Blaxall, Suffolk

16th - 18th February 2007

Towards the end of 2006, Martin Lighten had taken over from Jenny van der Meijden as the chief organizer of Xerox hiking activities, responsible mainly for choosing forthcoming hiking locations, making the actual bookings and then arranging for final details to be sent out.  At the beginning of 2007, Vanda Ralevska established the website for the Xerox Hiking Club.
  It had been some while that I had last attended a Xerox hike, having been experiencing ankle ligament problems since July 2006. Earlier in the week Bob Gaskell had cheekily invited me  to join up with what he termed the geriatrics group. Me, a geriatric? Peter Mathews, who was recovering from a recent hip operation, would probably not take kindly to that association! I decided to give this hike a go as I did not wish to pass up the opportunity of paying my first visit to the Suffolk. Besides, it would be short haul from home in Royston along the A14 via Bury St Edmunds to Ipswich and then up the A12 to Blaxall. The A14 is normally used by trucks to reach the port of Felixstowe from the Midlands.

Setting out along Heaths path close to the Suffolk shoreline near Sizewell;  View of Sizewell nuclear power station.

List of confirmed attendees.....

Rob Irving, Julie Hastings, Stuart Handley, Martin Lighten, Vanda Ralevska, Andy Perkins, Susanne Mitchell, Danny –  with Andy P, Nadine – with Andy P, Gordon Farquhar, Bob Gaskell, Lynn Wallace, Peter Wise, Joyce Wise, Peter Groves, Sandra Bird, Mick, John Robinson, Anna Askels, Anne Young, Steve Rogers, Jane Sherry, Bernard Gardner, Bonnie Parker, Conaugh Parker, Peter Hartman, Phil Newton, Hannah Newton, Tim Porter and Peter Mathews.

  Arriving at the hostel around 21h00 to find a note on the door from Bob Gaskell with his and Steve Rogers  mobile numbers to contact for the entry code.  As luck would have it, attempts to reach them proved futile, as they were probably in an area of no signal.  Uncannily, it was Gordon Farquhar who arrived minutes later, as this was not the first time that he and I had arrived late at night at a hostel unable to find the key. I had even tried to contact Martin for assistance. Fortunately Bob was on his way back from the pub, having arrived earlier in the day, so we did not have to wait too long to gain access. Gradually the rest arrived, the only absentee being young Hannah Newton, who was suffering from a cold.

Sizewell nuclear power station in the mist; A group shot on a fine warm day in February.


The wetlands of Minsmere Level, an RSPB Nature Reserve.


  The hostel facilities were first class, clean and in perfect working order. Allocated a room with an adjacent bathroom designed for disabled persons was taking it a bit far, I mused. I was somewhat disappointed that I had not been aware of the fact that  Bernard Gardner and one or two others, who had arrived earlier as they often do, had brought their bicycles down and done a 4 hour cycle along the coast. Had I known I would have joined them, as I love cycling. The Suffolk coast is relatively flat and provides the perfect opportunity for a relaxing cycle. There were some new faces, of course.  Sandra bird had recently introduced Mick to the club and the Wise's were neighbours to Bob Gaskell in Baldock, not far from where I am in Royston. Colleague Stuart Handley had not been in a while. The much anticipated Mexican evening was bound to be one of the weekend's focal points. As is usually the case, several routes had been planned for the Saturday, one to include the estuary of the River Alde.  Our involved a drive down to Sizewell and a walk along the coastline towards Dunwich.  Sizewell is the site of one of Britain's nuclear power stations and it amazed me that, purely for security reasons, one could get that close. The weather was perfectly warm and perhaps a bit out of character for the month of February. We set out on the path that formed part of the Suffolk Coast Heath Walk. The terrain was relatively flat and reminded me somewhat of Holland. In many ways, the Suffolk Coast which made Nelson’s supremacy possible, for some 150 years earlier the English navy gained invaluable lessons during what are known as the Anglo Dutch Wars. The Suffolk landscape is dotted with windmills and watermills.  Shortly we arrived at The Sluice off Minsmere Haven.  

Julie ponders why packets of crisps seem to get smaller as the years go by; John, Vanda and Martin stop for a short tea break at the National Trust Visitor's Centre, which was once the home to the Coastguard.


