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Suffolk's end of summer sails

PUBLISHED: 12:41 17 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:43 20 February 2013

Felixstowe Ferry, near the entrance to the River Deben

Felixstowe Ferry, near the entrance to the River Deben

Nothing beats the Suffolk coastline. With its boat-friendly rivers and picturesque little ports, it represents late summer fun on the water, says Nick Ardley, an Essex visitor to our shores

Nothing beats the Suffolk coastline. With its boat-friendly rivers and picturesque little ports, it represents late summer fun on the water, says Nick Ardley, an Essex visitor to our shores

I have sailed the waters of North Kent, Essex and Suffolk for decades. Sea-salt and sailing are in my blood. I was brought up on a Thames sailing barge, the May Flower, during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It was a barge that was maintained in sail by a family for 25 years after her trading days were over and whose story has been told in The May Flower: A Barging Childhood.
Since then Ive even managed to talk my wife into sharing my boating passion and she has become my nautical mate. Together we have endured, enjoyed and been endowed with a deep love for sailing amongst the shifting sands, mud, marsh and shingle of the east coast, of which Suffolk is a constituent part.
My latest book, Mudlarking: Thames Estuary Cruising Yarns, is a story of a skipper and his mate on their waterborne travels, delving into snippets of local history as they sail by.
The Suffolk rivers have always been some of my favourite places, even though two of the prettiest are straddled with shifting shingle bars. Those bars though have never caused a problem theyre respected, like the sea! The Orwell in particular must rank as an eastern region gem, along with the Butley River below Orford, but well sail there later.
I have not sailed beyond Orford Ness, other than within the rivers Ore and Alde, though I have enjoyed, with the mate, touring by road deep into Suffolk and Norfolk, investigating inland towns and their salty coastal fringes. The bulk of Suffolk, however, with its boat-friendly rivers, some tucked inland beyond their shingle bars, has been explored from the water time after time. Each visit brings something new to enjoy and treasure. Journeying over that threshold from salt to a land full of summery scents seems so magical.
Let me start at the thin hazy line of the Essex coast around Foulness. Here, the Dengie Peninsula and the Blackwater estuary falls slowly astern and the higher ground around Walton and Frinton begins to rise up, giving a tantalising glimpse of the soft rounded hills that envelope the waters of north Essex and south Suffolk.
On a more recent visit I had a few days alone on the Stour savouring the beauty of the river and its banks, passing the riverside settlements of Ewarton, Stutton, Holbrook, Manningtree and Mistley. I explored Holbrook Bay and its old docks. On the way to the Bakers Arms at Harkstead, I walked past scented cottage gardens and was serenaded by bird song from the fields that overlooked the Essex shore. The pint was welcome too.

Each visit brings something new to enjoy and treasure. Journeying over that threshold from salt to a land full of summery scents seems so magical.

Coming up towards the anchorage at Pin Mill always gives a lump in the throat. It is evocative for many reasons. Spritsail barges; a medley of traditional craft; the Butt, where a pint can be enjoyed whilst watching the dinghy; and of course, Arthur Ransome and his family of children, who always spring to mind. Pin Mill once had a bevy of old yachts, hauled up under the National Trust woodland that tumbles to the waters edge, in use as houseboats. They have all gone and the present incumbents are a mix of picturesque seaworthy craft and ugly tore outs.
That waterfront though is part and parcel of Pin Mill and long may it continue to be so. My mother-in-law let slip on a road visit years ago, how, when she was a Red Cross nurse at HMS Ganges during WWII, she was at the Butt on VE Day, in 1945, dancing on the tables with painted lines up the backs of her legs... I bet she turned a few old bargemens heads!
Going ashore at Pin Mill is breathtaking. After leaving the deep waterfront belt, an immediate sense of country with prettily painted cottages delights the eye. One, Alma Cottage, is famed. It was immortalised by Arthur Ransome in, We Didnt Mean to Go to Sea. Further up, the perfumed wildflowers along the lanes run down the valley side into the cottsge gardens.
It was at Pin Mill that I recently fell in the mud, probably for the first time in my life, at the tender age of 54. And, with my barge childhood, that is saying something my mother has always said I built up an ability to keep clean! The mate nearly fell in too laughing.
Ipswich is always a joy to visit and the skipper and mates delight grows with the knowing. In my book, Gently around Suffolk the skipper and mate visited and stayed a few days at Foxs Marina down at Bourne Bridge, as delightful spot as any. In that story I roam the rivers Deben, Ore and Alde. Woodbridge, a quintessential market town, so full of charm and friendliness, and a favourite, is visited. To be locked up, especially over a storm laden period, is no hardship when in the Tide Mill marina ... but first Ipswich.
Ipswich is small enough to wander around on foot. It has such a wonderful continental aura. It has beautiful higgledy streets packed with old buildings that are still in use and superb museums too, let alone the thronging shops and, especially, the little places down quaint alleys with their overhanging timber framed buildings where a peaceful luncheon can be enjoyed while all around is hustle and bustle. Yes, it is a grand place to enjoy, to refresh stores and to chill out. The marinas in the 170 year old docks have been visited, but it can be noisy: sounds travel superbly over water, so our favourite mooring has remained down river.
Going into the Deben or the Ore and Alde always elicits a mix of excitement and apprehension. The shinglebars have a bad name. That name has usually come about by foolhardiness. Treat the sea with respect and it will look after you is always a good adage!
We have come out on days when we have found the conditions outside heavier than expected, but on the whole this is because the rivers are so quiet within. When that happens one just has to knuckle down and get on with it. One would not set off purposefully into a raging wind from the east ... a bar is then best avoided!
The River Deben contains many joys; Ramsholt; the anchorage down at The Rocks near Shottisham Creek; Waldringfield; and Woodbridge, with all the delights that are found in this waterside market town full of tantalising independent shops, delightful eateries and watering holes. Oh yes, it has Sutton Hoo just across the river too, in comfortable walking distance along the waters edge to Wilford Bridge and up the hill.
The lower end of the Orford River is not my cup of tea and many would agree with me. The Butley River and beyond Orford to Slaughden Quay, Aldeburgh and Snape are quite beautiful though. At Slaughden, once a major port for Aldeburgh, can be found friendly sailing clubs and another gem of a little town.
Round the back of Aldeburgh sits a disused quay slowly rotting, where, not so long ago cargoes of bricks went away on spritsail barges. Like so many places, now sleepy and quiet, often prettified too, there was once industry, dirty beyond anything known to many.
I knew of cement works near my barge homes berth in Whitewall Creek opposite Chatham Dockyard in the 1960s. Waldringfield, down on the Deben, and Woodbridge too, had lime and cement workings as well as much more besides. And, of course, there is Snape, its industry was cleaner ... maltings ... for beer. It sits deep within Suffolk, a place revered by many: it is truly a lovely place to reach by water. Yes indeed.


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