Magnificent nature reserves, huge skies and a wild, open coast. Welcome to the quiet drama of Suffolk in autumn, says Mark Cocker
Mark explores the shifting shingle shores of Suffolk to reveal personal wildlife wonders of this forgotten corner,
“All where the eye delights, yet dreads to roam, The breaking billows cast the flying foam, Upon the billows rising – all the deep, Is restless change; the waves so swell’d and steep, Breaking and sinking, and the sunken swells, Nor one, one moment, in its station dwells”
This wonderful description of the waves rolling up the shingle is taken from ‘The Borough’ by the great poet of Suffolk coastal life George Crabbe (1754-1832). He was born in Aldeburgh and brought up in Orford, and no one knew better than Crabbe how the local beaches and sea were in a state of constant flux. For no stretch of English shoreline is more subject to change than the 30-mile belt between the tiny coastal villages of Covehithe and Shingle Street – with its extraordinary low-lying mix of tidal spit, deserted shoal, grazing marsh, salt flat, estuarine mud and pebble beach.
One very modern type of change is the relentless erosion that is more pronounced here than anywhere else in Britain. In the 40 years that I have been visiting the village of Covehithe, for instance, its beautiful church has ‘moved’ more than 160 metres closer to the beach. Yet the vulnerability of the shore once carried other connotations. Suffolk’s long outward-curving profile presented great temptation to smugglers sailing between Europe and England, and the quiet paths that still link Aldeburgh
and Snape, and which are great today for birdwatchers, were used to sneak ashore contraband barrels of brandy or tobacco.
Then there was the perennial threat of military invasion. At the windswept hamlet of Shingle Street, you can see its legacy in the three giant ‘Martello’ Towers. These fortifications formed part of a network of coastal defences built in the early 19th century to ward off Napoleon’s military ambitions, but they still dominate the panoramic views over this village even now.
PEBBLES AND PARANOIA
If you want to see the Suffolk spot where anxiety about invasion mingled to greatest profit with the coast’s sublime sense of isolation, then you will have to take the short ferry ride from the quay in Orford village, out to Orford Ness. The 10-milelong spit of sea-swept pebble and grazing marsh is one of the loneliest places in southern England. This made it a perfect no-go zone for the nation’s defence authorities, who used it to test some of the most lethal technologies our military has ever possessed.
At the height of post-war tension, it helped to guard against invasion through a top-secret facility known as Cobra Mist. The detection centre bristled with antennae to give warning of missiles or aircraft and, while it was decommissioned in the 1970s, the building still stands boldly on the horizon just north of Orford village as testament to a more paranoid age.
All military installations at Orford have long been abandoned and it has become a reserve managed by the National Trust. Yet the owners have left all these old Cold War ghosts pretty much as they were and, as nature reclaims the place, it generates the most wonderfully eerie atmosphere. Cobra Mist typifies the process, with the grim bloc of windowless concrete now a great spot to look out for Orford’s peregrine falcons.
There is a network of well-marked trails that crisscrosses much of the shingle spit and allows visitor to see this weirdly beautiful place in detail. Here are coastal flowers such as yellow-horned poppy and sea kale next to old coils of rusted military wire. I love the fact that one of the best spots to look for Orford’s regular flock of
“A 10-MILELONG SPIT OF SEA-SWEPT PEBBLE AND GRAZING MARSH”
European spoonbills is from the roof of a structure known as the ‘Bomb Ballistic Building’, where they studied RAF explosives.
Orford Ness is unique and a must-see part of any tour of the Suffolk coast. Although the nature reserve is closed during winter, many of the wildlife attractions can be viewed from Orford itself.
MUSIC CONJURED FROM THE SEA
Another Suffolk place where heritage rubs shoulders with outstanding beauty is Snape Maltings, a large factory complex just five miles north of Orford on the edge of the Alde estuary. The present managers still honour the site’s long history of Victorian enterprise but they have used Snape, with all its old coal yards and stables, malting houses, construction sheds and grain silos, for a different kind of ‘production’. It is now famous as the chief venue in one of Britain’s leading arts events, the Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Benjamin Britten (see box).
The Aldeburgh Festival may be most famous for its summer programme and for music, but the totality of arts provision at Snape Maltings and elsewhere on this coast is remarkable. There are a year-long series of visual arts exhibitions and packed autumn and winter programmes in 2017, with the BBC Concert Orchestra (October 28) and English Touring Opera performing Dardanus (3 November) among the headline events.
