03 February 2014 by Chris Woodley-Stewart
In the nowhere days when the old year has run out of steam and the new one not yet got going, The Boy and I have removed ourselves from my in-laws' house on a 70s Essex housing estate off a road that leads down to the Colne estuary, and have headed 'East of Ipswich' up the A12 to Walberswick.
The mountains may have the majesty, but if it's mystery you crave, then yours are the flatlands of mills and marshes that are the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB. There is something special about the East Anglian coast at any time of year, but in winter its wide-skied wildness is magnified.
There's a bite in the spray, a sting in the wind, and a crystalline crispness to the light of the low sun that brings these flat lands to life in a way that no other time of year does.
In high summer I love the nearby heathlands, but now the draw is the shingle beaches and the mysterious marshes.
It has to be said that the marshes are much more mysterious in bleak weather, when every isolated house is the set of The Woman in Black and it’s easy to see ladies in Victorian dress appearing briefly through the murk and vanishing just as quickly; but, just for a change, today is beautiful and it would be churlish to ask for a brighter, clearer and warmer winter day.
The walk we've chosen takes us from Walberswick, along the shoreline to Dunwich, and back via woods and wild marshes. Walberswick is, to use a technical term, lovely, and this loveliness has attracted some famous residents, including architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the impressionist painter Philip Wilson Steer. The village is across the River Blyth from Southwold, home of the Adnams Brewery, and in summer there's a ferry between the two.
It's fair to say that The Boy likes other dogs about as much as my teenage daughter likes getting up in the morning. There's the odd hound around to begin with, and he lopes on his lead until a clear stretch of strandline reaches out before us. Now he can run and bark at the curling waves, and just as surely they bark back.
Shingle is notoriously tiring to walk on, but actually there are plenty of places where you can walk on firmer ground, be it right by the edge of the sea or further back towards the marsh. It's important that people don't all follow the same route as others and so create well-trodden tracks, as these tend to erode the dunes. In summer the shingle beach is home to a little tern colony - not a place for roaming dogs!
In all seasons, alongside the mysterious marshes and the big, ever-changing skies, a major attraction here is the birdlife. As if to remind me of this, a skein of 40 barnacle geese arrives noisily from the north, and there can be few wilder sounds in Britain than geese across winter marshes.
As we wander south along the coast, inland on the marshes there are the occasional clouds of shimmering lapwing that rise from the damp grasslands that eventually give way to reedbed or woods. I finally see what is spooking the lapwings, as a Marsh Harrier rises and drifts over the reeds about 200 yards away. I try in vain to explain to The Boy just how life-affirming a sight this is, as this perfect creature floats effortlessly along, but the Salty Sea-Dog wants to run back into the waves and has no time for distant birds that he can only admire and not chase.
He'd probably have no time for the other reedbed stars of Walberswick either, the bittern and the bearded tit (or bearded reedling if you prefer). The tinny 'pinging' call of the 'beardy' is probably the polar opposite of the bass boom of the bittern - if you've never heard one, try blowing across the top of a milk bottle and you'll get the idea. The decline of our reedbeds and the decline of our bitterns went hand in hand, unsurprisingly, but they seem to be holding their own now, thanks to the conservation bodies that look after the last of our extensive marshes across the country.
The reeds here are phragmites, and as well as being important for conservation they are probably only still here because they were cut for thatch for centuries. This still goes on today (and there's been a new burst of popularity for thatching in recent years), and managed cyclical harvesting of areas of reed is good for the reedbed ecosystem as a whole, diversifying the habitat structure and encouraging new growth. The marshes also need conservation management to stop them reverting to scrub and woodland. They are a truly marvellous sight on this bright winter morning.
I can tell we're nearing Dunwich because more people start appearing, coming towards us across the crunching shingle. Dunwich is now a very small village, but it was once the largest medieval town in East Anglia. Over the years, in common with several other places along this dynamic coastline, most of it has been lost to the sea. To give a sense of the scale of that loss, in the early 14th century the town was home to the Royal Fleet, until in January 1428 a great storm caused shifting shingle to block the harbour. What's left of Dunwich stands as a lesson to anyone who would build close to a very mobile coastline.
Of course, 'what's left of Dunwich' is still very much worth exploring: The Boy and I were especially pleased to 'explore' 'The Ship' - a warm fire, a lovely old building, dog-friendly, free wifi, with great local beer and amiable staff. I had a fantastic Pear and Blue Cheese Salad and homemade chunky chips, with a bowl for The Boy (he loves a good salad...).
From Dunwich, we walk along the lane from the pub, past St James' church. This is the last of the Dunwich churches, of which there have been many in the past, including six not long after the Norman conquest. Turning along a track to the right, we follow along the fringes of a birch, oak, and scots pine woodland, with bird-dotted wet grassland and then the marsh and the sea beyond.
As the wood thins and finally comes to a point, the full expanse of the Walberswick National Nature Reserve spreads out inland as well as towards the sea, and soon we are in the heart of the marshes. A longer route, going north from Dunwich through the forest and along a stretch of road, then along the Sandlings Way would have taken us right through the spectacular Westwood Marsh (highly recommended) but even this shorter route gets you right into the wild reedbeds.
It's not a proper walk unless there's some form of afternoon eating opportunity. Arriving back in Walberswick there is tea and toasted tea cake, which I share with The Boy after delicately removing the dried fruit which is meant to be toxic to dogs (incidentally, never give a blue tit a Smartie, in case you're thinking of it - they're toxic to birds).
The Suffolk Coast, ever-changing, under a wild, wide sky, has everything: mysterious landscapes, charismatic birdlife, great pubs and tea rooms and, beyond it, the heathlands to entice the shirt-sleeved, wildlife-loving summer walker. It is a quintessentially English experience (in a good way), and one to have over and over again.
Chris Woodley-Stewart is the Director of the North Pennines AONB Partnership. You can follow him on twitter @NorthPennChief and find North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on facebook.