In the footsteps of W.G Sebald – The Rings of Saturn walk Southwold to Dunwich

A walk along the Suffolk coast from Southwold to Dunwich

While on holiday in Southwold in August, I was determined to complete the walk from Southwold to ‘the lost city’ of Dunwich described in W.G. Sebald’s hugely influential book, The Rings of Saturn

The book is based around a journey on foot along the Suffolk coast from Lowestoft to Bungay and takes a number of long disgressions into the past. I purchased The Rings of Saturn on my way to Southwold in 2013, knowing only that it was set in Suffolk. When I turned to page 75 I saw a photograph of the Southwold lighthouse that we were staying beneath.

Southwold lighthouse

Sebald arrives in Southwold “footsore and weary” from his long walk from Lowestoft and rests on Gunhill. He describes a visit to the Sailor’s Reading Room. After a few days in Southwold he sets off over the bailey bridge across the River Blyth, along the disused railway line to Walberswick, then a long schlep along the beach to the ‘lost city’ of Dunwich.

I attempted to follow this route on that first holiday in Southwold, but turned back at Walberswick. Our return after an absence of a few years gave me the opportunity to finally follow Sebald’s footsteps from Southwold to Dunwich, a truly magical and memorable walk, captured in the video above.

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 )

Exploring Bankside – Bishops, Bards, Bears and Bordellos

A freezing cold night in January I found myself ensconced in the Thameside Inn having stumbled upon the ruins of the Bishop of Winchester’s Palace in the narrow lanes near Borough Market. Supping a pint of Adnam’s Ghost Ship from Southwold, I looked across the river at the City lights reflecting in the Thames and the flashing blue lights on the ferry coming in to dock at London Bridge. I must make a video of this short deeply storied strip of the river between London Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, I resolved as I lined up the second pint.

A couple of weeks later a friend and former colleague messaged me to say that I had to visit Hopton’s Almshouses just behind Tate Modern, a rare secluded gem hidden amongst the rush and tear of Southwark. This is what gave me the final push to go and shoot the Bankside stroll in this video.

Shakespeare's Globe, Bankside

The Route:
Crossing Blackfriars Bridge we first visit Hopton’s Almhouses built in the 17th Century. Then we pass through Tate Modern and then Cardinal’s Wharf where Sir Christopher Wren stayed during the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral. Next door is Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, a reconstruction of the famous Elizabethan theatre. We pass along Bear Alley the site of a Tudor Bear pit and into Park Street where we find the sites of the Rose Theatre and the original Globe Theatre. Our Bankside amble then passes the notorious Clink Prison and the ruins of the Bishop of Winchester’s Palace before ending at the reconstruction of the Golden Hinde ship famously skippered by Sir Francis Drake on circumnavigations of the globe.

Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival

A trip to Suffolk for the Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival and a celebration of the beautiful River Deben.

A series of coincides alerted me to the Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival taking place from 22nd – 24th September, just at a time when I needed an escape from the city. So I hopped on the train on the Saturday morning and headed up to Suffolk, Sebald in my bag and looking forward to drawing on the magic of the River Deben.

River Deben at Woodbridge
River Deben at Woodbridge
Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival post 2023
Tom Rogerson at the Methodist Hall, Woodbridge
Tom Rogerson at the Methodist Hall

The video includes interviews with local people about the history and importance of the Deben, its links to the nearby Sutton Hoo ship burial. Also a walk along the Deben and through this historic town of Woodbridge with its many old timber-framed buildings.
The Woodbridge Ambient Music Festival included performances from Tom Rogerson and friends – Jay Chakravorty & Elegy for Good Dogs live in the Octagon Room at the Methodist Church, ‘Beneath the Surface’ – live outside the Longshed with Clara Charlesworth (flute) and Michelle Brace (visuals), VonTrapMix; Helder Rock; Yggdrasil Music; Mbira Mike; Of the Night Sky. Organised by Jan Pulsford.
This will now be an annual fixture in my calendar.

Of the Night Sky at the Long Shed, Woodbridge
Of the Night Sky at the Long Shed

‘From Woodbridge to Orford down to the sea, is a good four hour walk’ – W.G Sebald, The Rings of Saturn p.222 – read in the Kings Head, Woodbridge with a pint of Ghost Ship. Note for a future walk maybe.

Related posts:
A visit to Orford Ness
Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail
Along the River Deben to Sutton Hoo

A visit to Orford Ness – the ‘isle of secrets’

Orford Ness in Suffolk was once a top-secret military research site and today operated by the National Trust. This 10-mile-long shingle spit on the Suffolk Coast is home to a range of habitats, including salt marshes, reed beds and lowland heath, and only accessible by ferry. The secretive research military research centre came into operation in 1912 and was closed in 1985 when it was taken over by the Nation Trust. For many years it was forbidden to approach the island.

I visited on the last weekend of Afterness in October 2021 – a series of installations commissioned by Artangel that included works by Ilya Kaminsky, Emma McNally, Chris Watson, Alice Channer and others. Orford Ness is an extraordinary location. Some of the military buildings have been retained and allowed to naturally decay. The site includes the Cobra Mist radar masts built in early 40’s, a former lighthouse, blast bunkers, and the remains of an experimental rocket testing site. W G Sebald wrote about a journey to Orford Ness in his book The Rings of Saturn. Sebald found it a desolate lonely place. For me it is one of the most extraordinary places in the whole of Britain. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the uncanny atmosphere of strolling along the paths that snake across the shingle, navigating my way from one defunct military installation to the next conjuring up the peculiar wartime experiments that were conducted here. It must have been an intense and paranoid place.

Orford Ness bunker
Orford Ness
Orford Ness Suffolk
Orford Ness bunker
Orford Ness bunker

Back in the village of Orford having a pint in the Jolly Sailor, the mysteriousness of the landscape sunk in. The temple-like nature of the decayed military buildings, the proximity to the famous Rendlesham Forest UFO incident (the Orford lighthouse was unconvincingly proffered as an explanation), and the great Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo. The lost city of Dunwich lies beneath the waves just a few miles north. This is a seriously surreal stretch of the English coastline – a place of deep mystery.

Map showing the alignment of Orford Ness, Sutton Hoo and Rendlesham Forest
alignment of Orford Ness, Sutton Hoo and Rendlesham Forest

Related videos:

Rendlesham Forest UFO Trail – Britain’s Roswell / Bentwaters Incident

Along the River Deben to Sutton Hoo

Sebald’s Rings of Saturn Walk Southwold to Dunwich