At 10.10am on a bright summer day a former lifeboat of the SS Canberra leaves Harwich to transport a dozen bikes and riders across the mouth of the Stour and Orwell rivers. It passes the giant cranes and ships of Britain’s largest container port, then makes landfall at a shingle beach overlooked by a historic fort at the southern tip of the Felixstowe peninsula.
The race is on. Three friends and I hope to complete Suffolk’s four foot ferries in one day — a cycling challenge but also a means of exploring a lovely coastline. The rivers and estuaries on this stretch of England’s east coast provide a unique habitat for birds but would block walkers and cyclists were it not for these four little boats — diverting back inland to the nearest bridges would apparently add an extra 75 miles to our journey.
We travel north, pedalling furiously along Felixstowe’s Edwardian seafront, past the beaches, fun fairs and tatty hotels, to a second ferry — a 26ft motor launch that whisks us across the sailors’ mecca that is the River Deben to the village of Bawdsey. “Since Roman times,” John Barber, the ruddy-faced ferryman, replies when I ask how long the ferry has operated.
Radar was developed at Bawdsey Manor in the 1930s, but there is no time to linger. The fourth and last ferry, from Walberswick to Southwold, shuts at 5pm and is still 40-odd miles away — 40 flat but largely off-road miles that will take us through an area of outstanding natural beauty whose many rivers, marshes and estuaries have saved it from defilement by some bustling coastal highway.
From Bawdsey we bowl northwards up country lanes to the third ferry — one that dates back to the late 16th century and is allegedly Europe’s smallest. It is hard to imagine that any could be smaller. It is a rowing boat that transports us — in two trips — 50 yards across the bucolic Butley River where seals bask on the muddy shores. Manning the oars today is a volunteer, Tim Dudgeon, a genial local GP who wears the ferryman’s traditional black felt hat. It is noon, but we are only his second customers.
As we roll into the pretty village of Orford, with its 12th century castle, we see — far to our right — a chain of Martello towers, built in the 1800s to resist a Napoleonic invasion, then the sinister concrete pavilions of Orford Ness where, more recently, the military tested bombs and nuclear detonators. This coast, so tranquil today, served for centuries as the front line of England’s defences.
Fortified by pork pies and pasties from Orford’s Meat Shed, we head inland because the ferry across the River Alde to Aldeburgh closed during the second world war and never reopened. We ride through Sudbourne, a village evacuated during that war so the surrounding forest could be used for tank training. Twenty minutes later a boardwalk carries us through thick reedbanks to Snape Maltings, Benjamin Britten’s concert hall, where a bridge crosses the river.
On the far side we follow the Sailors’ Path through dappled woods and lush green water meadows to fashionable Aldeburgh. From there we pedal hard along a disused railway line, past the quirky 1920s holiday village of Thorpeness, to a cluster of seaside cottages beneath the great white dome of the Sizewell nuclear power station.
We slog on up the coast on sand and shingle, the wetlands of the Minsmere bird reserve on our left, and on our right sand dunes lined with great concrete blocks placed there 70 years ago to thwart a German tank invasion. In a National Trust café on the crumbling cliff top we refuel with tea and cake before the final leg.
A paved track takes us across a heath of brilliant yellow gorse, and past a ruined priory, to Dunwich, now a tiny village but once an important medieval port boasting eight churches until the ever-advancing, cliff-eroding sea consumed it.
The afternoon is advancing, too. We push on with tired legs, through Dunwich forest to a raised track that leads across a broad swathe of reed-covered marshes where we pass film director Richard Curtis out walking.
On the far side is picturesque Walberswick. Children are still playing on the village green’s swings, and still catching crabs in the creeks, just as I did as a boy half-a-century ago. And the same family still runs the rowboat ferry across the River Blyth, just as it has for five generations and 132 years.
We reach it with 30 minutes to spare and finish our ride — weary, windswept but triumphant — at Southwold pier, yet another of this sublime coast’s throwbacks to a simpler, more innocent age.
Go to suffolkcoastandheaths.org for ferry times and details. For more on visiting the Suffolk coast see thesuffolkcoast.co.uk, a tourist information website funded by local businesses. Harwich is about 80 minutes by train from London; the nearest station to Southwold is Halesworth, about eight miles away, from where trains to London take two-and-a-quarter hours. Southwold has numerous hotels, including several owned by local brewery Adnams (adnams.co.uk)
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