New Nature Writer of the Year 2022 – Runner up 2: Journey to Dunwich Beach
A cycle ride through heathland to the North Sea coast inspired Katherine Ilett's luminous entry to the 2022 New Nature Writer of the Year competition, the second of three runners-up
Many of us have special places where we feel close to nature. Tell us about yours, we urged entrants to the 2022 BBC Countryfile Magazine New Nature Writer of the Year Competition. The result – an inbox full of beautiful short stories about real life encounters with nature.
Here's the second of three compelling tales by our runners-up: Katherine Ilett's account of a cycle ride through the wild landscape of Suffolk's Minsmere to a beach beloved from her childhood.
BBC Countryfile Magazine New Nature Writer of the Year 2022: runner up 2
Journey to Dunwich Beach
by Katherine Ilett
I wake to the giggle of guinea fowl outside my window. A dawn gossip, the silhouette of prehistoric shapes in tangerine light. Today, the sun will produce the sort of heat that makes my skin prickle and tighten. But early on the air is pleasant, a slight rustle in the bay tree outside the back door. There will be no more sleep for me. I pack a rucksack and haul my bicycle from the workshop, thick with the smell of dust that takes me back to childhood games in the attic.
The lane is a cathedral of overhead branches intertwined with pale yellow leaves. They mingle, casting a pond-like glow on the tarmac. A cuckoo hoots twice and I cycle on until it echoes out of earshot. Everything is bright, the colours heightened in the absence of cars and early morning dog walkers. Jungle green hedgerows, linseed like violet, the blue, blue, cloudless sky. I travel over the crossroads, down the sand-scree hill, careful not to brake and up again into Eastbridge, the Eels Foot pub sign glinting and grey.
A heron is frozen amongst the crisp sigh of reeds and a marsh harrier floats, wingtips splayed like cannabis leaves. I pick up pace along the long straight track into Minsmere. The speed bumps begin, slowing the journey through the twisting of trees and sudden silence. An eerie cold, the quiet of a place where time seems to stand still. The lane winds further into woodland, damp and dark amidst the skew of silver birches and emerges at last onto the empty Dunwich Road.
Froth fizzes on the strip of sand where water breaks. I am brave today. I swim in a sea so opaque there is nothing beneath me. The cold is breathtaking, the warm tingle of my skin like nothing else.
I power on. A skylark trills, though I cannot see it as I squint up high. The cliffs are crumbling, the purple heather clinging on tight amongst sturdy yellow gorse. I wheel down to the beach, shingle sinking and scuttling beneath me, then sit to watch the gulls as they bob on the swell that is not quite a wave. Froth fizzes on the strip of sand where water breaks. I am brave today. I swim in a sea so opaque there is nothing beneath me. The cold is breathtaking, the warm tingle of my skin like nothing else. In the distance the white orb of the power station marks its territory. A monolith to engineering. They say there’ll be another one soon, if ten years of construction can be classified as such.
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The current tugs at my body and I become fearful. There is no one here, not a single shape on the beach other than the square concrete blocks of long forgotten tank barriers. I kick to shore and take the towel from my rucksack, sitting on stones which dimple my thighs like raisins. I am elated. The sun spreads rose gold splinters across the rippling expanse of water. A dark head emerges thirty feet away. A seal, curious and slick, gazing first to the horizon and then to shore, with navy eyes in which souls must surely hide out. It floats for a minute, then rolls backwards, vanishing as if it was never there at all.
They say that bells can be heard tolling beneath the water on stormy nights. Ghosts of a town that slipped beneath the sea, reminding us that things weren’t always like this. This place, worn in all directions by water, by wind, by human hand.
