The Suffolk Coast AONB: A landscape shaped by Man and Nature, in peace and in power

James Fisher takes a look at the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB.

Felixstowe never sleeps, a constant mechanical hum of human excess, container after container being loaded and unloaded, protected by the curving sea defences. In stark contrast is the silence, a few miles north at the mouth of the River Deben, of this AONB, some 170 square miles of estuaries, coasts and communities.

Felixstowe’s sea defences.

This is a landscape defined by the sea, the war and the atom. Victorian Bawdsey Manor is the imposing home where Robert Watson-Watt perfected and then deployed the first radar system, allowing Britain and the RAF to fight back against wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers. Bloodhound missiles, to deter and destroy incoming nuclear bombers of the Soviet Union, remained until 1990.

Britain had nuclear bombers of her own, too, and it was at Orford Ness that the detonators were tested. Looking out over the sandbar spit, now a nature reserve, the ominous shapes of the pagodas loom large, a classical landscape that serves as a warning and a reminder of just how close we came to annihilation. Atoms for war and atoms for peace are here, the cooling towers of the Sizewell reactors looming, producing power for millions in East Anglia.

The abandoned A.W.R.E. nuclear testing site on Orford Ness, Suffolk.

The nuclear age was far from the first military installation in this corner of East Anglia. Orford Castle, built by Henry II in 1165 to consolidate his power in the region, is believed to be of a Byzantine design. Only the central keep remains; legend tells of the Wild Man of Orford, a merman imprisoned there in the 12th century.

As man has sculpted this landscape, so has Nature, with both peace and power. Minsmere, Orford, Westleton and Benacre are reserves that bristle with wildlife, such as the marsh harrier, nightjar and stone curlew.

Heather flowering on Dunwich Heath.

We have made our own place here, too, at Aldeburgh, Thorpeness, Walberswick, Covehithe, Dunwich, Snape and Southwold, peaceful seaside towns, rich in heritage and the Arts, that permit and encourage a slower pace of life.

In Dunwich, there’s a reminder that no matter how strong we think we are, Nature will forever remain stronger — once the capital of East Anglia and comparable to London, storms and the sea washed it away in little over a year in the late 13th century.