18th July 2013
Bawdsey Quay-Shingle Street -Butley River
The pub at which we intend to finish our walk is closed, apparently for the long-term. The footpath where we want to start is closed, also.
The Butley Oyster is our meeting point and, therefore, our destination, but the windows are empty and there are padlocks on the doors. Nice empty car park in which to leave my car though, and we pile into Ebb Tide’s motor to head for the starting point at Bawdsey Quay, where, a ‘footpath closed’ sign necessarily gives pause for thought, When it comes at the very beginning of your walk, its not even a pause, just a false start. There is an alternative –a two mile diversion via the road along which we have just driven – but we decide to carry on….
(Incidentally, The Oyster at Butley seems to have closed down two years ago, and if you think you might like to run it, full details are available here. However, there is a new trampoline in the back garden, so you might be too late. Local whisper speaks of unsatisfactory practice on the part of the brewer, Adnams, causing their landlords to desert the tied houses in droves. Any word on this?).
One compensation for these early disappointments is the luxuriance of the car park at Bawdsey. Wooded and shady with picnic tables, it seems more like a nature reserve and it feels positively intrusive to leave a car there, we look around for a scale of charges (£10 per hour?), and possibly an organic valetting service, but there is neither. We notice as we walk down Beware Road towards the Quay that Bawdsey has an unusual post-code, perhaps due to its being a militarised zone for many years.
The Suffolk tourist guide doesn’t so much as mention the high-end nature of the car park;
At the Quay itself there’s a good stretch of sandy beach for children to play on, and a lovely Boathouse Cafe to enjoy freshly caught local fish
Bawdsey website itself is more fulsome;
People have come to Bawdsey Manor to make music, to paint or to sculpt, to study our flora and fauna or the geology of the Suffolk Sandlings. Not to mention inventing radar, but more of that below.
….and there are four of us walking today; we are joined for the first time by Secret Informant, relegating himself from consultant to mere participant and, as when Florence is with us, enhancing the accuracy with which we identify flora and fauna. For example, thanks to Secret, we can easily identify the thicket we pass through as Tamarisk, in full bloom, bordering a kind of arboretum which indicates the grounds of Bawdsey Manor, (See Walking the Suffolk Coast 4) and the house itself is partially visible through the trees, although largely, as we walk around the perimeter of the grounds, invisible. Through more Tamarisk emerging onto a vegetated shingle beach populated by sea kale and yellow horned poppies, we pass a concrete cliff rockery underneath the manor,(inspired, apparently, by the late Lady Quilter), and then sandy cliffs, landslips and erosion. The line of the, apparently closed, Suffolk Coastal Path passes along this beach, but there is no footpath as such, and it is hard to see how there could be on a shingle surface. It is not easy to walk upon shingle for any distance and as the tide recedes, we opt to walk along the water line where there is stony sand and the going is firmer. At one point, Ebb Tide and myself, at the water’s edge, spot Secret informant apparently walking with little effort along the base of the cliff. We struggle up the steeply-banked shingle to join him, but it’s still hard going. Approaching us, a woman is sort of jogging, sort of shuffling along the shingle in what looks like some discomfort. We are reckoning that walking one mile on shingle is probably the equivalent of two or three miles of normal walking. If you jog on shingle, you can probably run a marathon in an hour. At the back of my mind is the thought that if the footpath really is impassable, we are going to have to retrace our steps along this stuff, but when we get to the bit that is supposedly closed, it is a shingle ledge, compacted behind piles, and about two or three feet wide, easily passable, although, the reason the path is closed is that these piles are in danger of collapsing. We struggle on – still shingle, until the sight of a dog-walker ahead indicates that we might be reaching a more hospitable walking surface, and as we approach the Martello Tower, the shingle firms into beach and we eventually climb onto sea wall at the tower’s base.
The more committed among you, who were following The Essex Coast when we actually were walking the Essex coast, will of course, know that coastal military archaeology featured regularly. Ken Worpole, in his book 350 Miles; An Essex Journey described a ‘’bulwark shore…an architecture of sea-walls, lighthouses, forts, tidal defences, gun-emplacements, airfields, Martello Towers…’’. You may remember that Master F. has a particular fascination with pill-boxes and Martello Towers, and likewise recall that The Essex Coast politely resolved never to mention them again (see Walking the Essex Coast 13). However, the Suffolk Coast, from Felixstowe to Aldeburgh, was possibly even more intensely bulwarked than Essex, and the defensive relics of this coastline are impossible to ignore; They’re scattered all over the place.
Bawsdsey Manor itself was off limits to the public from 1936, when the ‘Bawdsey Boffins’ were developing radar, and it proclaims itself ‘The first operational radar station in the world’. It remained a site for missiles throughout the cold war until 1991. Click here for the memories of people stationed at Bawdsey in the 1950s which give a variety of accounts from the impact of the flood of ’53, life in a skiffle band, and attitudes to RAF discipline. There is an active group of volunteers who preserve a radar museum on the site.
