Driving north-east up the A12 toward Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth the road is drawn closer to the sea with every mile travelled. Leaving the main road, turning east at Wrentham, you reach the coast at Covehithe after a couple of miles, and here, road and sea actually do meet. Look at the North Suffolk coast on a map, and see where the represented road to Covehithe comes to an abrupt end at the sea. In the material Covehithe, the real road does this equally abruptly. Two narrow lanes, one coming from Wrentham and one from Southwold, converge in an arrowhead at Covehithe, and faded markings on the road indicate that at one time, the Southwold road was the lesser of these, and the Wrentham lane would have led confidently through the houses and past the church. The white lines on the junction have been redrawn, perhaps indicating a highway department’s urge to communicate the redundancy of the village, for now the carriageway turns in a tight ‘V’ leaving the village symbolically isolated on its own spur road, leading ever more narrowly to the point at which the tarmac drops from the cliff edge to the beach below. Between the 1830s and 2001, 500 metres of coastline disappeared on the Covehithe shore, and it continues to disappear at an astronomical 4.5 metres per year. ‘’A land that is thirstier than ruin’’ wrote Swinburne of the Suffolk seaboard, ’’A sea that is hungrier than death’’.
The verges of these lanes are tightly hemmed on either side by parked cars, and a notice requests, undramatically, ‘’Please Park Sensibly’’. Nowadays, Covehithe has something like twenty people living in it. Even allowing more than one car for each household, there seem to be a lot of cars parked along the two approach lanes leading to the village. All the actual houses seem to have more than adequate parking space – either a farmyard or a drive leading to substantial smallholding space, so it doesn’t seem likely that these cars belong to residents. The mystery might be solved when an SUV pulls up nearby and a three-dog walker pours out of it. ‘’Dog walkers must have almost as high a carbon footprint as schoolchildren’’ murmurs Ebb Tide, sagely, presumably drawing on his teaching experience. Not to mention coastal walkers.
We are hailed as we get out of the car at Dunwich, the start of this walk…
‘’It’s better for the village if you don’t park there’’
…and are directed, not unreasonably towards the car park at the beach, a few hundred yards down the road. Our kindly coadjutant then disappears up her own driveway, opposite where we are parked. Dunwich has approximately one street, leading from the edge of the village towards the beach. Cars are parked all along one side of the road, and Ebb tide has edged,sensibly, into a convenient space. It seems that the woman is employing a kind of rhetorical metonomy, using the village as a whole to represent the end of her driveway, and what she really means is ‘’It would be better for me if you don’t park at the end of my driveway’’. We carefully and constructively evaluate the distance between her driveway and our car (loads of room), and decide to leave the car where it is.
Heading north from Dunwich towards Southwold, there are two possible walking routes. Straight along the shingle beach, shorter but punishing walking and bearing in mind our dictum (see Walking the Suffolk Coast 5) that a mile on shingle is equivalent to two or three miles on a less yielding surface, we follow the other route, through the nature reserve, skirting the marsh. This is a wide footpath, comfortable walking through woodland with views across marshland to the faint raise in the ground inland emerging eventually onto open reedbed, with Southwold in plain view.
W.G. Sebald recounts in The Rings of Saturn, how Swinburne reinvigorated himself in this part of he world;
Dunwich, with its towers and many thousand souls, has dissolved into water, sand and thin air. If you look out from the cliff-top across the sea towards where the town must have been, you can sense the immense power of emptiness. Perhaps it was for this reason that Dunwich became a place of pilgrimage for melancholy poets in the Victorian age. Algernon Charles Swinburne, for instance, went there on several occasions in the 1870s with his companion Theodore Watts-Dunton, whenever the excitement of London literary life threatened to overtax his nerves, which had been hypersensitive since his early childhood. He had achieved legendary fame as a young man, and many a time he had been sent into such impassioned paroxysms by the dazzling conversations on art in the Pre-Raphaelite salons, or by the mental strain of composing his own verse and tragedies, overflowing with wonderful poetic bombast, that he could no longer control his own voice and limbs. After these quasi-epileptic fits he often lay prostrate for weeks, and soon, unfitted for general society, he could bear only the company of those who were close to him… ever more frequently, he went to the coast with the trusty Watts-Dunton. Rambles from Southwold to Dunwich, through the windblown fields of sedge, worked like a sedative upon him.