Mark Cocker

Mag­nif­i­cent na­ture re­serves, huge skies and a wild, open coast. Wel­come to the quiet drama of Suf­folk in au­tumn, says Mark Cocker

Countryfile Magazine - - Editor’s Letter -

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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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


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. mark­

The wet­lands off the Suf­folk coast of­fer safe haven for a wide va­ri­ety of wad­ing birds BE­LOW IN­SET The black-tailed god­wit

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