Monday, September 08, 2003

Walk 84 -- Covehithe to Lowestoft

Ages: Colin was 61 years and 123 days. Rosemary was 58 years and 265 days.
Weather: Hot and sunny again, but a pleasant breeze.
Location: Covehithe to Lowestoft.
Distance: 6 miles.
Total distance: 625½ miles.
Terrain: Sandy cliff paths and beach mostly.
Tide: Out.
Rivers to cross: None.
Ferries: None.
Piers: None.
Kissing gates: None.
Pubs: None.
‘English Heritage’ properties: None.
Ferris wheels: None.
Diversions: None, because this time we were informed the path was closed, and we found some steps to take us down the cliffs to the beach before the cliff fall.
How we got there and back: We were staying with Paul and Caroline in Isleham. We drove, with bikes on the back of the car, to the Kirkley area of South Lowestoft where we parked in a residential street so we could leave the car in the shade. Then we cycled, mostly along main roads, to Covehithe where we chained our bikes to a telegraph pole outside the ruined church.
At the end we were so tired we couldn’t find the car! Colin located it in the end, and drove it to me because I was too tired to walk any further! We drank tea, then Colin fetched some fish ‘n’ chips. Feeling more refreshed, we collected the bikes from Covehithe and then Colin drove us all the way to Bognor in the dark. It took over four hours, and was nearly midnight before we got in. We decided that we were now so far from home, we would not in future drive home the same day we had walked.
Before starting on our Walk today, we had a look at the extraordinary church in Covehithe. It is the ruin of a huge, and what must have been a beautiful, church built in the perpendicular English style – with a much smaller, plainer church constructed inside! No, it is not another ‘Dunwich’ swept away into the sea – despite the ‘road to oblivion’ a mere hundred yards away – nor was Henry VIII responsible for the destruction and pillage.
Apparently it was trashed by Oliver Cromwell’s lot at a much later date than the Reformation, but his damage was mainly superficial. The main reason for the ruins was lack of money. The original large and beautiful church was built in the 15th century by a wealthy incumbent, William Yarmouth. He must have been showing off because the parish of Covehithe never exceeded 300 souls, and most of the time there were considerably less. They had no need for a church of that size. By the 17th century, some thirty years after the visit by Cromwell’s mob, the church was in a pretty poor way and the cost of maintenance was just too much for the small local community. They were given permission, by the ecclesiastical authorities, to build a small church on the site using materials from the dilapidated structure, and the tiny building is still in use today. Inside is the original octagonal font – defaced by Cromwell’s vandals – the original pulpit and three ‘poppy-head’ pew ends.
The old church and tower were left to the elements. In 1974, the Redundant Churches Fund took them over and carried out essential repairs to make them safe. They also overhauled the five bells which were still in the tower and are amongst the oldest in the country. Apparently they are noted for their lovely tone, but unfortunately they were not rung when we were around. We sat in the shade of the ruins to eat our lunch, then walked along to the end of the road to commence our Walk.From ‘the road to oblivion’, an unofficial but well-used path led down to a marshy area with a large pond. We looked through binoculars to see if there were any interesting birds, but there didn’t seem to be any at all. So we carried on along the top of the beach where the sand was a bit soft, but not too bad. We both realised how tired we were, having walked nigh on sixty miles and cycled about forty in the past week! We were in no mood for soft sand or leg-shattering shingle. The ‘Suffolk Coast & Heaths Path’ continued along the top of the beach where it was packed down pretty solidly, so we stayed on it and didn’t follow the shoreline when it bulged out round a shingle bank. We came to Kessingland Beach where there is a public loo with a seat outside. At one time I had considered stretching the last Walk to that spot, but luckily I didn’t because all the parking was ‘strictly private’ – so there! We used the loo, and sat on the seat to eat a snack.
We carried on along a kind of concrete prom, hoping that our walking would be that easy all the way to Lowestoft. Not so! About a hundred yards, and the concrete came to an end. We were left with soft sand. We struggled a few yards, and then stopped because we were too fatigued for that kind of battle. A man passed us, and we asked him how far the soft sand continued, or would it be better to go up the cliff and walk along the top. “The problem with the path along the top,” he replied, “is finding it! It wiggles about all over the place, and is not clearly marked. You’d be better off going along the beach!” I explained the difficulty we were having – me in particular – with the soft sand, and he was very scathing – “We do it all the time!” he answered scornfully, and walked off. (Perhaps he hadn’t walked all the way from Bognor Regis!) I just couldn’t cope, so we went up some steps to the top.
