Suffolk Coasts and Heaths Walking Guide
The Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) extends from the northern side of the Stour estuary to the east of Ipswich, to Kessingland in the North. Covering much of the land between the A12 trunk road and the coast - it is an area traversed by five superb and diverse estuaries. This physical landform has made the construction of a north - south coast road impossible and prevented much of the unsightly development common along many other stretches of coast. The area retains a remote atmosphere and gives the impression that many of this century's changes have passed it by. Historic towns and villages dating back to before the Doomsday Book make this an area of peace and tranquillity.
The landscape is an amazing mixture of shingle beaches, crumbling cliffs, marshes, estuaries, heathland, forests and farmland. It is a secret landscape, slow to reveal itself, yet with a visible history and an inspiration to generations of artists. Its subtlety and beauty defy common assumptions made about lowland landscapes. Equally, it is a landscape whose mystery encourages and rewards exploration.
THE COAST - The true beauty of the coast is revealed when walking along the Suffolk Coast & Heaths Path between Lowestoft and Felixstowe. Following the tidal defence embankments that fringe the drained marshes, it runs along steep shingle beaches and beside and across cliffs topped with fields, forests and heaths, and through seaside towns such as Aldeburgh and Southwold little changed over the half century.
Suffolk's coast can be divided into two main landscapes: shingle beaches and cliffs. For the most part, the Suffolk coast is made of shingle beaches - steeply raked banks of pebbles heaped into shelves and terraces by successive storms and the daily pattern of tides. At aptly named Shingle Street and Aldeburgh, houses and other buildings appear to rise up out of the shingle bank, adding a surreal quality. In other places, the beach is strewn with clinker long shore fishing boats and small sheds still used by fisherman today.
Suffolk's soft rocks are quickly eroded by the constantly battering waves of the North Sea, most obvious on the low and crumbly cliffs, composed of the sandy, orange-brown crags that predominate along the coast. Their vulnerability is most evident at Covehithe and Easton Bavants where the severed ends of roads and tracks hang in mid-air above the cliff face.
HEATHLAND - Suffolk's coastal heathland once formed a vast tract stretching from Lowestoft to Ipswich. Known locally as the 'Sandlings', much of the heath has disappeared over the last two hundred years. Remaining remnants are now very important locally, nationally and internationally not only for their value as part of the area's varied landscape, but for some of the rare species of birds, insects and reptiles that can be found there.
Constant management is needed, for if left, the brightly coloured ling, bell heather and gorse, would be subsumed under a canopy of trees and bracken. Such a loss of habitat would reduce drastically the number and diversity of heathland species including the Woodlark, the Silver-studded Blue butterfly and the Nightjar, a nocturnal bird that flies from Africa to nest on Suffolk's heaths each summer and whose haunting "churr" reverberates around the heath at dusk.
ESTUARIES - Five distinct river estuaries dissect the Suffolk coast and heaths. The southerly Stour and Orwell estuaries are relatively straight with steep, wooded valley sides, the Deben curves gently as it broadens out at Wilford Bridge outside Woodbridge, its sides banked to protect the low lying farmland from the rising tide. The two northern estuaries, the Blyth and Alde, are different again, their gently rising valley slopes widen inland where flood defences have been allowed to deteriorate. Each river is peppered with boats, some marinas others moored up or nestling beside riverside villages like Pin Mill and Ramsholt. Their common theme is their peace, tranquillity and wealth of bird life that can be found along their shores.
The composition of each estuary changes with the tides. At low tide the shining mudflats are crossed by meandering streams and rivulets; here thousands of wildfowl and waders flock to feed. These areas enjoy special protection in order to conserve the high numbers of birds that frequent them. At high tide vast expanses of water reflect the changing light of the beautiful skies, no where more beautifully than on the Deben, Alde/Ore and Blyth estuaries with their large areas of reedbed and marsh. Such backdrops create sublime settings for the many historic buildings in the area including Snape Maltings and Iken church.
WOODLAND AND FOREST - The three major forests, Rendlesham, Tunstall and Dunwich, established by the Forestry Commission in the 1920's, were, by the 1980's, reaching maturity. However, the 1987 storm caused severe damage both to these forests and to the many shelter- belts and deciduous woodlands throughout the area. The Forestry Commission was quick to clear the damage and replant.
Whilst the damage seemed devastating, the storm presented an opportunity in its' wake for changes in nature conservation and recreation emphasis in the forests. The replanted forests include a higher proportion of open space, both along rides and tracks, and in the form of clearings. These clearings have provided valuable habitats for ground nesting birds and their heathland habitat.