  In the early 19th. century almost 500 windmills were at work in Suffolk, mostly used for corn grinding, but from then on their numbers declined, slowly at first but rapidly after 1900, in the face of competition from large steam powered flour mills and smaller farm mills driven by steam or internal combustion engines. Today just 37 are left and of these only half retain their machinery. The Dutch type of smock mill differs in construction from the English type which seems to have become fashionable in the mid 18th. century.  Minsmere has over 100 species of birds in residence and a staggering 200 more species pass through every year.  It is one of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds i.e. RSPB’s most famous nature reserves. Hides run by the RSPB are available for public use.

Heading inland near Dunwich Heath through an area of attractive up-market houses.


  It has been an RSPB reserve for over 50 years and pioneered the use of observation hides and management of wetland areas to enable visitors to see a sample of the huge range of birds that pass along the Suffolk coast. As part of the defence measures in the Second World War some flat areas of the coastline were flooded, Minsmere Levels being one of them, with both fresh water and sea water, the area remaining flooded until the end of the war. During this time reed spread quickly from the ditches which surrounded the rough pastures, thereby producing 400 acres of brackish lagoons and reed beds.   Much of the Minsmere coastline has been eroded, which continues to this day.

The Priory ruins at Greyfriars; The coastline along Minsmere cliffs looking towards Dunwich Beach.


Snowdrops in full bloom - has spring indeed arrived early?


  We arrived at the Coastguard Cottages at Dunwich Heath, which date back to the 19th Century, after walking up a slight hill and stopped for a tea break. The Coastguard Cottages at Dunwich Heath overlook the National Trust's area of heathland conservation, and the eroding cliffs of Minsmere Beach. Until it disappeared under the waves in 1286 during a large storm, the medieval town of Dunwich was one of the most important ports in the Country. Today, Dunwich Greyfriars (Franciscan Priory) is all that remains. When you walk through the gateways and enter the magical ruins of this 13th Century friary and look out to the sea from the cliff tops, you can imagine what lies beneath the sea.

Greyfriars Franciscan priory ruins; Timeout and lunch, as Martin and Vanda share a joke on Dunwich beach.


  Just before reaching the Priory, we encountered an area of snowdrops in full bloom, above the cliffs off Minsmere Beach. We soon reached the village at Dunwich and stopped on the shore for lunch and a snooze. From here it was the start of the long walk back along the beach, all the way to Sizewell. My ankle took severe punishment and I was in pain practically all the way. It was hard going and difficult to find firmer ground. After driving back in my car to the hostel, a quick shower brought some relief. Martin and Vanda started preparing a chilli con carne dinner with some assistance, while a number of us watched a frigging football match on TV, Manchester United being held to a draw by Reading. 

Walking along the beach below Minsmere Cliffs back towards Sizewell; Looking north along Minsmere Beach..


  It was a sumptuous meal and there was sufficient for most to afford themselves a second helping. Being pretty hot and spicy, it was washed down by all varieties of the laughing water, including some shots provided by Andy perkins.  Authentic Mariachi music set the tone for the raucous behaviour that was to follow. Some of the women found it hard to resist dancing and men, generally being the reluctant participants, were dragged off their seats. Martin had brought along ponchos, sombreros and fake drooping moustaches which were donned by a few, including myself - Ii had no choice. It was time for a show.  Martin and I left the dining room, dropped our "rods" before returning. Though the ponchos hung to just above our knees, this brought the house down, serving only to encourage further riotous behaviour which saw us bending over unashamedly to expose our rears. Unbeknown to us, the paparazzi caught this aspect of our choreography on camera too. Rob Irving brought out his acoustic guitar and roused the mob to a sing-along in the lounge - music partner Dave had unfortunately committed himself  to a gig and was not able to join us. Martin had described his visit to a Chinese female doctor who had conducted an examination for prostrate cancer in graphic detail. Throughout the weekend references to this seemed to permeate a variety of conversations, much to his embarrassment. The mere presence of anyone wearing latex washing gloves seemed to make him anxious - this was not the sweat induced by chilli powder! We spent a fair amount of time after breakfast on Sunday in cleaning up the hostel properly, then took a drive to the village of Snape on the River Alde close to Aldeburgh. The village hosts the Aldeburgh Festival, an English Arts festival devoted mainly to Classical Music.

Pucho & the Latin Soul Sister do the boogaloo - oh, what nice castanets you've got! ; Manuel with his not so politically correct interpretation of a typical Mexican.


