Helen Chambers walks along a vanishing path in Suffolk. Photos © Helen Chambers.
The River Stour is a metallic ribbon, lying horizontal across the faded yellow of harvested fields; fields edged with wild oats and vivid late-blooming poppies. Passing the interestingly-named Crepping Hall and emerging at Stutton Ness (‘Ness’ in Suffolk and ‘Naze’ over the river in Essex, from the Norman), we face directly across to Wrabness. It is an uncharacteristically cold day for August, and we shelter from a rain shower under the canopy of an oak.
We are walking a small part of the long-distance ‘Stour and Orwell Walk,’ but despite its name, this path detours inland eastwards from the Ness, as the land is privately owned, until returning to the riverside at Harkstead. The OS 1:25 000 explorer map, (here), names the rows of rotting posts protruding from the mud as ‘Graham’s Wharf’. Only visible at low tide, this wharf would have serviced the heavy traffic of barges travelling up and down the Stour to Sudbury. The shower passes and we watch rain bleed from ragged cloud edges to our east, and we turn west along the riverside. A kestrel hovers over the field to our right, and sand martins dip in and out of the sandy cliff falling away on our left.
Last time I walked this way, a couple of years previously, the path was balanced perilously between a field edge and a cliff (‘cliff’ in Suffolk is perhaps lower than you might expect, unless you are local, but a steep drop to the foreshore, nevertheless). Today the path has entirely crumbled away. We scramble down onto the foreshore, which we share with a lone lugworm digger who paces along, head down, plastic bag at the ready. We follow his cycle tracks along the beach towards Brantham. Later, I look online and discover that the path on the foreshore is now an official diversion. Not a walk to be attempted at high tide, presumably.
I am a fervent supporter of the new National Coast Path, which promises ‘roll back’ if a section of coast erodes or slips the path isn’t lost, it simply moves back with the new coastline. Someone needs to explain the concept of roll back to the farmer here. And already today we have experienced the two main problems facing the National Coast Path plan. The Rambler’s Association has been fighting the issue of access for decades. Landowners are not likely to embrace the opening-up of their private land where no rights of way currently exist. Farmers already facing loss of land due to erosion will surely oppose the concept of roll back if a footpath will eat further into their land. Especially as it is their responsibility to maintain that path.
We manage to walk along a wooded section of the path up on the cliff, but the salt-damaged trees bear stark testimony to the river’s power to erode. Further on, a ‘permissive path’ is signposted back inland, where we are headed for a lunchtime pub stop. My usually amenable father refuses to follow it, resolutely insisting we stick to the right of way marked on the map. Permissive paths have no legal rights, councils have no responsibility to maintain them, and if landowners succeed in persuading people not to existing paths, they could attempt to prove they are no longer walked.
We duly follow the public footpath which passes through the garden and front drive of beautiful Stutton Mill, its manicured lawns and rose gardens incongruous after the reeds and grasses of the seawall. Walking through someone’s garden feels uncomfortable, but it is marked on the map, and it is correct. Two women prune a clambering rose, but only one returns our cheery ‘Good Morning,’ the other keeping her back to us and remaining silent. Through the gate at the other side of the drive, we look back at the ‘private’ signs and agree that, without a map and prior route knowledge, any walker may feel discouraged and turn away at this point.
The view over the river to Mistley is spectacular: the river reflecting the tower in a cold shimmer. The haunting cry of oystercatchers drifts towards us and late-summer swallows skim above the mud. We are so lucky to have such beautiful and varied coastline on our doorstep, only a few miles downstream from the Stour’s more famous Constable-related honeypot at Flatford. Here’s hoping that the National Coast Path scheme maintains, and even improves, access for us walkers!
Helen Chambers holds an MA Creative Writing from the University of Essex. She recently won the Felixstowe Literary Festival Short Story Competition, and in 2014 the Hysteria Flash Fiction Award. She took ‘The Wild East’ (an option from the MA in Wild Writing) as one of her modules, and is always more pleasant to know once she has spent time outdoors. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.