Walking the Sailor’s Path

Helen Chambers walks the Sailors Path from Saxmundham to Aldeburgh, and the sea, on one of the coldest days of the year. Photos © Helen Chambers.

The East Suffolk Line passes through the loveliest countryside in the region, in my opinion, and our walk to Aldeburgh along the Sailor’s Path, on one of the coldest days of the year, began at Saxmundham Railway Station. Members of the group had joined the train along the way, some from as far afield as Stowmarket in west Suffolk. I cheated: driving to Woodbridge and catching the train at the pretty riverside station. A community rail partnership group has published walks linking all of the stations on the line, between Ipswich and Lowestoft, eliminating the need to drive. Today’s walk was a midweek guided linear walk of 9.5 miles, requiring return to Saxmundham by local bus.

Suffolk Coast and Heaths provide a guide to the intriguingly-named Sailor’s Path, suggesting starting at popular Snape Maltings, but our route south from Saxmundham enabled us to see a primary school with unusual thatched roof at Benhall Green, and to cross the village ford before climbing up onto Red Lane into the space and openness which characterises this part of Suffolk. Puddles were rigid with ice and a heavy frost traced delicate patterns round leaf-edges, all lit by a low-hanging sun in the bluest of skies. Cold nipped at our fingers and toes, but brisk walking kept us warm. Soon, the path converged with the long-distance Sandlings Way, and much of the walk was on hard surfaces, making the going easier – excellent winter walking. Turning east onto the Sailor’s Path official near Snape Warren saw a more heath-like landscape.

The name Sailor’s Path is the stuff of romantic smuggler’s tales which abound here, but a more prosaic suggestion is that sailors, stuck on mud banks around Snape at low tide, abandoned their boats and walked back along the path to Aldeburgh. However it gained its name, the path leads through an attractive mix of marsh, reedbed, wet woodland, heathland, grassland and scrub, and has panoramic views across the Alde estuary. Nearby Snape Marshes are run by The Suffolk Wildlife Trust, and Snape Warren Nature Reserve by the RSPB, so the area is well-managed from a wildlife perspective.

Further along the trail, beautiful Black Heath Wood comprised mainly bright-trunked silver birches casting long shadows in the low angled light. Fly agaric toadstools were past their best, but fresh-looking bracket fungus grew at right angles to some trunks. Boardwalks were welcome through the marshy reedbeds, until we emerged on the heath near Aldeburgh golf club. The footpath cut into the verge here is ‘licensed’, and necessary, being beside the busy main road. We left this direct path into Aldeburgh, choosing the optional longer route north past the Red House, famously inhabited for many years by Benjamin Britten.

Crossing the marshes at North Warren provided clear views to the purpose-built holiday village of Thorpeness, and its House in the Clouds, and beyond to the golf-ball outline of Sizewell. In the foreground, flocks of lapwing fed, greylags flew in V-formation overhead and charms of goldfinches and long-tailed tits flitted around in scrubby trees.

No trip to Aldeburgh would be complete without visiting the shingle beach and our route took us there, conveniently close to Maggi Hambling’s Scallop sculpture, golden in the afternoon sun and for once free of scrambling people. The lines from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ are punched out of it, and display a stark reminder of the sea’s power. Today, it slept: docile in the sun.

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In Aldeburgh, we wandered around the town and tea rooms (and even the ice-cream parlour) before returning to Saxmundham station by bus. The walk could be done in reverse, beginning with the bus ride, but we agreed there was something satisfying about walking towards the sea. The cold twenty-minute wait for the train was made worthwhile by spectacular sunsets. Dismounting at Woodbridge and facing rush-hour traffic on the A12, I envied those walkers returning home by train.

Helen Chambers holds an MA Creative Writing from the University of Essex and is a member of Wivenhoe Writers. 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 helen.ch9@gmail.com.

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