Suffolk's lovely Sandlings

PUBLISHED: 11:32 27 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:06 20 February 2013

Suffolk's lovely Sandlings

Suffolk's lovely Sandlings

Ancient burial mounds and wartime installations - man has left his mark on this gloriously isolated slice of Suffolk, as Sam Rosebery discovers

A chance encounter with deer in a place of splendid solitude

The lonely road goes on forever, long narrow stretches, unexpected bends. When in doubt, read the instructions. So I pull over to consult the map and after a few moments get that strange feeling of being watched.
A quick shifty left and right, front and back, reveals no one. Yet the feeling persists.
Then the faintest flicker and there standing deathly still just a few feet from the car is a small herd of fallow deer, some ghostly pale in the pinewood gloom, others little more than dark silhouettes.
We meet each others gaze for what seems an age, yet in truth only seconds, before a twitch of an ear signals a collective outbreak of doubt. The herd turns, disconcerted, and moves off through the trees, perhaps miffed at being stared down by a mere human.
Minutes later they appear once more crossing a distant slope, an elegant bundle of bodies on finely-turned legs, heads high, ears cupped.
This small part of the Sandlings may be the centre of the universe for the people who live here. But for those fortunate to visit it offers a chance away from it all, rare solitude, even on days when tourist traps are heaving.
The Sandlings once covered a huge area of Suffolk coast, from Ipswich to Southwold, although about 80 per cent of the original lowland heaths have now disappeared under farming, forestation and encroachment.
Today what survives is among Britains rarest habitats and jealously guarded as such, the home to the silver-studded blue butterfly, the woodlark and the nightjar.
However, the day begins at Bawdsey Quay, at the mouth of the River Deben, which is a surprisingly civilised spot, considering it is one of Suffolks most far-flung outposts
The quay looks across to Felixstowe Ferry on the far side, with the waters of the estuary surging out to the sea and back in again on the tide. It is a place for just sitting and looking, sunning yourself, walking, picnicking, reading or sketching
Nearby are the gates to Bawdsey Manor, a mish-mash mansion of Victorian gothic to Tudorbethan styles that can be seen from the shingle headland. It was built between 1886 and 1895 for Sudbury MP, Sir William Cuthbert Quilter (his second home perhaps?), a founder of the National Telephone Company, who once owned 8,000 acres stretching along the northern banks of the Deben as far as Sutton Hoo.
Sir William ran a steam ferry across the river so he could get to London from Felixstowe station. Today a small motor launch still carries passengers to and fro during the warmer months.
The Quilters didnt live in the manor all that long. It was requisitioned during the First World War and sold in 1936 to the Air Ministry, becoming RAF Bawdsey until 1994.
It was here in 1936 that Sir Robert Watson developed the first radar system and where the first of a series of radar stations was constructed to protect Britain during the Second World War.
The old transmitter block, back along the road, attracts large crowds when open odd Sundays and Mondays from April to September by the Bawdsey Radar Trust ( During the Cold War, a row of Bloodhound missiles could be seen pointing skywards along the clifftop.
Bawdsey Manor is now a language school and, as if sensing the aura of the place, a couple of builders working by the main gates are shouting to each other in Anglo Saxon.

We meet each others gaze for what seems an age, yet in truth only seconds, before a twitch of an ear signals a collective outbreak of doubt. The herd turns, disconcerted, and moves off through the trees, perhaps miffed at being stared down by a mere human.

The village of Bawdsey is strung out along the road, an attractive concoction of old cottages, estate houses and grander abodes. But it is St Marys that is the real eye-catcher, with its great stump of a tower overshadowing the somewhat diminutive church building.
It turns out that this is just a third of the original massive tower, while the little church attached is all that remains of a more extensive chancel, the surviving arcades of which can be seen buried in what are now the exterior walls.
Inside, there are old box pews and a pulpit unique in Suffolk, with a cage of wooden banisters, presumably to protect the preacher from missiles thrown by the congregation kneelers, hymn books, shoes? Behind the church is the Quilter mausoleum, raised on a grassy knoll and suitably sombre with sentinels of dark yew.
There is also a memorial to wartime heroine nurse Edith Cavell, shot in Belgium in 1916. Although she never lived in Bawdsey and isnt buried here, there are family connections.
From the village, a scruffy track wiggles its way to the sea, where there are reminders of battles from the past to the present day. This is East Lane and from the roof of a series of Second World War blockhouses can be seen the chunky shapes of four Martello towers from the early 19th century, strung out along the coast.
These were among 103 such towers built from 1805 to 1812 to protect the south east during the Napoleonic wars - 29 of them in Suffolk and Essex, from Aldeburgh to St Osyth, including three on the Felixstowe side of the Deben and another at Bawdsey, now demolished, its base part of the manors formal gardens.
It is the power of the sea, however, against which the battle is being waged today, with somewhat belated action to halt the erosion chewing away the sandy cliff face at a shocking rate.
On to Alderton, and another straggling village of great charm, with a bustling shop that attracts 4x4s, like paper clips to a magnet. From here another lonely road winds its way to Ramsholt, which is no more than a scattering of isolated homes.
However, the breathtaking location and the parishs famous pub, the Ramsholt Arms on the foreshore, attracts visitors from far and wide.
From here you can walk along the river bank all the way to Sutton Hoo. Instead, I strike out across the meadows towards the little round tower of Ramsholt church high on the hill above.
A sudden squall blows in from the North Sea and I catch up with a tough old trout, head bowed against the rain, determinedly struggling up the hill on pair of sticks. Not wishing to offend, I tactfully ask if there isnt an easier way to the church.
Yes, she chuckles. In a coffin.
However, as we reach the churchyard the squall passes and I understand why the old girl would not be put off. The view over the estuary to the Kirton Marshes and beyond is truly magical.
Next stop Shottisham, a lovely village with a picture postcard, white-boarded mill, a good pub, the Sorrell Horse Inn, and just down the road the upmarket Wood Hall Hotel, where I do a quick u-turn in the forecourt, as much to admire the old building as the expensive motors lined up outside.
Driving on, The National Trusts Sutton Hoo burial site nearby is worth a days visit on its own. Yet Ive been told by people, who must have gone with their minds in neutral and their senses stalled, that there is nothing here.
The visitors centre tells the story of the great burial ship and its fabulous treasure that was unearthed back in 1939 and of the people who have lived and farmed here since the end of the Stone Age. I join a guided tour of the burial mounds and, as the story unfolds, the hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end.
Nothing here indeed!
The sun is tipping towards the horizon, so I back-track to Sutton Common, to experience the solitude of the heathland that remains from the original Sandlings and it is here I have my second stand-off of the day with the local wildlife.
Wandering along, wrapped in thought, a scrabbling noise close by brings me back with a jolt and, spinning round, I come eye-to-eye with a squirrel atop a footpath sign.
We are no more than three feet apart and the little guy is clutching the top of the post with his front paws and looking decidedly anxious. I can see the problem, there is no cover behind or on either side and I am standing between him and the only trees.
Without warning he launches himself from the post, lands on my chest, runs over my shoulder, leaps for the nearest trunk and is gone, leaving me startled and surprised.
Moments later a woman and a labrador come bounding along the track.
Are you alright? she calls. I heard a scream.
Me scream?
Must have been the squirrel.

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