Discovering the only island in Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 17:12 24 January 2018 | UPDATED: 17:12 24 January 2018
Havergate, Suffolk's only island, is a magical place with a real feeling of wilderness. Sheena Grant was lucky enough to spend the night there on an adventure few have been privileged to enjoy. Pictures: ANDREAS TREPTE/RSPB
Just off the mainland, south of one of Suffolk’s most popular tourist hotspots lies a rare and special landscape that most casual visitors probably have no idea even exists. The British coast boasts more than 6,000 islands, but only one of them is in Suffolk.
Across the River Ore from Orford Ness, its far more obvious and famous neighbour, Havergate Island is, in many ways, a bundle of contradictions. Just a 20-minute boat ride from the quay at Orford, you can’t really see it at all from the town, although it is visible from the heights of Orford Castle.
Hence its anonymity.
And despite its proximity to the mainland, once you’re on its shores the rhythms of life are so timeless and remote that you might have stepped through some kind of portal, to be transported miles from civilisation into a land that time forgot.
On Havergate, there’s nothing to do but always plenty to keep you occupied. And that’s the beauty of it.
These days, no-one lives on Havergate except an abundance of wildlife. It’s been an RSPB nature reserve since just after the Second World War – and what a reserve it is.
Along with Minsmere, it was the first place in Britain for avocets to breed in 100 years, and is a magnet for exotic spoonbills and migrant waders. Then there are the hares, probably first brought to the island as a food source when it was inhabited by farmers. Numbers were depleted in the storm surge of 2013, but they’re still a Havergate speciality.
And then there are the wild plants – sea lavender, purslane, aster, bladder campion and samphire, to name but a few. All of this combines to create a kind of magic. When you step from the boat onto Havergate’s jetty it’s as if your cares are swallowed up by the oozy black mud that surrounds the island.
Your footsteps on the springy turf of Havergate seem to have a lightness that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Last August, during the busy Bank Holiday weekend, I became one of the privileged few to have stayed overnight on the island, when I took part in a Big Wild Sleep Out, organised by Monika Koch’s Wild Adventures Under Suffolk Skies tour company.
Sadly, it was to be the last such adventure for a while, as Monika decided to return to her native Germany following the Brexit vote.
But you can still visit Havergate for a few hours during the day. The RSPB runs regular trips throughout the year, even in winter. Of all the magic Havergate can conjure, my favourite piece of island alchemy is that which it seems to work on children.
There, they can enjoy the kind of childhood that is largely lost to modern generations. There are no distractions on Havergate, no cars and no people, save those who visit with you.
Within minutes of arriving there on that bright August afternoon, my 12-year-old son was roaming free, building a mini-raft with other children to launch on the Ore and squelching along the shoreline ankle deep in mud. It’s the stuff cherished childhood memories are made of.
Havergate’s association with people goes back 500 years. During that time it has been managed, farmed and shaped by its human inhabitants and visitors. The island was formed as nearby Orford Ness expanded southwards, causing sediment to settle and build up at the mouth of the Butley River.
Before 1948 Havergate was farmed by local marsh keepers, who recognised the potential of its rich, silty soil.They built walls and embankments against tidal flooding, inhabited the island and introduced livestock to graze the site.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Havergate was owned by a Mr Fisk, and a cottage on the island housed the Brinkley family, who eked out a living growing crops and tending wildlife. In the early 1920s, a gravel company moved in to extract shingle, which was taken down to the shore in railway buggies powered by electricity and transferred onto Thames barges.
The remains of the extraction pits, tracks and some buggies can still be seen. By the end of the 1920s Havergate was no longer inhabited, but cattle were still brought over to graze in summer, swum over at low tide, until a barge was eventually constructed to ferry them across.
Throughout the Second World War Havergate was left unattended, something which is thought to have led to the failure of sluices that had been installed to prevent flooding and stop the island being reclaimed by the tide. The walls and embankments eventually collapsed, allowing the island to be flooded in several places.
Ironically, this flooding created perfect conditions for a bird that hadn’t bred in Britain for 100 years, the avocet. Avocets were discovered nesting on the island in 1947, leading the RSPB to purchase Havergate in 1948 and to appoint warden Reg Partridge, who began the task of rebuilding the river walls and creating the lagoons that can now be seen today.
The RSPB runs regular wildlife watching trips to Havergate throughout the year. For booking details and more information visit rspb.org.uk/havergateisland or call RSPB Minsmere
on 01728 648301.