I’ve returned here since I was small. With grandparents bearing paper bags of doughnuts transparent with grease. With sisters and friends, with beer and fish-shop chips, strawberries, Tupperware and 99 flakes. All sat with raisins stuck to our legs, staring out, far out, from the land. At this grey-brown place of sea and sky, of gulls and bottle tops, tangles of seaweed and blue and orange twine. This endless stretch of stones. The Southwold lighthouse a beacon to the north, the Sizewell dome a watchtower in the south. A curve of imperfection. Whispering in our ears like the inside of a shell. This lack of silence, this rush of air and spray that tames my busy thoughts. This ever changing, ever constant place.
I push my bike back to the cliff. It’s warm up there, the dawn is day. And as I turn for one last look, Dunwich Beach appears to me, as it always has.
What the judges said...
Gillian Burke: "This piece had a very strong sense of place and nature connection. The stillness of dawn, the tug of the sea and many other details are captured so vividly that I could almost believe these memories are my own. The writer handles the ever-present threat of human encroachment with just the right tone."
– Gillian is a biologist, writer and presenter of BBC Springwatch
Nicola Chester: "A beautiful portrait of a place and your place in it – vividly drawn details of an almost ritual journey to get there: and once there – stones like raisins, paper bags of greasy doughnuts, gulls, bottle tops and orange twine. The brief, poignant mention of the new Sizewell dome. The enigma that is its ever-changing constancy. I love the acknowledgement of bravery and then fear in your sea swim too."
– Nicola is the author of On Gallows Down, winner of the Richard Jefferies Award for the best nature writing published in 2021
Cal Flyn: "An immersive piece of writing – quite literally – that captured that early morning hush and the eerie expanse of the beach at dawn. I admired the descriptive language, particularly the 'rose gold splinters' and the slight air of menace."
– Cal is a journalist and the author of Islands of Abandonment, shortlisted for the James Cropper Wainwright Prize 2021 for Nature Writing
Meet Katherine Ilett, one of three fab runners-up in the BBC Countryfile Magazine New Nature Writer of the Year competition 2022
Name: Katherine Ilett
Based: I live in Essex in a small village just south of Saffron Walden.
Work: I'm a chartered surveyor working in commercial property investment.
How did you come to know the Suffolk landscape, and when did the day you describe occur? I grew up on a dairy farm in Suffolk. At one point we had an ice cream business which took us all round the countryside to country shows and car boot sales, selling from kiosks. My parents now have an alpaca farm near the coast, from where I cycled to Dulwich cliffs on the day I visited. This particular time was in May, hence the freezing water.
Are solitary experiences of nature more rewarding? In my opinion yes. You don't have the distraction of talking to someone else and can truly feel that connection.
What inspired you to write about nature? I've always loved books with a vivid sense of the natural world, like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. My writing tends to be similar, with the landscape almost one of the characters.
Have you ever trained in nature writing? I've just finished a part time MA in Creative Writing at University of Essex and one of my modules was in Nature Writing (or more specifically, Psychogeography). It was my lecturer who suggested that we enter.
Would you like to do more nature writing – for example, a book? Yes! I've written two novels which currently sit in a drawer. One is set on a farm in Cornwall and another revolves around a remote and eerie house in the woods. I’ve also written children’s stories, creating exotic worlds and creatures for my characters to have adventures in and with.
What in particular would you like to explore in your nature writing? I like to explore the connection between a person's inner world and the outer world they experience – how a place can evoke a memory or remind you of a particular time or person. Being in nature brings me peace and puts the stresses of modern life in perspective.
Apart from Suffolk, what are your favourite places to enjoy nature and landscape? I go back to Lantic Bay near Fowey for the wild churn of the sea. And Trebah Gardens, also in Cornwall – lush tropical gardens with a little beach at the bottom of a valley. Oh, and I love drifting down the Dordogne River in France in a kayak – anywhere near water basically (even though I have to force myself to swim!)
Read more of our winning nature writing entries
Read our winning 2002 entry – a poignant tale of an idyllic Yorkshire childhood. Or try another of our three runners-up, which recounts a startling encounter with wildlife on the edge of a city.
Or you can read the fantastic winner and runners-up from 2021.