This article brings back happy memories of childhood holidays staying with my grandparents in Aldeburgh, swimming every day off the (ouch!) pebbly beach, sitting in the shelter chatting with my cousin, lying in bed listening to the church bells on Tuesdays. A walk through the pretty, bustling town led towards the Martello tower on the spit, and the contrast of a vast vista of marsh and water. Peter’s poetic waterborne viewpoint opens up the history and the mystery of this part of the world that I’ve loved all my life. First published in December 2022.
Any sailor will tell you Suffolk is blessed with rivers. For thirty years I sailed from the Deben, and once past Bawdsey and into the limitless sea, a turn for an hour south brought the Orwell, and an hour north found the Ore.
The three rivers are quite different. The Deben is pretty and eccentrically shapeless. The Orwell is broad and handsome. The Ore, though, is mysterious, from Hollesley Bay and its tortuous entrance at Shingle Street to the benign Wind in the Willows calm miles later, when it eventually meanders through idyllic reedbeds up to Snape.
This part of the coast is remote, scratchy lanes leading to overlooked villages lost in time. For this reason the Ore has always been a smugglers’ river, and still is. In the 18th century when that was Suffolk’s prime industry, Will Lord, a smuggler and the lover of Suffolk heroine Margaret Catchpole, was shot dead here. (Until recently the harbour masters at Felixstowe Ferry and Orford still shared the name of the man who shot him. Little changes.)
That remoteness is matched by the river entrance at Shingle Street. From half a mile off at sea it’s just a narrow rim of beach with no distinguishing features. The river mouth is invisible. Only the lonely haven buoy tells of its presence and invites you, recklessly, to turn towards that strip of shingle and hope for the best.
For sailors, a reckless act of faith
That first time it’s an act of faith. You trim the sails and head into shallow water, while the shoals begin to loom up to starboard. The sea breaks over sand banks, closer and closer, and still you’re looking for a parting of the shingle that will let you in. These days there are a couple of navigation buoys, but not many years ago the navigation instructions would typically be to line up the end of the coastguard cottages with the tower of distant Hollesley church, then when you’re at 315 degrees to a hut on the beach, turn due north.
Then suddenly the shingle opens and there is the Ore. The boat races inside the shoal banks, sometimes so close to the beach you could almost touch it, sometimes at ten knots on the racing tide. You’d always have the flood tide under you, since only a fool would try an entrance against a spring ebb.
But after a mile the river pauses to draw breath, the tide slows, and you’re sailing between bare shingle banks with Orford castle and the church tower glittering in the distance. This is where you hear the first sound, the raucous din of Havergate Island, an RSPB bird sanctuary.
Once a medieval sea port and home to a merman who lived at the castle
Beaching his dinghy at Orford reminded Hilaire Belloc that arriving anywhere by sea is quite different from overland. It is always an adventure, an arrival on a foreign shore. You have cast loose and embraced the sea with all its strangeness, and it is difficult not to feel smug at first crunching ashore and tying up, before sauntering to the pub. The first pint always tastes different.
Orford is the prettiest of villages, but was once an important sea port. Medieval kings came to Orford first when recruiting for war against France, and the few fishermen still making a living here are their recruits’ descendants. What has changed is that a spit of sand now stretches eight miles south of Aldeburgh, sweeps past Orford and eventually disgorges wary craft miles further south through the treacherous sand banks at Shingle Street.
Orford has two pubs – one a genuine smugglers’ haunt – a hotel owned by a famous TV celebrity, a nationally known fish restaurant, an almost as well known bakery and that castle. It’s home to TV script writers, novelists, Today presenters and the full panoply of artists. But still less colourful than some of its previous denizens. In the 12th century fishermen apparently trawled up a merman, who went on to live at the castle for some years before returning to the sea.
A top secret defence establishment becomes a tourist playground
Across the river is that spit, as mysterious as the river. For decades what happened there was top secret, latterly something to do with nuclear weapons. There are curious pagoda-like structures whose secret role is now obsolete, and the only people there now are visitors brought over in the National Trust boat.
It’s at Orford that the river changes its name and becomes the Alde, and from here to Aldeburgh there are few cosmetic details to break that remoteness. Eventually there are a couple of yacht clubs, but here used to be a thriving village, Slaughden, which once employed 200 people on ship building. But at this point the spit is scarcely a hundred yards wide and eventually the sea swallowed the village whole. Nothing is left. The last building to go was a pub in the late 19th century, during whose final days it is said customers used to stand at the bar ankle deep in sea water, with both front and back doors open to let it sluice through and escape into the river.
More on East Anglia Rivers
Reedbeds lead to the home of the Aldeburgh festival, and also home of seaside chic
But as the river passes Aldeburgh it becomes transformed. It sweeps inland and becomes a vast shallow lake, perhaps half a mile wide but even at high tide treacherously shallow for boats. At low water it is a shining sea of mud. St Botolph’s church stands on a promontory, what was once Botolph’s own monastery, and it is easy to imagine the Danish long boats which skimmed menacingly upriver in the 8th century. One artist who used to moor his boat here to paint the eel fishers at dawn told how, on quiet nights, it was still possible to hear the cries of the monks as they were slaughtered.
Here too is one of the prettiest spots in Suffolk, Iken Cliff, a narrow beach and, beyond, the reedbeds which lead up to Snape. For sailing, this is where it gets seriously tricky. For dog walkers though, it offers a glorious stroll along a boardwalk through marshes and a silvery forest of dead trees, following the reedbeds all the way up to Snape.
The village is best known for its Maltings concert hall, home of the Aldeburgh Festival, offering an enthralling view back across the broad expanse of reeds. As well as a concert hall, the Maltings now host a restaurant, pub, café, galleries and shops. The grounds are punctuated by sculptures including by Barbara Hepworth. There is a sense of arriving, even if you have to travel by road. Suffolk is spectacularly good at ‘seaside chic’, and Snape Maltings does it better than anybody.