  The Aldeburgh Festival was founded by Benjamin Britten and others in 1948. It takes place each June in the Aldeburgh area of Suffolk. In the mid-1960's the Festival gained a new and much larger concert hall with the conversion of Snape Maltings, which includes one of the largest mid nineteenth-century barley malthouses in east Anglia. Now no longer in commercial use, it was converted to a tourist centre. Most of the concert hall's original character, such as the distinctive square malthouse roof-vents, was retained. The new concert hall was opened by the Queen on 2 June, 1967, at the start of the twentieth Aldeburgh Festival.

The mid-nineteenth century malthouse at Snape has now been converted to a tourist centre.


  It was unfortunate that Peter Hartman had to leave before dinner on the Saturday evening, to get back to his Dad, who was not well. The Sunday was concluded with a visit to the Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge, the National Trust site of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries of the 6th and early 7th centuries, one of which contained an undisturbed ship burial including a wealth of artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance.  It lies eastern bank of the River Deben opposite the harbour of Woodbridge. The word "hoo" means "spur of a hill." I was persuaded to part with £30 in joining the National Trust. Braving the cold, we embarked on a two hour  guided tour of burial site.

Doesn't Harry Potter look-alike Peter Hartman look o so cute- butter wouldn't melt in his mouth! ; Spot a Twitcher anywhere!  Did someone say Pamela Anderson?


Sutton Hoo is of primary importance to early medieval historians because it sheds light on a period of English history which is on the margin between myth, legend and historical documentation. Use of the site was significant at a time when the ruler (Raedwald) of East Anglia held senior power among the English, and played a dynamic (if ambiguous) part in the establishment of Christian rulership in England. It is central to understanding of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia and of the period in a wider perspective. 

In 1937 archaeologist Basil Brown excavated Mound 2 in which he found iron ship-rivets and a disturbed chamber burial with fragments of metal and glass artefacts. it was severely damaged by looters.  Following a thorough re-investigation later revealed a rectangular plank-lined chamber, 5m long by 2m wide, sunk below the land surface with the body and grave-goods laid out in it.  A ship was then placed over it, aligned east and west, before a large earth mound was raised above the whole. In spring 1939 Brown drove a trench through Mound 1 and discovered the replaced wood stain and undisturbed rivets of the ship-burial. The ship-burial, excavated in 1939, is one of the most magnificent archaeological finds in England for its size and completeness, the far-reaching connections, quality and beauty of its contents, and for the profound interest of the burial ritual.  the soil in the area, being extremely acidic, accounts for the poor preservation of any organic material, such as that of a body. Most impressive of the burials not contained in a chamber is the Mound 17 grave of a young man and his horse. Evidence of several cremations were discovered. A man in Mound 5 had died from weapon blows to the skull.


The viewing platform at Sutton Hoo, looking towards the reconstructed Mound 2. The word "hoo" means a "spur of a hill..


View across the wetlands of Minsmere Level at The Sluice.


A child absorbed in her own world of play on Dunwich Beach;  On Minsmere beach the sea continues to erode the bottom of the cliffs and to wash away many tons of sands and gravels each year. This picture was taken in 1991 and already the cliff has been worn back a further 10 metres at this point. In time all the heath and the cliffs in this picture will vanish like the town of Dunwich into the sea. This area is situated on a large mass of flint gravels and sands which have been deposited in the Sandlings of Suffolk before the last ice ages started some 2 million years ago. They are also good for building houses but are easily washed away during storms.


As so it was that we parted company at Sutton Hoo car park, as the skies grew darker.  The extensive tour had meant that we had just missed the closure cut-off time for afternoon tea. I managed to grab a cuppa en route home at a services. It was a thoroughly rewarding weekend, with the usual balance of exercise, raucous fun and a dash of historical and cultural nourishment.

The  final word to Martin & Vanda:

Just to say a big thank you to everybody for a great weekend, we really enjoyed ourselves, and the weather was brilliant! Many thanks to Bernie, for the logistics cover, and all the cooks involved getting the breakfasts ready, also my thanks to Bob and Vanda for chopping up for the chilli. Special thanks to Rob for a great acoustic session, the usual mixture of sublime ballads and noisy singalongs, excellent stuff! Oh and lest we forget, Susanne and Andy for the shots; never again? I think the club will be back there for a return visit some time in the future, on a par with Kington for accommodation and facilities, with more to do in the area than you first realise. A fantastic start to the 2007 season, hopefully see you in Stow on the Wold?  


Martin & Vanda xx


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Links to other websites:

  • The Xerox Hiking Club website - Blaxall Gallery