Woodlands are a major feature of the Shotley Peninsula, the Orwell and upper Deben estuaries and the northern part of the AONB. Dutch elm disease has been particularly severe in Suffolk where many of the hedgerows include a high proportion of elm. The Suffolk Coast & Heaths Project has undertaken a programme of coppicing and replanting and many hedgerows are now filling out.
FARMLAND - Farming has continually changed the appearance of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths. It all began when, as far back as the Neolithic era (4,600BC- 2,700BC), the forests were cleared to grow crops and graze livestock. This forest clearance continued through the Bronze and Iron Ages. The poor, sandy soil that resulted prevented the forests from re-establishing and heather developed. Thus, the once extensive heathland stretching from Lowestoft to Ipswich was created.
The Doomsday Book of 1086 suggests that the heaths had become an essential element of medieval society and the economy. They remained so until the 18th and 19th centuries when areas of heathland were enclosed and ploughed. During the 20th century the ploughing of heathland has continued, as the soil is light and easy to cultivate. The use of fertilisers, irrigation and plastic sheeting has made the cultivation of sandy soils very profitable.
The marshland of Suffolk's river estuaries has suffered a similar fate. Walls to protect large areas from flooding were first built in the Middle Ages, the land drained and cultivated (the remains of old water pumps can still be seen in several places).
Today, most of the area is made up of farmland and therefore, farming still influences the look of the landscape. Pig huts have been a recent introduction and are a consequence of a more humane approach to meat production. The replanting of hedgerows and reversion of some marshland are a consequence of a general move towards more environmentally sensitive farming.
HISTORY - The Suffolk Coast and Heaths has many fine old buildings, sites of archaeological interest and a wealth of historical and picturesque towns and villages. One of the most famous sites is at Sutton Hoo where the spoils of a major Saxon burial were unearthed. Treasures from the site can be viewed at the British Museum.
Some old buildings reflect the use of local material such as Chillesford's Corroline Crag church tower, Mutford church's flint tower and Orford Castle.
The use of softly hued red bricks, set in grey mortar, began in the 16th century, initially, for grand buildings such as Erwarton Hall on the Shotley Peninsula and later for many buildings in the villages and towns of the area. The Dutch influence is obvious in much of the building in seaside towns, but each town and village retains it's own individual character.
During the last century more historical features have been added to the landscape. These include the Edwardian buildings of Thorpeness' holiday utopia, pillboxes and gun emplacements from both world wars and the curious 'pagodas' of Orfordness.
ART -The area has a great affinity with and been a great inspiration to many artists, writers and musicians. One of the most famous writers to have lived here was Edward Fitzgerald of Woodbridge, who spent much of his time sailing around the coast and estuaries. Another writer who gained inspiration from the water was Arthur Ransome (We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea) who lived at Broke Hall Farm on the Orwell.
The composer Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft and spent much of his life in and around Aldeburgh, composing his most famous opera "Peter Grimes" whilst living in the windmill at Snape. The Aldeburgh Festival, which he founded, is now an annual event of international standing in the classical music calendar.
The area became popular among contemporary artists in the 19th century, reflecting the changing fashions in landscape painting. Walberswick quickly developed as the main centre. Notable artists from this period include Philip Wilson-Steer, W J Steggles and Walter Osborne. Scottish designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh is another famous ex-resident of Walberswick.
Walking the Suffolk Coast & Heaths Path without a Car - Two booklets to be used in conjunction with The Suffolk Coast & Heaths Path and The Stour & Orwell Walk, these booklets show you how to walk the area using the bus or train to take you to or from each stage of the walk. The suggested walk plans have been tried and tested by the Public Transport Co-ordinator of the Ramblers' Association.
CARING FOR THE SUFFOLK COAST & HEATHS - The Suffolk Coast & Heaths Project was set up in 1993, it's aim to conserve landscape and wildlife, provide for quiet enjoyment and promote co-ordinated management within the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, all of the rest of the Shotley Peninsula and the south side of the river Stour in Essex.
Working closely with landowners, visitors, organisations and local communities to help protect the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, The Suffolk Coast and Heaths Project team -
- Carries out practical landscape and conservation tasks
- Gives help and advice on a range of countryside issues
- Improves opportunities for everyone to enjoy the Suffolk Coast and Heaths
- Helps school groups visit and learn about the area's special character
- Attempts to minimise the environmental impact of visitors
- Provides information about the area
- Runs three informal visitor centres at Walberswick, Thorpeness Windmill and Bawdsey Quay.
For more information on this area visit the
official web site for Suffolk Coasts and Heaths