Today begins as a day of gloom, sogginess and thirst.
I am dropped off in Boyton and walk down a public footpath to meet the Suffolk Coastal Path along the river bank. The sky is grey and it is drizzling. The first thing I notice is that my back pack seems very light. Then I realise I have left my water bottles and snacks behind. Too late.
The coastal path is a narrow track, following the course of the River Ore as it meanders parallel to the sea, before emptying into Hollesley Bay. This area is a bird sancturary, the Hollesby Marshes, managed by the RSBP. There are numerous old pill boxes here, in various stages of decay. To my right is farmland with cows. On the river are a couple of small sailing ships, overtaking me and heading out to sea. Beyond the river is the shingle bank, running all the way down the coast from Aldeburgh and, effectively, cutting of the village of Orford from the sea.
On the drive here, we noticed all roads lead to Orford. This was once an important port. But the shore line changed, as the shingle bank extended itself and rendered the harbour useless. Now, Orford is a tourist destination with a fine castle and a little quay, according to my husband. My trail has not taken me there, as the Suffolk Coastal Path effectively bypasses Orford to avoid the dead end of coastal land it has become isolated on.
Two miles of walking on the grassy bank; my lower legs are soaking wet. The sodden grasses, gently leaning over the path, are lovingly stroking my legs and depositing lashings of water on my trouser. And, worse still, I can feel my feet becoming damp. The dampness starts at the top, just beneath the laces, but then tracks down to my soles. My boots, now water-sodden, feel very heavy.
I meet no other walkers. There is just me, the river the grey sky and the wet grasses. It has stopped raining.
I look forward to reaching the mouth of the river. Here is marked a place called “Shingle Street” on the map. I hope to buy water and a snack. Shingle Street deserves its name. The beach is wide shingle with a few clumps of plants. The houses look directly onto the shingle and my path runs in front of them. These are holiday cottages, many empty, but some with people sitting in their windows. I see an artist’s studio; all cluttered debris downstairs with empty wine bottles and unwashed plates, all organised and serene upstairs with easels set up facing the sea.
Sadly, there are no shops and not even a cafe. I walk on.
The path takes me off the beach and I walk along the raised bank that borders the shingle beach. To my left is marsh and then shingle and sea. To my right is farmland. I pass a number of the round Martello towers, built to defend the coast during the Napoleonic wars. Many of them appear to be converted into dwellings. What wonderful – and unique – residences they must make.
The path reaches an area where the sea wall is being repaired. New fencing is being erected to protect the walker from a new sea defence of concrete slabs and boulders. I wonder how long it will last. There are a couple of workmen in yellow jackets and helmets, with a van.
I reach an empty car park. Here the path turns inland, following a track to the village of Bawdsley. I was hoping to find a tourist cafe or ice cream van here. Why is the place so deserted? Perhaps the grey sky and low clouds has kept people away. Perhaps the car park was built in hope that people would come. Whatever the reason, there is nobody here today.
On my way into the village I pass a primary school. A coach has just returned from an outing and the excited children are jumping out. Once out of the coach, they form a guard of honour, greeting each new coach leaver with a line of hearty “high fives”. They must have organised this themselves – the teacher hovers in the background but looks disapproving and is not encouraging the line up.
I turn left into the village. Surrounded by water, and with wet feet, I am very thirsty. I have been walking for three hours and have another hour before lunch time. In hope, I walk through the village. Surely a place with a primary school must have a village shop? I am disappointed to find nothing but houses. And annoyed that I extended this walk by an extra mile for no benefit.
I do find a bench, the first proper seat I have come across since I started this walk. I sit down and remove my sodden socks. I have dry ones in my rucksack and enjoy their feeling of soft dryness against my skin. Using tissues, I try to soak up some of the moisture inside of my sodden boots. Reluctantly, I put my newly dried feet back into the boots and continue. I enjoy a blessed 10 minutes of dryness, before the dampness creeps back in.
The path returns to the sea bank. But I decide to continue on the road, avoiding the wet grass. This is an official cycle route and I am passed by a number of single cyclists. I envy them their speed.
Then I reach Bawdsey Quay. This lies at the mouth of River Deben, separating Bawdsey from Felixstowe. There are numerous small boats dotted on the river, mainly moored. I know there is a small passenger ferry here and, as I see a small boat picking up a family from the jetty, I break into a run. But it is a river cruise, not the ferry.
“Just wave the bat,” says the captain. “And the ferry will come.”
I look. Attached to one of the wooden posts, and tethered with string, is a pole with a round end. This must be the bat.
I check my watch. It is two o’clock. My husband has not responded to my text messages and I suspect he is not waiting for me at the pub across the way, as planned. And the pub is probably about to stop serving food. While behind me is a welcoming cafe.
I head for the cafe. Access is by way of unmarked steps behind the building and an unmarked white door. The cafe is small and friendly. The food looks excellent – a limited menu but homemade and fresh. I have a wonderful cup of tea and a delicious scone.
Then, back at the jetty, I pick up the bat. Feeling a bit of a fool, I wave it wildly. Who am I waving it at? Where is the ferry? How do I know if I have been seen. I continue waving for a minute or so.
Then I see it. A small motor boat, heading towards me. It fights against the fierce river current and appears to be going past me up river. Ah, I have made a mistake, this is not the ferry. But then, the boat turns inland and, with practiced certainty, butts up to the jetty. There is space for about 10 people and a bike. For this journey, I am alone. It costs £1.80 one way, £2.50 return.
The captain smiles at me.
“You didn’t think it was going to work – waving the bat – did you?”
“No, I didn’t.” I reply.
We weave across the river, avoiding moored boats, to a jetty on the other side. What a marvellous service. I thank the captain and take his photo.
At the pub I meet my husband. Yes, it has stopped serving food. We eat crisps and enjoy a drink.
The path leads along a wide promenade, running by the sea towards Felixstowe. I am not expecting much of Felixstowe and am pleasantly surprised. There are painted beach huts, fine houses with ornate balconies and a very long promenade -around four miles in length.
The beach itself is punctuated with high groynes, fixed onto the promenade wall in most places. This is an attempt to keep sand on the beach and appears to be moderately successful. There are people out, enjoying the promenade. A group of youngsters are doing complicated back flips, launching themselves off the promenade and rolling down the sandy beach as they land.
My feet are tired now. I stop and have some water – kindly supplied by my husband – and a muesli bar. Then onward, past the pier. The pier has very long, thin, supporting legs but very little appears to be happening on it. Compared to Cromer and Southwold, this is a boring pier to look at.
There are English flags flying on the pier, and from most of the pubs and bars on the seafront, to celebrate the beginning of the football world cup in South Africa. The sun is beginning to break through the clouds. The sea is calm. In the near distance, sailing boats show white sunlit sails against the grey clouds on the horizon, while, in the distance, huge container ships make their slow progress out to sea.
At the end of the promenade, I head inland. Later I discover I could have stayed by the sea, walking on heathland, and this would have been a much more pleasant walk. Instead, I follow the official cycle route, through some residential streets and then down a long, boring road that runs behind the dock area, ending at the passenger ferry terminal. Here there is a stretch of shingle beach with a tea shop, seats to sit on and a great view over the estuary to Harwich. Felixstowe dock and the harbour extends up the river. This is a busy port
I would like to take the ferry to Harwich. There lies the next stage of my journey. But today, enough is enough. We are heading home.
Vital stats: miles walked = 14, new blisters = 1,
discomfort level = moderately high (due to lack of water).
Things I have learnt:
I must always check my kit before starting off.
And, Felixstowe is much nicer than I imagined it would be.