A Discover Suffolk on a heathland hike with David Falk
PUBLISHED: 11:35 04 November 2014 | UPDATED: 11:35 04 November 2014
The sign states I’m in an ancient landscape, a place where people have lived, worked and enjoyed walking for centuries.
People certainly still live and work in this area. On the drive here I passed small cottages and large fields of crops covered in protective fleece alongside acres of turf, perfectly manicured lawns, spreading into the near distance.
And people certainly enjoy walking here, as the car park reveals. Middle of the week after work and there are clusters of vehicles parked up, their occupants hidden in the heathland landscape.
Sutton Heath, just a few miles south of Woodbridge, over the railway tracks, past ancient Anglo-Saxon burial grounds, on the long road to Bawdsey, fills a sprawl of land between the River Deben and Rendlesham Forest. This is lowland heath, a rare landscape and home to mysteriously beautiful wildlife.
I’ve been here many times. I’ve watched owls perched in trees in the daytime, spent evenings sitting quietly into dusk, waiting for the supernatural appearance of nightjars, and heard eerie sounds of birds that I could not identify. I wonder what experiences the heath will reveal today . . .
My guide is the Sutton Heath Explorer, one of a series of online guides developed by the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It informs me that the heathland goes back to the Stone Age, when woodland was cleared for grazing. Since then it has been a medieval rabbit warren, contained shepherds’ huts and been divided by anti-glider trenches.
The Explorer Guide offers the Heath and Forest Hike or the Sutton Heath Stroll. I’m feeling energetic so opt for the hike, although at a mere four miles over soft tracks this title might be stretching the description.
The hike starts at the car park, near a picnic site hemmed in by tall, flaky barked Scots pines. I study the explorer guide, check my bearings, and head off along a rutted track past woodpecker trees and the last shades of this year’s heather.
At a junction of paths, I turn into a woodland of new and old growth and follow a straight, wide path through silver birch and sweet chestnut. The chestnuts hang full of bright lime green spiny husks. Fly agarics protrude like fairy tale creations with their spotted red caps. And sinister tree roots protrude like a swamp of submerged alligators.
I pass a large field of sand indented by the tyre tracks of a tractor and head towards an expanse of heather. The heath is grazed by a small herd of Exmoor ponies who I meet at a kissing gate. One stands guard over the gate, a beautiful chestnut brown with a white ashen nose and blackened legs. It barely moves as I pass through the gate, but watches and waits for a friendly pat.
As I walk along the path I stop with a start. A hiss springs up from the ground and a long dark shape slithers across the path, rapidly disappearing under low growth. With its very dark patterned appearance and hiss, I’m sure it’s a female adder.
Further on I stop again. Within the sand pit of a path, a Devils Coach Horse squirms in front of me. It’s a small, jet black beetle snaking from side to side in a crazed dance. It’s joined by a partner and they threaten me with raised scorpion like tails and gaping jaws before continuing their routine.
The path rises gently towards a lone pine and sweeping views across the heath. I pass along an avenue of silvery coloured birch that lean inwards casting spikes of shadows. More fly agarics cluster by the trail creating an enchanted woodland of dark shadows with spots of bright colour.
Through one last kissing gate I’m back at the car park and picnic tables. I sit with the lowering sun and listen to the bird song from above and then watch a dog bounce back, tail wagging, into the boot of a car. I think we’ve all enjoyed walking at Sutton Heath this evening.