Once the home of Benjamin Britten, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (England’s first woman doctor), Orlando the marmalade cat and affluent second homers. 10 minutes from the A12 in Suffolk the road to Aldeburgh heads in a straight line towards the east coast through open fields, past gorse on the heath, the busy golf course and into the town. It does not turn right or left and only has a couple of slight bends to avoid being boring.
Drive past “retired” looking houses with well kept gardens beside the broad road, over the roundabout and past the solid church that stands on the left facing the sea. As the road drops down towards the water, the high street to the right and the back entrance to the hotels to the left, we go straight ahead past a warm pub on the corner to try and park the car by the waterfront.
We are facing the North Sea, a sea of changing colours and temperaments; the stillness of a summer day and clear blue sky reflected in the calm of the water – through to the winter rages when it lashes across the pebbles, stirring up sand and mud so that it looks like an ugly brown soup with a frothy cascade of foam as it tumbles onto the beach.
Aldeburgh is a place for simple pleasures where people, who would never deign to go to a “chippy”, happily queue for some of the best fish and chips in East Anglia. Sitting on the sea wall sharing freshly cooked fish the circling keen eyed sea gulls are waiting for a the chance to grab a chip or an unguarded moment to enjoy the feast; however it is now forbidden to feed the gulls! The sea front hotels offer a warm haven for weekend guests and long-term visitors; I used to stay in a lovely room, small, yet with the best coastal views in town. However the bureaucrats discovered that some rooms had a beautiful bed, glorious view, a basin but no loo. Across the corridor I had my own personal bathroom, bigger than most ensuite facilities, with a huge bath and a window overlooking the gardens. Of course in order to maintain the star rating my favourite room had to be closed for the lack of a loo. Sadly the customer is not always right.
Park the car for at least 3 hrs. If I’m staying at the Wentworth parking is not a problem. There is a spacious car park beside the road to Thorpeness at the edge of town. Walking along the beach may be good for you but wandering along the high street looking for clothes I don’t really need is much more interesting. Some of the traditional dress shops have left town to be replaced with “Chelsea on sea” shops but I can always find a store that “may” have something I might need and the local bakers always has a supply of simple buns and rolls; for food addicts there are smart restaurants, interesting pubs and a vegetarian restaurant that has an interesting stock of vegetables and fish.
My walk starts on the beach opposite the White Lion Hotel and close to the traditional seaside shelter, a sensible building that provides shelter away from the wind and where you can gossip with friends, people watch or you can enjoy hot chocolate overflowing with cream. Civilised toilets are nearby (knowledge of good toilets is essential when there are open beaches and no place to hide!)
“Fresh fish today” proclaims the sign outside the fishing hut. If your timing is good you can watch the boats being hauled up the steep shingle beach until they reach the eager customers at the hut. Fresh cod, whiting, dabs and flounders depending on sea conditions and the number of days the fishermen are able to go to sea.The walkers’ choice: asphalt and speed or shingle and stamina; The well used path on the firmer ground close to the coast road is the easier walk, great for conversations when you can concentrate on the words not the walk. The pebble beach is steep as it tumbles down to the terrace below, a great place to sunbath in seclusion as the afternoon sun heads towards the coast at the Orford end of the beach. There is space to be alone or to play games, a place where you can sit down and hug your knees as you relive happy times, a place where you can lie stretched out to the sky and dream of golden days and lovely people. I head for the waters edge believing that walking on damp sand and drying shingle will be easy. No one is watching so I can play dare with the waves and hope they don’t win and I get wet feet.
Depending on the season you may find bright yellow flowers with spiky leaves on the beach. I need to return to read the names of each flower carefully logged on a neat sign on the beach.Walk on: the deep shingle fills the beach all the way to Thorpeness and then beyond to the power station, with only tiny pockets of sand. I walk past the beach houses on the edge of the village of Thorpeness; they emerge from banks of sand with spacious gardens that have to withstand the force of the North Sea winter storms that can range across the water. The large car park just behind the beach has been allowed to evolve so that it is in several parts separated by a few bushes unlike the usual urban white lined car parks, where planners deem that cars must all park in regimented rows.
Thorpeness has two tearooms, shop, a famous boating lake (The Meare) and a re-energised pub; the houses are mainly holiday homes built in the 1900s in a mock Tudor style around the lake and the lanes of the village. The huge lake is reported to be only a 3 or 4 feet deep and the islands represent children’s nursery rhythms. My one gripe is with people who do not control their dogs or think it is fun to see their dogs chasing the ducks, even during nesting times. Moan over!
The entertainment in winter is free: feeding the greedy swans and ducks with special duck food that is on sale in the tea rooms; and in summer watching (or taking part) as families struggle to display their rowing skills. Toasted tea cakes with local jam and a fresh cup of Earl Grey tea overlooking the lake is a simple pleasure, it is easy to find someone to talk to and it is just as good to sit alone and people watch.
Enthusiasts and proper walkers will stride past Aldeburgh towards Sizewell and then on to more natural habitats along the coast.
The beach at Aldeburgh is my refuge, a place to restore the soul, regain lost energy and to put life back into perspective. Walking a mile in the deep shingle may be good for the thighs, it also helps to refocus and enjoy the natural coastline.