Florence is walking over the marshes from Eastbridge to meet us. She too is surprised by Master F.’s precipitous and unexpected disappearance, and indeed, who wouldn’t be? We walk past the ruined chapel towards Eastbridge where we stop for refreshment. The last time I was at this pub, with Marsh Samphire, a few years ago, there were at least thirty vintage Vincent motorcycles in the car park, and the bar was full of their riders. Other riders walked in, looking, at first quite forbidding in vintage leathers and crash helmets, however, they were a benevolent indeed, elderly crew – not that these two qualities necessarily go together. I wonder if there are many younger Vincent riders. Posing as an 18-year-old, I searched for an online insurance quote for a 500cc Vincent and it was between £2,200 and £2,500 for fully comp cover, which might be a deterrent to the younger rider, although this did fall to a more manageable £600 for third party only.
No sign of a motorbike , vintage or new-fangled, in the car park today, and the pub seems to have expanded hugely. It sits in a large garden, a part of which has been landscaped using wooden sleepers, and which is covered by large canvas triangular sails acting as sunshades. At the top of the landscaping, a group of men are putting the finishing touches to a boules rink, and to one side, a brand new house has been built which looks like state-of-the-art tourist accommodation. The pub knows how to keep beer however, and the Old Tory Bastard is very good.
The lane from the pub leads down into Minsmere nature reserve. At this point, the reserve is wooded, and the right-hand side of the lane is lined with fallen trees, each trunk having developed several suckers which have become full-size trees in their own right. The trees to the left which would have fallen across the road, have been cleared, or reduced to stumps, and the whole forms a graphic epitaph to the impact of the 1987 gales.
Leaving the reserve, we walk up a sandy path and strike out across the edge of Dunwich Heath, where the heather is in spectacular purple bloom…
…and a sign gives us pause to ponder the remarkable synergy between pizza and conservation,
Ebb Tide and myself reminisce in a codgerly sort of way about the time, approximately the mid-90s, we rode the Dunwich Dynamo, a bike ride from Stratford, East London to Dunwich Heath. Ordinary cyclists such as ourselves left at six in the evening (for it is an overnight ride), and keener ones, those of a more lycra-clad ethnicity, left at midnight. As we, 118 miles later, were approaching Dunwich at six in the morning, we could hear a swishing behind us, and a small peloton of six or eight second-tranche cyclists overtook us at speed. This happened a couple of times before we rolled onto the Heath.
Dunwich is not what it used to be, in fact, Dunwich is very nearly completely non-extant. Two things happened to it; the port silted up and the town itself fell into the sea. The fact that it was once a place of considerable substance is hinted at by the ruins of the enormous Greyfriars Priory, established in 1290, that greet you as you approach on the coastal path. A lonely grave standing amidst undergrowth on the cliff edge invites speculation and, looking across the shingle bank that stretches to Walberswick, it is hard to picture the enormous port, the biggest in Britain, in all likelihood established by the Romans, that existed here, and which remained significant for another 900 years. It is ironic that, just at the time the priory was being established in the late 13th century a series of storm surges caused the port to block up, and started the decline of the town. By the middle of the 19th century, Dunwich only had a couple of hundred inhabitants, indeed until the reform act of 1832, it was one of the most notorious rotten boroughs sending two M.P.s to parliament despite its tiny population. Nowadays, it has a population of 80-odd, and is part of the Suffolk Coastal parliamentary constituency, which, I believe has only one M.P., currently Therese Coffey, supporter of Rebekah Brookes and the Murdochs. Nothing rotten there then.
Robert Macfarlane, in The Old Ways talks of coastlines on the east of Britain becoming ‘ghost-lines’;
At Dunwich, an entire town was swallowed by the sea over several centuries…swimming off the shingle beach, you can float over invisible streets and buildings: the further out you go, the further back in history you’ve reached. Once, unaware of the ebb tide that was ripping round the coast, I crunched over the shingle and swam to around 1842, before I realised that I was being pulled rapidly out to sea…
There is a brilliant small museum in the village, which chronicles the non-metaphorical collapse of the town. We didn’t visit this time, but I was there last year with my brother, and it is highly recommended. More about Dunwich here.
Florence meets us again, for she has not walked with us, and we return through the lanes to Aldeburgh. Imagine our surprise when, arriving back at the car park we had left a few hours before, we behold, standing nonchalantly, drumming his fingers on the roof of my car, whistling a tuneless version of what might have been the bass line to Mickey Dread’s Barber Saloon and looking as though he hadn’t a care in the world as he waits for us, none other than Master F. It turns out that having been torpedoed out of the sluice at Minsmere, he managed to ride the offshore current ripping round the coast back down to Aldeburgh with surprisingly little effort, and then, swimming out of the flow, he landed on the beach, close to the Maggi Hambling sculpture, causing quite a stir among small children and holidaymakers. The local taxis refusing his fare, he splashed through the town on foot back to the car park. Readers who do not possess Master F.’s aquatic and navigational skills are strongly urged not to try this.
By now, his clothes are almost completely dry, so Florence and Ebb Tide agree to take him home with them. I hobble stiffly towards my own car, groping in my pockets for the key.