A small, yellow foot ferry makes landfall against the steep shingle of the River Orwell’s northerly bank and lowers a ramp off its bow allowing those who have made the crossing from Harwich to alight and make their way up the beach toward the Landguard cafe and visitor centre. The round trip by road is over thirty miles so this seasonal, short hop across the mouth of the river, courtesy of the Harwich Harbour Foot and Cycle Ferry, is a welcome service to tourists and locals alike.
A few hundred yards upstream of the ferry landing the shingle gives way to a concrete shore guarded by a line of giant, blue shipping cranes standing like sentinels. The Maersk shipping company operates from here unloading and loading metal boxes from the decks and holds of its super-sized cargo ships day and night. Half of the United Kingdom’s container trade is handled from Felixstowe making it the busiest in the country. The yellow ferry looks like a child’s toy from this angle.
The shingle extends into the sea and forms a spit of land defining the northern entrance to the Orwell. This fragile and delicate habitat is home to rare yellow-horned poppies and a nesting site for ringed plovers and oyster catchers. We photographed clusters of sea kale somehow thriving in this stony desert. These hardy plants soften the edges of a bizarre collection of buildings and ruins littering the landscape.
Swallowed by the sea
Landguard is aptly named. Its sliver of land has been guarded by various defence forces throughout the ages. Henry VIII was the first to spot the need for a defensive structure. His fort has long since been swallowed by the sea but the Napoleonic fort and its Cold War cousins remain, telling the story of the threat of continental invasion. In fact, the Dutch were the only marine force to make land here back in 1667 but were duly seen off by a detachment of Royal Marines.
The spit section of the Suffolk Coast Path departs from the main route through Felixstowe and leads south for a mile and half across the shingle out to Landguard Point. We saved our strength, parking close to the fort from where we walked to the southerly tip of the spit on the boardwalks installed to protect the reserve from human disturbance.
The point itself is a great place to cast your eyes over the container ships queuing on the horizon as they wait their turn to approach the quays at Felixstowe. The shipping lane entrance to the Orwell is surprisingly narrow but deep enough to allow some of the world’s biggest container vessels to pass within a few hundred yards of the exposed groins along the beach. It’s an impressive sight. On this occasion sea mist restricted the view to seaward, revealing nothing more than hazy, sunlit waves and the odd low-flying gull in search of scavenged food.
Our ‘there and back’ stroll returned us to the visitor centre where a touching RAF memorial to the crew of a 44 Squadron plane crash reminded us of the more recent defence of our nation during the Second World War. Close by, another poignant plaque commemorates the actions of the Royal Navy torpedo boat crews of HMS Beehive who were tasked with defending our shores during those dark days of conflict.
Would we recommend this walk? If you like a mix of history, huge ships, gigantic cranes and some rare flora and fauna then this is most definitely one to do. And for those in need of something more strenuous then why not attempt the Suffolk Coastal Path? You can walk from Lowestoft, the most easterly town in the UK, all the way to Felixstowe.
The trail then continues in the form of the Stour and Orwell Path up the twin fingers of these two rivers. The Orwell route leads up to Ipswich on its northern bank, then back along the southerly side to Shotley before making a westerly turn along the Stour’s Suffolk shore to Brantham. From here its only a short stroll upriver to Flatford Mill for fans of John Constable. Why not?
© Robin Redfern 2019