The Suffolk coast may not have the rugged drama of say Cornwall or Devon, but it has its own quiet beauty and some very intriguing stories – none more so than that of its vanished ports. Three important and very different examples can all be visited on a day’s outing.
The journey starts at Blythburgh, four miles inland from the coast at Southwold. The first impression is of a village, little more than a single street, completely dominated by a magnificent church. It is the church that provides the clue that this must once have been a place of some importance. It was a busy port in the medieval period, with ships finding a safe anchorage here on the River Blyth.
But then ships started getting bigger, too large for the winding river. Trade gradually slackened, the river silted up and the port ceased to exist. The church is still worth visiting for its stunning interior, where rows of carved angels stare down from the roof.
From here it’s a short drive down to the coast at Dunwich. If there’s little to suggest there was a major port at Blythburgh, there is even less here, though its long shingle beach makes for a pleasant stroll.
Yet this was once the most important port on the whole coastline, with a thriving international trade. At the beginning of the 13th century it was at the height of its power, boasting eight churches and a population of 3,000. Then in 1286, disaster struck. A huge storm threw sand and shingle at the town, completely blocking the harbour entrance.
By the end of the 17th century the sea had engulfed almost the whole town. Erosion is eating away at the land here, but the story of Dunwich’s former glories is not forgotten. There are reminders of the prosperous past, including the ruins of a 13th-century friary on the top of the sandy cliffs.
The Dunwich Museum houses a model of the old town once known as “the capital of East Anglia” – it’s hard to believe that such magnificence now lies in ruins, out there under the waves.
Castle to the quay
For the last leg of the journey, head back inland to the main A12 road to bypass Aldeburgh, then turn back to the coast to take the B1078 to Orford. Here the magnificent castle built by Henry II in the early 12th century dominates the view. It was Henry who developed Orford as a port. From the castle you can walk down Quay Street to The Jolly Sailor pub, but where’s the water?
All that remains of the old harbour is a grassy hollow beside the street. You need to keep on walking down the road for some way before you come to the River Alde and an actual quay. This time there was no sudden storm, but a gradual lengthening of the great sand spit of Orford Ness, which forced the river further and further south, until today it joins the River Ore and finally reaches the sea five miles south of Orford.
The lost ports of Suffolk are reminders that man may have grand plans, but nature and the sea will always have the last word.
How to get there
The ports lie roughly 30 miles south-east of Norwich, and can be accessed via the A146 joining the A12, which will take you up the Suffolk coast. From central London follow the A12 from Romford.
Find out more
Suffolk Tourist Guide
0845 362 7855
The Crown and Castle
Billed as a restaurant with 19 comfortable rooms, the Crown and Castle boasts two AA rosettes, locally sourced produce and a tempting wine list.
Orford Ness National Nature Reserve
Accessible by boat, this National Trust owned shingle spit has walking trails through a stunning historical landscape.