The shingle beach under the Manor is lined with the remains of what must have been a barbed wire fence, its concrete bases now standing a foot or two above beach level, as well as tank traps, and what appears at first to be a self-assembly pill box kit, laid out on the beach, rather in the way that you might lay out the components of a flat-pack bookcase on your living room carpet. A glance up at the cliff above however, reveals that it has more likely collapsed from twenty feet about as the land was eroded from under it.
The first Martello tower is sited at the point at which the cliffs subside and the sea wall begins. In a couple of hundred metres there is another, then at a similar distance another and beyond that, as the coastline curves toward Shingle street, yet another. One of them is apparently converted into a residence, and the final one has a notice advertising that it is available for rent as holiday accommodation. This last has a particularly well-preserved example of the yellow ‘Napoleonic Alarm’ that was designed to go off at the sight of a bicorne hat, as well as a rare example of an observation chair and table. The fact that the barred windows have been left open means that Napoleon is not expected any time soon.
The evocatively named village of Shingle Street is a row of houses on, er… shingle and is the site of one of the more dramatic mysteries of the second war. Apparently, a Nazi invasion foundered here immediately after Dunkirk, and the evidence is presented by an investigator of that incident here.
The bulwark mindset which might have served well when Europe was a foe still lingers, although somewhat tattered (see Walking the Essex Coast 4 and 23(ii)). Hereabouts, its manifestations seem to focus on the preservation of the Suffolk coast in its present form, no matter what the elements throw at it. An organisation called SCAR (Suffolk Coast Against Retreat) calls for a six-fold increase in government expenditure to hold the existing line of the Suffolk coast. The coast as we have seen today, and as we know, is phenomenally vulnerable to the action of the sea. The land is subsiding, the sea levels are rising. As far as Essex is concerned, Jules Pretty in This Luminous Coast devotes a chapter to the traumatic personal impact of the 1953 flood and Patricia Rennoldson Smith has recently compiled a collection of personal reminiscences of the event The 1953 Essex Flood disaster. The Bawdsey accounts linked above, do the same for the south Suffolk coast. In Essex, much of support from ‘Hold the Line’ strategies, understandably, comes from economic interests such as farmers, fishermen, yachting marinas etc. The SCAR website, whilst claiming the support of local councils and preservation groups doesn’t betray much detail of the economic interests underlying its claim and my first, intuitive, blogger’s instinct is to be slightly suspicious of a call for an extra 25 million of public expenditure to subsidise local commerce in the face of such powerful elements as glacial rebound, isostatic adjustment and rising sea levels caused by climate change. I expect some will feel differently however and I would welcome comment.
Towards the end of Shingle Street, there is a South African flag flying – in honour perhaps of Nelson Mandela’s recent 95th birthday – introducing a welcome centrifugal element to the bulwark, and lying close by the beach dramatically populated by mullain plants in full flower.
Beyond Shingle Street, a different sort of bulwark appears on the hilltop ahead in the shape of H.M. Young Offenders Institution (Hollesley Bay Colony). Secret Informant was, on the day following this walk, talking to a neighbour who asked if the step-ladder stiles were still in place at Shingle Street. They were not, all the stiles that we crossed were orthodox fence-and-step or ‘kissing gate’. The neighbour was disappointed as he had helped to build the step ladders during a spell at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in HollesleyBay.
There is a consistent breeze masking the heat of the sun, but, now and then, it dwindles, and the 30 – plus degree heat swells from underneath the wind. As we approach the prison, the path swings inland around a creek and the temperature increases by, it seems, about 10 degrees. The creek is a trickle, with smooth, chocolate mud banks, a curlew is flying over it, and Secret Informant points out linnets and skylarks in the vicinity. We have already passed a pair of amorous swans, and I attempt to take a picture, but all I get is flapping white dots in the distance.
Rounding Flybury Point and Boyton Marshes we pass the estuary of The Butley River and head inland near the Butley Ferry crossing. There is no sign of when the ferry might operate, although there is a very serviceable boat on the other side of the river. Ebb Tide’s GPS leads across a field in which hay is being packaged into a fetching sky-blue shrink-wrap by a machine which rotates the bales in two directions simultaneously rather in the manner, as Ebb Tide observes, of a spider catching a fly.
We cross Burrow hill, an isolated example of sand land, once an island amongst marshland, then head to Butley High Corner, Butley Low corner, past the remains of Butley Priory…
(There was hardly a religious house in the kingdom, save some of the largest Benedictine abbeys, that had so much church patronage, or such a wealth of appropriations in its hands as was eventually the case with the Priory of Butley ).
…and up a seemingly endless lane back to The Defunct Oyster. Beforehand, looking at the map I had estimated the walk at about 7 miles. In fact it was over 12 miles. As we approach the car, a road sign mocks us unfeelingly.