From the source to sea - following the River Alde
PUBLISHED: 17:09 17 February 2014 | UPDATED: 14:02 18 February 2014
John Grant follows the twisting, turning, magnificent River Alde . . . or is it the Ore?
Don’t tell villagers of Orford they live beside the River Alde. And don’t tell Aldeburgh townspeople they live beside the River Ore.
It’s true that the same sinuous stretch of water links the two communities. But somewhere, at some imperceptible point out there amid the flatlands, amid the vast and almost featureless sweep of marsh, crop and grazing pastures that lie between the town and the village, the Alde becomes the Ore. Aldeburgh and Orford both have a justifiable pride in the river that gives them their parish’s name. After all, it gives them a significant slice of their charm. And their character. And their economy too, although less now than in days gone by when both communities were more reliant on river-borne trade.
This snake-twist of a river has two names – and it flows in two directions too. From its source at the western end of the gentle Alde Valley, near Laxfield, the little stream that is to become a wide-horizoned estuary rises near the beginning of another Suffolk river – the Blyth. As that heads just north of east and flows eventually to the sea between Southwold and Walberswick, the Alde trickles broadly south-east. South-east, that is, until a pivotal point between Slaughden and Sudbourne. It swivels and writhes dramatically to the south, its direct seaward journey blocked by the shingle that marks the beginning of the 10-mile ‘crooked finger’ spit that is Orford Ness. Here the Alde morphs into the Ore. The sharp angle scoured by the river water as it turns through so many degrees forms an “elbow” in an “arm” that cradles acre after acre of that low, low flatland that often lends this landscape a desolation, lifted on occasion by an electrifying wildlife moment – perhaps the rise of a black-and-white flurry of avocets or the slow quartering of a marauding marsh harrier.
This at-first-glance featureless vastness is a world away from the enclosed intimacy of the Alde’s first few miles of life. From source and through valley, in contrast to the flatness of the Alde and Ore’s estuary, the land actually rises and falls in pleasant folds. Here too are some unobtrusive Suffolk treasures. It is a tired cliché to call villages sleepy, and somewhat disrespectful too, but the Alde valley certainly has some little gems that – on passing through at least – seem to simply ooze serenity. Badingham, Bruisyard, Rendham, Sweffling.
Thousand upon thousand of motorists cross the Alde at Farnham as they rattle along the A12, most probably oblivious to the river’s journey just feet below them. Near Blaxhall the river nears the point at Snape where its first major change of character takes place – the change to tidal estuary.
On that shallow valley floor, is the first of no fewer than nine nature reserves that punctuate the river’s course between here and its journey’s end. A reedy, marshy paradise is emerging from once-dry and relatively lifeless land – the RSPB’s Snape Wetlands nature reserve links Botany Marshes and Abbey Farm in a compensatory move mainly financed by the Environment Agency to offset wetland losses sustained by the Suffolk coast as a result of erosion and climate change.
The Alde passes under Snape Bridge and skirts the famous Snape Maltings >>
>> complex. The Alde here is Curlew River – Britten was a perceptive naturalist and the curlews that helped give a name to his opera can be seen probing the shimmering silver mud in their hundreds during winter and at times of passage, their cries so evocative of this now majestic, wide and winding estuary.
The stunningly beautiful peninsula that is home to the much-photographed St Botolph’s Church juts out from the southern shore, to enclose the sweep of Iken Reach, a bird-rich bay in winter often filled with feeding avocets.
On the northern shore are the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s low-lying Alde Mudflats nature reserve and the heights of Snape Warren, an RSPB reserve that is a little microcosm of the Suffolk Sandlings heaths that once covered so much of east Suffolk.
Further down river, again on the northern shore, is another sweeping bay, this time overlooked by a Suffolk Wildlife Trust bird hide on the Hazelwood Marshes nature reserve. And then comes that swivel, as the river suddenly writhes from a broadly west-to-east course to one that is more or less north to south – Orford Ness’s shingle barring a short-cut to the sea, the waters that are now the Ore are forced to travel several more miles yet to their disgorging point.
To the east is the great shingle spit of Orford Ness, now a National Trust-owned heritage and wildlife site, its gleaming red and white lighthouse and its somehow sinister masts and famous pagodas sporadically breaking the flatness of the land. To the west, behind the grassy banks of the river walls, stretch out mile after mile of relentlessly flat farmland, criss-crossed by reed-fringed ditches and dykes and a few sparse, spindly, stunted trees.
Orford breaks the monotony with its magnificent church and castle, its attractive cottages and its cluster of yachts and dinghies, but soon after it is flat, flat farmland again as Gedgrave is passed.
Standing, or rather lying low, in the river is the RSPB’s famous Havergate Island nature reserve – colonised with RSPB Minsmere by the avocet in 1947 when the birds returned to breed in Britain for the first time after an absence of 100 years or so. Now avocets annually attract hundreds of boat-borne visitors to the island, along with its dazzling array of other breeding and passage waders and wildfowl – the extraordinary spoonbill being a key over-summering species which may very well begin breeding here in the not-too-distant future.
Butley Creek butts in beneath the great grassy mound that is Burrow Hill, formerly an island and the site of an important Anglo Saxon settlement, and inside the river walls are spread the RSPB’s Boyton Marshes and Hollesley Marshes nature reserves, where waders and wildfowl abound in the shadow of the distinctive outlines of Her Majesty’s prison and Young Offenders Institution Hollesley Bay. Nearby, near the end of the Ore’s journey to the sea, lies one of Suffolk’s least visited nature reserves, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Simpson’s Saltings, where uncommon coastal and saltmarsh plants thrive, out of the way of trampling feet.
The tip of the ‘crooked finger’ that caresses the coast – Orford Ness – is known as North Weir Point. Opposite Shingle Street, it marks the end of the Ore’s course. What started as a tiny stream and widened into one of the most beautiful of all our estuaries, disappears in the salty waves.