this on the north side, although birdlife obviously remains a focus.
Another distinguishing feature of the estuary bank are the many fallen trees along its beaches, illustrating the shifting relationship between land and water that is so much a feature of this coast.