‘Lif is læne: eal scæceð leoht and lif somod.’ - Beowulf / ‘Life is transitory: light and life together hasten away.’ - J.R.R. Tolkien - 1926 translation
'Like ashes the low cliffs crumble, the banks drop down into dust.' - By the North Sea - A.C. Swinburne
The North Sea has been reshaping the Suffolk shoreline for millenia, eroding sandstone cliffs, shifting all manner of sediment up and down the coast to destroy and create beaches and clog up estuaries, and most dramatically swallowing up entire communities. The once thriving port of Dunwich (dubbed ‘Britain’s Atlantis’), former capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles, now lies ten to thirty feet below the North Sea and constitutes the world’s largest medieval underwater town site, the modern village reduced to a single street.
Walls, boulders, groynes and dunes have been used with some success to defend other seaside towns and villages, but economic and physical realities have made it impossible to protect the entire coast. As a result, farmers lose acres of arable land to the sea every year, roads and footpaths become impracticable, even disappear, and houses are abandoned to the waves.
In the face of this gradual yet inexorable process - which has accelerated in recent years - the authorities have opted for a policy of ‘managed retreat’, meaning that they choose which portions of the coast to defend and which to sacrifice to the North Sea. This approach to coastal defense has given rise to heated debates as it necessarily results in winners and losers, those whose property is protected at public expense versus those who must either fend for themselves – in vain for the most part – or move on, letting nature take its course.
One of the most vulnerable parts of the Suffolk coast extends south of Lowestoft (Great Britain’s easternmost point) for 23 miles as the crow flies to Aldeburgh. Halfway between these two towns is located Southwold, a Victorian seaside resort which itself is in the middle of a section of the coast subject to some of the most intense erosion in the British Isles. Located on Sole Bay, Southwold is well protected, but to its immediate north and south lie very vulnerable areas, including the aforementioned Dunwich. Given this configuration, it is plausible that within a relatively short period of time, Southwold, already a virtual island with just one access road, could be cut off from the mainland.
This portion of Suffolk’s Heritage Coast, though dotted with seaside towns and villages, remains relatively unspoiled, even wild in certain areas. Given its vulnerability to the sea, numerous estuaries and extensive marshlands, there are no coastal roads, and the main thoroughfare is a single carriageway A road several miles inland. Many portions of the coast are perforce given over to nature, though others do continue to provide sustenance.
Economic activity centers around tourism, light industry, agriculture and fishing. At one time, large fleets of drifters and trawlers sailed from Lowestoft in search of herring, cod and plaice, but today most fishing is for the local market. Farming, on the other hand, is extensive and varied, ranging from livestock to cereals, sugar beets and other crops of the agribusiness era as well as market gardening. Fields are at times vast and cultivation takes place year round.
I first discovered this area in 1975 when my parents moved our family to the village of Westleton for three years. In 1986, my parents retired to this same village, later moving to Reydon, a mile from the centre of Southwold. Between then and my mother’s death in 2011, I visited dozens of times, and in 2004 I undertook to represent the unique hold this area has on my heart and soul. All the photographs presented here were taken in a 60 square mile triangle located between Kessingland to the north, Aldeburgh to the south and Yoxford to the west.
I have included a caption and explanatory text for every image. In addition, I suggest that the reader consult these two resources in order to better appreciate both the area and the work.
• The online Ordinance Survey map using Southwold as the central location (https://osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/)
• The Southwold Museum site (https://www.southwoldmuseum.org/)