From the crumbling coastline to the Suffolk death road

southwold footpath

On a whim I decided to make for the headland that juts out from the shoreline north of Southwold pier. A simple 30 minute walk along the beach I thought – and perhaps it would have a been a straightforward 90 min stroll along the beach if the tide were out – but it was high tide and the waves were happy slapping the sea wall.

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The only way to continue the walk was inland along a green tunnel footpath hoping that it would turn across the adjacent farmland. But in fact it mislead me to the busy main road at Roydon. I was loathe to quit despite heading half-a-mile in the wrong direction.

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I found a dusty farm track where the sea shimmered over the swaying ears of golden corn dotted with poppies. The end of the track was barred – Danger No Entry – Cliff Eroding.

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I passed beside the end house into a field then skirted the edge past a digger dumped in the corner and along the top of the crumbling coastline which gently sloped down to the beach at one end. This was now far away from the holiday vibe and the 6-figure brightly painted beach huts. This beach was deserted, otherworldly, apocalyptic. Danger signs abounded. The trees in the wood that gave Southwold its name tip-toed on the precipice of the cliff root toes dangling over the edge waiting to swan dive into the sea in the next storm.

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Finally I sighted people, and a church spire in the distance – that must mean food and drink and perhaps even a pub. A footpath ran from the sand dunes direct to the romantic ruins of St. Andrews Covehithe. The first vicar was appointed here in 1459 but two hundred years later they realized the church was too big for such a small parish and tore sections down to build the smaller church within its precincts where I now sat and considered my options. There was no food or drink in the village and my solitary bottle of water had expired a while ago. I’d have to walk along the road the 5 miles back to Southwold in the hope of finding sustenance on the way.

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It was a mile along the country lane to the Lowestoft Road. Soon the grass verge pavement dissolved into steep hedgerows as the busy road narrowed. What now?

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I clambered through hedge and over ditch into farmland to skirt the fields that hugged the road but was quickly forced away back through trees onto the Death Road. Across the road I found a beguiling lost byway that provided sanctuary for a while along its zigzag route. The map on my iPhone was blank, I was in a land beyond the omnipresent reach of Gods Apple and Google – did the place in fact exist then?

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A field of freshly harvested corn stalks slashed at my shins – the hacked off stems poking from the cracked earth like broken scimitars. Another hedge scramble to escape left nettle stings and bramble thorns the length of my sorry legs – feet and ankles like pin cushions.

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A second church spire brought salvation for a while – saved by the delightful old ladies of the South Cove Flower Show and the cream tea they served up beneath the thatched roof of the church. I feasted on scones and clotted cream followed by a slab of Victoria Sponge (they only served scones and cake – no sandwiches – what could I do?).

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Refueled I headed back for more near death experiences walking along the Lowestoft Road. Deciding I’d rather incur the wrath of a farmer than get splattered on the road I again found a breach in the 10-foot hedge and scuttled through into a rough field of weeds.

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I pursued the field boundary in the direction of the sea and soon spied an actual marked footpath into a nature reserve. Over a small wooden bridge and the path disappeared almost instantly among head-high reeds and grasses. I ploughed on regardless until I felt the water rising up to my ankles from the bed of the marsh. I retreated and fell into a 40-minute vortex of looped and blocked paths. When I eventually came onto the other side of the Nature Reserve I saw the orange barrier declaring the path I’d entered on the far side Closed.

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I was almost a broken man and started to wonder if I would ever make it back to Southwold and see my family again. Another car hooned past my shoulder. All I’d seen were DANGER – KEEP OUT signs and automobiles intent on murder. It felt like Suffolk was telling me to Fuck Off.

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I negotiated one more field boundary that led to a farm house and had a final hedge scramble that filled in any unmarked areas of my shins with cuts and nettle stings. Finally I hit solid, firm pavement at Roydon with blood-streaked shins scarlet and humming with stings. It was a great unplanned walk in inadequate footwear with no map – an excursion which nearly killed me. Can’t wait for the next one.

George Orwell and the Walberswick Ghost

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Whilst waiting for a video to render the other day I turned round and took Vol.1 of George Orwell’s Collected Essays and Letters off the shelf and opened it at random on Orwell’s letter to his friend Dennis Collins dated 16th August 1931. The correspondence wasn’t concerned with Orwell’s investigations into the condition of what he refers to as the ‘Lower Classes’ in the letter but ‘a ghost I saw in Walberswick cemetery’.