A COAST OF NATURE RESERVES
If you are happy to mingle raw nature with high culture, then you will never have far to go on the Suffolk coast. In fact, walk out of the galleries or the concert hall at Snape Maltings and you can set off on footpaths that take you right past the superb tidal mudflats on the Alde Estuary. The village of Iken, just two miles’ stroll along the estuary’s south shore, is also a great spot to look out for those spectacular wintering flocks of avocets. Often they are accompanied by hundreds of black-tailed godwits.
Another option is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ North Warren reserve, which lies only 10 minutes’ walk north of Aldeburgh town. The coastal marshes there are home to other regional specialities, including marsh harriers and the phragmites-loving bearded reedling.
Ultimately, however, nature enthusiasts will be drawn on the short journey north to
Minsmere, one of the most celebrated reserves in the country. Yet in truth, the whole stretch between Westleton and the village of Walberswick is one continuous mosaic of protected habitats owned by various environmental groups. These sites include Dunwich Heath and Walberswick Marshes. However Minsmere is the most visited of all and the RSPB’s flagship reserve.
It holds a greater range of habitats than almost any other part of the county and even the main access route takes you along a narrow road from Westleton, crossing wonderful areas of open heath where there are good opportunities in autumn to look out for green woodpeckers, woodlarks and roosting stone curlews.
From the reserve’s main visitor centre is a network of trails to the famous scrapes that were originally dug 70 years ago to attract Britain’s first breeding avocets. The birds are now routine here and although they are commonest in spring and summer, they can usually be seen at any time of the year. There is a series of hides all around
the pools offering intimate encounters with flocks of wigeon, shoveler and gadwall as their numbers build during autumn. Waders, including golden and ringed plovers, ruff and redshank, are almost always feeding in the shallows.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Yet Minsmere’s real speciality is the unexpected, which can take various forms. Hunting marsh harriers are a permanent distraction. It is one of the best places in Britain to see the super-elusive reedbed-dwelling bittern, a heron that sometimes seems more ghost than real bird. Autumn is a good time to look for it, especially at Island Mere Hide where occasionally one will stroll out in broad daylight as if it were the most normal thing in the world. The same spot is also great for sightings of otters that switch, as the autumn approaches, from feeding on fish to birds.
Late September brings two other opportunities at Minsmere. The red deer rut at Westleton Heath is a major feature of the season. There is a public viewing place that can be reached from the visitors’ centre and, while it is a safe distance from the testosterone-fuelled excitement, staff with telescopes allow you to witness one of the most memorable events in the British wildlife calendar. For real enthusiasts, 4x4 safaris also run in autumn. These offer opportunities to get right among the action.
As the evenings get cooler, they serve as a trigger for the migrant and resident starlings to gather to roost in one of the many
“A PANICKED GYROSCOPE OF BIRDS TWISTING LIKE GIANT AMOEBA”
reedbeds on the Suffolk coast. Minsmere has been a favourite spot in previous years and on some occasions as many as 120,000 have been seen wheeling and spreading over the dusk sky. Starling murmurations then become the target for hunting birds of prey, such as sparrowhawks and peregrines, and in moments of high tension the whole spectacle develops into panicked gyroscopes of birds twisting and globing like giant amoeba. The exact roost location is not always predictable, so contact RSPB Minsmere for details or follow its Twitter and Facebook feeds for the latest sightings.
One of the joys of this coastline is the manner in which these great wildlife areas and their spectacles stand cheek-by-jowl with beautiful towns filled with arts centres, galleries and all the amenities of the seaside resort. High culture and great wildlife, comfort and inspiration – Suffolk has it all.
TOP Set on an isolated beach facing the North Sea, a long line of bungalows and cottages make up Shingle Street in Suffolk RIGHT Peregrine falcons, like this youngster, can be spotted at Orford ABOVE Weathered sandstone cliffs between Benacre and Covehithe illustrate Suffolk’s constantly eroding coastline
TOP View across the saltmarsh and mudflats at Orford Ness National Nature Reserve ABOVE Spot spoonbills in Suffolk OPPOSITE TOP Dawn rises in Snape Maltings, a former industrial hotspot turned arts hub
TOP Two mature red deer stags fighting at the edge of woodland in Minsmere Nature Reserve ABOVE Island Mere hide at Minsmere Nature Reserve
Mark Cocker is an author and naturalist who lives in Claxton, Norfolk. His books include Claxton, Birds and People and Crow Country. markcocker.com
The wetlands off the Suffolk coast offer safe haven for a wide variety of wading birds BELOW INSET The black-tailed godwit