He was right about the path! We went between some houses, then turned right along a gravel track which led along their front gates. There were jealously guarded parking spaces all over the place – Private - Keep Out – No Parking – Vehicles will be Clamped – but I wouldn’t have wanted to live in any of their houses teetering on the edge of those soft sandy cliffs! We came across a narrow signposted public footpath going towards the beach again, but when we went along it we found ourselves on the top of the cliff with no possible way of getting down – so we had to retrace our steps. At the end of the houses, the track (which we were convinced was still the ‘Suffolk Coast & Heaths Path’ although we hadn’t seen any pointers or arrows) came to a sudden end as it rounded into a fortress of a gateway on which was the sign – Warning – Guard Dogs. Now where do we go? There was what could loosely be described as a path leading through the brambles to our left, but Colin was convinced he had seen a path leading through that same thicket further back. So back we went, and the ‘path’ he had seen was no better. We followed it because there was nowhere else to go, and tried to veer round to the right because we didn’t want to get too far away from the sea. After what seemed ages, we came out at a fortress of a gateway on which was the sign – Warning – Guard Dogs!! We had walked in a complete circle! We were so cross, and kept blaming each other because we were both very tired and frustrated. We turned round, and kept to the fence though you could hardly call it a path.
Eventually we came out on a proper path – but we weren’t finished yet! This path turned right into a field, and hidden behind a tall bed of nettles was an official Suffolk County Council notice – Due to natural erosion, the clifftop path is closed 1000m ahead. My heart sank! The alternative was walking along a main road into Lowestoft – No thank you! Then we thought – the closure is more than half a mile away, we’ll go along a bit further and see. Once we were well past the house with the guard dogs, the path led us back to the clifftop and was quite stable. We looked over the cliff at the beach – the tide was out and the sand looked firm. We wished we were down there. I tentatively suggested that we may be able to scramble down the cliff as we had done way back at Warden Point on the Isle of Sheppey, but looking over at the steepness of the bramble-covered slope I knew that such a course of action would be foolhardy. (Colin got quite worried because he thought I really meant it when I suggested clambering down the cliff!) We could see a caravan park ahead – surely they have a way down to the beach for their clients? Sure enough, just at the edge of said park and before the point where the path had fallen over the cliff, was a sturdy set of steps down to the sand. Breathe a sigh of relief!
The sand was nice and firm, and a pleasure to walk on. About a hundred yards further on, we came across another set of steps – only these ones were twisted and broken with great gaps where there had been landslides. Now we knew why the cliff path was closed, but why hadn’t they informed us at the first notice that there was a way down to the beach? That’s the trouble with planners sitting in their offices writing out notices. They have no idea what it is really like in the field, especially for people like us who are unfamiliar with the area. Further on we came across another sign of erosion. A wartime ‘pill-box’ was reposing in the middle of the beach. It would have been no good down there sixty years ago – it must have slipped down as the cliff eroded away, and somehow managed not to break up.We continued along the beach for about a mile and a half, until we had passed a church we could see on the clifftop. We were both very tired – especially me! By that time we had passed a lot of houses, and knew we were into Lowestoft and near the car. (We had walked not fifty miles, but sixty, from that notice we had seen in the Felixstowe car park telling us about the ‘Suffolk Coast & Heaths Path’ at which people were baulking at the thought of a fifty mile yomp. And we had done most of it in the past week!) Colin was way ahead of me and we were both quite far out on the wide beach. He walked across and up some steps – then I saw him gesticulating, trying to direct me towards a previous set of steps because we had gone too far. So I made my way across the beach and up the steps I had been guided to. I didn’t know where I was – nothing was familiar, I couldn’t see the car and Colin had disappeared too! I walked this way up a road, then that way – then I just sat down out of sheer weariness in a little car park overlooking the beach and waited because I didn’t know what else to do. It turned out that Colin couldn’t find the car either! Eventually he located it, and he knew where I was but I had neither seen nor heard him calling to me. So he drove it to me – I couldn’t walk another step!

That ended Walk no.84, we shall pick up Walk no.85 next time at the little seafront car park in Kirkley, South Lowestoft. While we were drinking our tea, we noticed some lads nearby eating fish ‘n’ chips – so I asked one of them where the chip shop was. Colin walked down and fetched some, and very delicious they were too. By that time the sun was just setting, so we didn’t have to drive home with it blinding us. We collected the bikes from Covehithe, then Colin drove us all the way to Bognor in the dark. It took over four hours, and was nearly midnight before we got in. We were both extremely tired, and realised it was dangerous to drive like that even though we took breaks. So, in future, we will not drive home on the day of the last walk, but the day after. It’s safer that way!

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