The wonders of the Suffolk coast
PUBLISHED: 11:55 12 July 2016 | UPDATED: 11:55 12 July 2016
Julia Jones is the modern author most closely associated with the ever-changing and evocative land and seascapes of East Anglia. Paul Simon talked to her about her love affair with the coast
Born in Woodbridge, Julia Jones has spent her life influenced by the people and places dotted along the shifting coastline between Lowestoft and the Blackwater. Her Strong Winds books – ostensibly for older children, but actually of equal appeal to adult readers – are both a homage to and a twenty-first century expression of the sense of exploration inherent in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series.
The link between the two writers is further entwined as her yacht, Peter Duck, was once owned by Ransome.
“I met Peter Duck in 1957 when I was just three years old and my parents sailed my brother and I from the River Deben to Holbrook Bay. She is now my own – and my family’s – most treasured possession”.
Peter Duck was built by Harry King’s boatyard at Pin Mill on the Shotley Peninsula and it is this elongated spur of land between the Rivers Orwell and Stour that features most regularly in Julia Jones’s writing. Her first three books are dominated by experiences around the Peninsula.
What values or emotions does the Peninsula and its estuaries conjure up in her heart?
“That depends very much where I am. The two rivers, the River Orwell and the River Stour have quite different characteristics. The River Orwell runs up to Ipswich and there’s still an appreciable amount of shipping moving up and down. It’s a great sailing river, an open, exciting river, more straightforward somehow than the inscrutable Stour.
“The Stour’s character changes with the tides. It can be a majestic glittering expanse around high water but then shrinks to crazy meanders between its broad mud banks. The Stour runs on past Manningtree changing its character completely as the salt water gives way to fresh and it continues towards Flatford and Dedham.
“It gives me the tingle of something never quite explored. Inland, in the tangle of roads and tracks between Erwarton, Harkstead and Lower Holbrook, I am in a constant state of surprise and delight as each twist offers something new”.
Jones effectively uses local landmarks to reflect her characters’ moods and aspirations. A place of particular sanctuary on the peninsula for her is the shallow curving bay from Lower Holbrook to Stutton Ness, which she describes as “a magical and timeless place which has been inhabited from the time for the Neanderthals”.
“When Donny (the principal character in her first three books) and his family need sanctuary at the bleakest moments in A Ravelled Flag, this is where I bring them. One of my happiest afternoons as a visiting author was spent here with a group of primary school children whose teacher had the good sense to let them run wild and explore. The subsequent boost to their creativity was quite remarkable”.
“In the fourth volume, The Lion of Sole Bay, one of the younger children wanted an adventure of his own so I based him in the rather secretive Martlesham Creek which branches off the River Deben just below Woodbridge. That book also gave me an opportunity to explore the Third Anglo-Dutch War where the English behaved so badly – and which I assume is why we learn so little about it, even in Suffolk schools!”
The River Deben is another favourite part of the Suffolk coastal landscape for Julia.
“Ramsholt Church, viewed from my beloved yacht Peter Duck on the River Deben, is incomparable. It’s where my father is buried and one of the few memories my mother retains as she struggles with dementia and old age, is the day that she and dad arrived in this river when she’d bought her first yacht from him and he was helping her to sail it round to a new home.
“There are almost too many lovely river and coastal landscapes. I’d want the whole of the River Deben, Iken on the River Alde, Shingle Street at its entrance and then the long precarious coastline sailing north towards Lowestoft. It isn’t the seaside towns that tug the heartstrings but the evidence of erosion. Orfordness, for instance and Benacre with Dunwich tolling its ghostly warning bells”.
In fact, there is hardly an inlet or little marina along the Suffolk coast that she doesn’t know and doesn’t like.
“When I was a child, a trip up the Butley River then a mushroom picking expedition up Barrow Hill was a memorable treat. but somehow I haven’t been back in recent years and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps I’m afraid that it’s become overly discovered”.
“Arriving in Lowestoft has many of the same feelings of finding safe haven and the welcome of the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club is second to none. I have especially happy memories of the occasions on which they’ve opened up their facilities to local primary school children to allow then to visit Peter Duck. Lowestoft, in Arthur Ransome’s story is where the old seaman “Peter Duck” is first encountered, smoking his pipe while sitting on a bollard in the Inner Harbour and yearning to make one last sea voyage, before it was too late”.
Of course, Julia, her family and the yacht Peter Duck don’t confine themselves to the Suffolk coast and I wonder what sights they most look forward to glimpsing when they return from either Essex or Norfolk?
“From far out to sea the cranes of the Port of Felixstowe come rising from the water far in advance of any suspicion of land. Closer in the minarets of Bawdsey Manor are a welcome sight and the red-and-white “safe water mark” that is the Woodbridge Haven buoy is almost best of all -- until I’m properly back in the river again and swirling past Felixstowe Ferry landing stage looking across at the line of houses on the Bawdsey side and heading up river with the flood”.
For Julia the difference between the Suffolk coast and that along our two neighbouring counties is the difference between home and abroad. She explains: “Last summer we went exploring up the Norfolk coast as far as The Wash. It’s long, it can be challenging and there are very few ports of refuge, especially when the wind is strong and from the north. It’s more varied than I’d expected and of course very beautiful when one reaches the sand-and-seal lands of Blakeney, Wells and the Wash - as long as the wind is kind and you have a good depth of water under your keel!”
I ask her how different is viewing a place from the sea to that of encountering it from the land. It would appear the main difference for Julia is one of instability. “The most obvious answer is the quality of the light which seems to be altered and intensified by the intervening water. Also the rhythm of the tide means that the margins between land and water are in a state of constant change – and that affects their population by the sea and river birds, an integral part of the scene.
“The other answer can be more subjective because it depends on the weather conditions. The Suffolk coast with a fair wind and good visibility is almost uniformly lovely: in fog, easterly gales or battling a foul tide it’s not so pretty at all!”
But Julia Jones, regards of the weather, has clearly established herself as the most authoritative contemporary voice of the wonders of the Suffolk coastline.
For more information about Julia Jones and the Strong Winds series, go to http://golden-duck.co.uk/