Nowadays there is often much talk of returning our surroundings to “how they used to be”, and not without some sound reason. In fact, man has been altering his landscape for more than 3000 years in this area, so it is appropriate to ask to which state we should return our surroundings. Nearly all you see today has been made by man over the last 150 years, and by no means should be condemned on that score.
Large parts of the Suffolk Sandlings were cropped 300 years ago for oak, under the strict control of the Admiralty, to ensure supplies for building the “Hearts of Oak” that repelled both the French and Spanish invasions. Prior to that the land was farmed for wool; the sheep made many merchants very rich indeed, but also produced for Suffolk some of the finest and largest mediaeval churches in the country.
Ness House and Warden’s
Ness house was, for reasons not yet satisfactorily explained, called “The Tea House” from before 1868 through to 1945. The present building incorporates a farmhouse, which was recorded on the Tithe Maps of 1831 as including barns with 125 acres of land down to the foreshore. The house is constructed of brick with shingle facing, distinct from the flints used elsewhere in East Anglia. The building material was traditionally collected from the more easily accessible beaches at Sizewell and Thorpeness. From there it was manually sorted into piles of different grades, often by those in the community who would today be classified as having learning difficulties and not considered worth sending to school. This practice continued into the 1920s.
Smugglers on the Suffolk shores
For hundreds of years now, men and some women have splashed back and forth through the waves across the beaches of this part of Suffolk, sometimes by day, generally by night, on illicit and nefarious passage. Single spies are easy to hide, difficult to find except when crossing a shoreline; but some of the shipments of smuggled goods must have been large and blatant, requiring the active or passive support of almost the whole community.
Co-operation with the local populace was achieved in many ways, as Kipling said of the flourishing years of smuggling as a lucrative trade.
The Smugglers’ Song
If you wake at midnight and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street;
Them that asks no questions, isn’t told no lie,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by.
Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the parson
‘Baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a Lady; Letters for a spy;
And watch the wall, my darling,
While the gentlemen go by.
Wars on the Suffolk shores
Over 1600 years ago there appeared off these beaches invading ships from the Lowlands and Denmark. Locally, the declining influence of Rome was defended by the Count of the Saxon shore with castles at Walton-on-the-Naze and Burgh Castle near Yarmouth. The warriors who came to seek new lands were also men of culture, with artefacts and jewellery of fine design and craftsmanship, as the remains from the burial ship at Sutton Hoo near Woodbridge have shown.
Later, the ships of the Vikings probed the rivers of this coast to find loot and food among the villages, which stood on good agricultural land owned by the ecclesiastical establishments of Seelig (holy, but later to become “silly”) Suffolk.
In Elizabethan times the trading ports of Aldeburgh, Dunwich and even Sizewell provided ships at the Royal command to help repel the invasion of the Spanish Armada off the southern coasts. In 1672 the Battle of Sole Bay was fought off the coast of Southwold, within sight of us here. It was the last time a royal admiral (the Duke of York, later to be James II) commanded a British fleet on the high seas.
Warden’s and Our Environment
We live on the eastern edge of a West European island in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere. Ten thousand years ago, before the sea broke through the present Straits of Dover, we were on the fringe of a great delta that emptied the major rivers Trent, Ouse, Thames, Elbe and Rhine northwards into the Norwegian Sea. All these Lowlands were not much more than 400 feet above sea level, and the channels were shallow.
Today we stand 32 feet above the present sea level, and the deepest spot between here and Holland is barely 110 feet; Nelson’s Column could stand comfortably anywhere without Nelson wetting his feet! So there is a very fine margin between safety and flood disasters, as witnessed several times a century.
Over seven hundred years ago in 1285, one storm and one high tide nearly obliterated the town of Dunwich, which is 3 miles up the coast and within sight of us here. The present coastline at Dunwich is over 500 yards west of where it was in those days. A town of nearly 3000 souls was wiped off the map, and at least 4 churches disappeared. Some locals say you can still hear their bells tolling in bad weather!