Collins lived in Southwold where Orwell spent time at his family home, across the River Blyth from the ancient village of Walberswick.  He produced the hand-drawn sketch (above) of Walberswick Churchyard, where the ghost sighting took place, to illustrate the experience which occurred at 5.30pm on 27.7.31

IMG_7695“I was sitting at the spot marked X, looking out in the direction of the dotted arrow. I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass along the line of the other arrow, disappearing behind the masonry & presumably emerging into the churchyard. I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stopping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of its features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only 2 people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure. I looked into the church. The only people there were the vicar, dressed in black, & a workman who, as far as I remember, had been sawing the whole time. In any case he was too tall for the figure. The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination.”

He then goes on to talk about making arrangements to go hop picking and the fate of some tramps he’d met.

I’ve always thought of Orwell as such an arch rationalist that it came as a real surprise that he even entertained the notion that what he’d seen was a ghostly apparition.

 


When I wrote the original draft of this post and scheduled it for publication today I had no idea that it was the anniversary of Orwell’s death in 1950 – spooky coincidence

Southwold wander

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First night in Southwold I went up to Gunhill and thought about WG Sebald coming up here on his first night in the town when passing through on his walks in The Rings of Saturn. “Footsore and weary as I was after my long walk from Lowestoft, I sat down on a bench on the green called Gunhill and looked out on the tranquil sea, from the depths of which the shadows were now rising.”

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Last year when I was here I followed Sebald’s footsteps to Walberswick, this year I followed my nose past the water tower and over the  Common towards St Felix.

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St Felix seems to be an area populated by Hobbits as the banks were pock-marked with these peculiar front doors. I considered knocking and seeing if I could blag a legendary Hobbit second breakfast but didn’t fancy my chances.

 

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A sequence of fieldpaths brought me to the door of St Margaret of Antioch church, Reydon wearing a wreath presumably to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.
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After allowing myself a childish snigger I realised that this was the birthplace of the radical country and western singer Hank Wangford who I’ve seen play live in Leytonstone on a couple of occasions. It should be renamed ‘country and eastern’ music in his honour.

 

W.G. Sebald’s Southwold

Southwold Beach huts

When I picked up The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald to take on holiday to Southwold I was only aware that it was based on a  walk around East Anglia – suspecting that it was set further along the coast in Norfolk.

Southwold lighthouse

But on the second day I turned to page 75 where there was a photo in the book just as the one above – the house we were staying in was in this row of terraced cottages beneath the lighthouse.

Gunhill Southwold

In the book Sebald recounts sitting on Gunhill footsore from his long walk from Lowestoft. He tells the story of the great naval battle that took place off the coast of Southwold on 28th May 1672 when the Dutch navy attacked the British fleet anchored in Sole Bay.

Southwold Sailors Reading Room

He also visits the Sailors Reading Room which, he writes, is by far his favourite haunt in Southwold.

Water towers Southwold

I decide to follow Sebald’s footsteps on part of the next stage of his East Anglian odyssey – from Southwold to Dunwich.

He mentions this 1930’s water tower that dominates the views around the town.

Southwold Common

A local council sign warns that there are adders on Southwold Common

footpath near Buss Creek Southwold

I pick up the footpath that hugs the bank of Buss Creek, it’s a boiling hot day and I start to think about plunging into the sea at the end of the walk

Bailey Bridge across the River Blyth - Sebald

Chapter V in The Rings of Saturn opens with an old photo of this Bailey Bridge across the River Blyth. Sebald repeats the local myth that the narrow gauge train that had run on this line linking Southwold to Halesworth had originally been commissioned for the Emperor of China in the mid-1890s.

River Blyth Southwold

I also attempted to match the next photo in the book which he somehow managed to take from the reverse angle looking downriver towards the bridge but I’m not prepared to sabotage the entire walk wading across the marshes to replicate somebody else’s photo. So this will have to do.

disused railway line Walberswick

He writes of how he was thinking about the Dowager Chinese Empress who had most likely commissioned the train as he walked along this stretch of the disused railway line – bound as he was for Dunwich.

footpath Walberswick

Sebald cut across the marshes to Walberswick but I became seduced by this bridleway.

sheds in Walberswick

The sheds in Walberswick are more humble than the brightly painted beach huts that sell for over 60 grand across the Blyth in Southwold.

ferry across the river Blyth

This is where I left the Sebald trail – he schlepped onwards to the lost city of Dunwich while I took the ferry back to Southwold. The lady rowing the ferry told me she was a 5th generation ferrymaster, a role passed down in her family from the 1850’s.

fishermen's huts Southwold

Back across the Blyth I consider buying fish fresh from the boat but somehow standing in a queue breaks the magic of walking – I need to keep moving.

Southwold Town Council

I soon arrive back at the civic centre of Southwold – for all its airs and graces you have to admire the modesty of its Council accommodation.

 

(have a look at my video postcard from Southwold )