I glimpsed the whiskered head only fleetingly; a shining sphere of black against the grey of the frothing seas. It was there, and then it was gone. The seal clearly had the right idea - this was no place to linger. Rain lashed our faces and the wind stole our voices. Shouting and waving I caught Dad’s attention and pointed to an empty birdwatching hide nearby and we scrambled inside to eat damp sandwiches and don waterproofs.
Dad still wasn’t convinced by my plan – marking the start of 2020 with a 10 mile walk along the Suffolk coast, from Kessingland to Blythburgh. But we were committed now. And anyway, while it was - admittedly - a tad damp, it wasn’t that bad. This was mere East Anglian rain, a pale imitation of the stuff that regularly falls in sheets on Lancaster, my home in the North for the past two decades. Dad countered that soft and southern though the rain might be, as a result of a gusting onshore wind common to this North Sea coast it did nonetheless appear to be hitting us on the horizontal. He had a point. But after tea and cake we agreed to continue, with Dad won over by the knowledge that our destination – the White Hart – promised good ale and a roaring fire. So we left the sanctuary of the hide, which looks out over the silent waters of Benacre Broad, and trudged on, taking the clifftop path to Covehithe through fields of disconsolate looking pigs.
This bit of Suffolk is special to me, a product of the many walks, runs, and bike rides that I undertook here as a teenager. Setting off from my home near the clifftops – a 1980s new build, close to where Henry Rider Haggard had once spent his summers (he was rumoured to have written She from here) – I would spend spring mornings running the sun-dappled shore line, long summer days swimming in the sea, and autumn afternoons on my bike headed to what was known universally as ‘the sluice’ – the concrete run that took the meandering River Hundred out to sea, just a mile south of my village, Kessingland. Today’s journey, undertaken in the frigid cold of early January, was an act of return, necessary and needed after many years absence and eagerly anticipated after the excess of the recent festive period. This was a chance to be home again, before the demands of a new term held me to the North.
We had set off from Kessingland a little later than planned but still with plenty of time to complete the day’s walk before the short days of winter forced us inside for food and fireside. Parking on the High Street we wandered through the village to the appropriately named Rider Haggard Lane. After passing the old house (my parents had left for Norwich several years previous) we took Green Lane – a pot-holed track of medieval vintage guarded by wind-lashed Hawthorne – towards Kessingland Beach. The ‘Beach’ was once entirely separate from the ‘Street’ (although only a mile distant) with each community having their own school and shops and maintaining a tribal antagonism with the other. Postwar housing developments had long since joined them, but signs of the once separate fishing community still linger here and there: the flint-knapped Coastguard cottages, the seaman’s chapel, and a crumbling fisherman’s shack, islanded in a sea of unkempt grass.
Near one of the villages’ few remaining pubs – The Sailor’s Home – we finally met the old sea wall, (now stranded a quarter of a mile from the shore after decades of Long Shore Drift) and turned south into a duneland of shingle and marram. This part of the coast is thick with what Ronald Blythe has called ‘war litter’: pill-boxes, tanks blocks, and rusting barbed wire. These are the ruined remains of a history that never happened, a Nazi invasion. As a child the crumbling concrete left by the frantic activity of 1940 fascinated me, although my efforts to imagine the improbable sight of an invasion – anticipated on this coast since at least the Napoleonic wars of the 18th century – always foundered against the banality of a present dominated by holiday homes, and caravans, and suburban semis.
As we crossed ‘the sluice’ – running dry on this cold January morning – we left Kessingland and entered Benacre (pronounced Be-na-cur). Many years ago, there were three small inland waters here which I knew as ‘the lakes’, the result of winter storms leaving saltwater lagoons cut off from the cold, grey, North Sea (only one now remains). Around them grew the sort of ecosystem common to this type of breckland: gorse bushes and bracken – russet red in the midwinter – hiding a warrened world of rabbits. The result was a stony soil very much ‘cyclable’ on a mountain bike (a 1990s childhood craze) until, that is, you reach the edge of a small woodland, where sporadic pockets of deep and soft sand make the going tough. Here lies the entrance to a place I rarely lingered – Benacre Broad. Now a key destination for those on a Sebaldian Pilgrimage (the author’s narrator wanders through in Rings of Saturn), as a child this was the outer limit of the known world. It was the place which signalled that I had gone far enough, that it was time to turn and retreat. From the distance of 25 years it is now difficult to recall exactly what left me feeling so uncomfortable at this spot. Perhaps it was the eerie calm of the Broad. Or that the sea always seemed poised to commence a final assault on the besieged land. Or maybe it was that the many twisted and desiccated tree trunks discarded on the shoreline by winter winds called to mind the desolate images I encountered when reading about that preeminent ‘dead landscape’: the Western Front.
Today though we pushed on, through the cemetery of fallen timber, taking to the clifftop path beyond the Broad in the direction of Covehithe, the flint tower of the village’s church providing the peak towards which we trod. As we passed yet another old pill-box – battered, broken and dropped into the sea by eighty years of storms – the glistening head of a curious seal watched from the waves.
After brief exploration of the church, ruined in the 17th century, we pondered our options. The original plan had been to stick with the shoreline all the way to Southwold. But to do so we would have to negotiate the narrow cliff-foot pass at Easton Bavents and today it seemed this was not an option the sea would countenance. The swell was rising, the wind quickening, and the rain streaming. It forced the sort of decision that I was more familiar with making among the high fells of Lakeland: was this route safe, and if things went wrong could we escape? It seemed very likely that the answer to the latter question was ‘no’. For if we became stuck at the foot of the crumbling cliffs, with the waves crashing and the light fading, we could well be in trouble. So we turned inland, meandering our way south via paths and trackways already old when the Church at Covehithe was first ruined.
At Southwold – a genteel Victorian resort where beach-huts command prices in the tens of thousands – we rested. Dad decided to make an extended contribution to the local economy (via coffee and cake) and then get a bus to the White Hart. This left me to complete the final stretch alone. As the sky cleared and the rain eased, I headed south out of town, taking the foot-bridge – the supports of which once carried a narrow-gauge railway, closed in the late 1920s – over the Blythe to the second home paradise of Walbserwick. Turning east through the sandy Common I kept to the line of the old railway, now a quiet woodland footpath skirting the edge of the tidal mudflats guarding the eastern flank of Blythburgh. The day was in its decline and as the village hoved into view a curlew called.
That evening, after catching the last of the light at the Cathedral of the Marshes (built in the 15th century and haunted, it is said, by the demon dog Black Shuck), we sat, and talked, and drank the beer for which the region is rightly famed. Six thousand miles away, a virus mutated and started its implacable journey west.