An exhilarating 4 mile walk along the defence banks of Suffolk's River Alde estuary beginning and ending at Slaughden Quay
Once known as the Vale of Slaughden, the area below Aldeburgh presents a big open landscape across the marsh with the wide estuary waters of the River Alde as it meanders alongside the coast. Once upon a time Slaughden was a bustling fishing village but in present day it is all under the waves and a narrow spit of shingle is all that divides the North Sea from the gentle waters of the river.
Slaughden Marsh Walk - Essential Information
- Start point
- Slaughden QuayView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- End Point
- Kings MeadowView in OS Map | View in Google Map
- Total Walk distance
- 4 miles
- Walk difficulty
- Easy walking
- Defence banks and footpaths
- The footpath across the marsh from the river defence bank to the allotments does suffer from the possibility of flooding particularly during the winter months. There is a wooden gate on the defence bank side and the area around this can become a veritable quagmire. In such an instance it is sometimes advisable to return the way one came along the defence bank.
- Date of Walk
- Walk Time
- 11:30 to 13:30
- Griffmonster, Kat
- Weather Conditions
- Bright winters day
Given a sunny day, with bright blue skies and crystal clear visibility, this walk will present the River Alde in its full glory no matter what time of year. The scenes are awe-inspiring. A vast panorama of broad estuary under big wide open skies where one is but a pin on the flat landscape. River craft. Wildlife. The beauty of nature. There is always something to watch and admire.
The photos for this walk were taken in the depths of winter, where a hard frost had greeted the early morning and a low sun in a blue sky provided a light that enhanced the view. This has been walked on many other occasions and it is always a good way of wasting a couple of afternoon hours.
The Slaughden Ferry
Up until the mid 20th century a ferry used to operate from Slaughden Quay to Sudbourne on the opposite bank. Landmarks on the Sudbourne side still provide the memory of the ferry with the names of Ferry Lane, Ferry Farm and Ferry Cottages although the ferry no longer operates. In 2007 discussions about reintroducing a foot ferry were reported by the East Anglian Daily Times but nothing came to fruition. Such plans were once again revived in a 2011 press announcement when a trial service was set up although, as far as I am aware, this enterprise did not last for more than the inaugural crossing. At £15 for a return journey one can perhaps understand why.
The Remains of the Ionia
As the footpath heads upstream, one can see the distinct skeletal remains of a boat decaying in the mud below the defence bank. This is all that is left of a large fishing smack named the Ionia. It is uncertain of the history of this vessel or when it was originally moored here. It was certainly in use as a houseboat in this location in 1932 when a short film entitled Many Girls In A Boat was made. It is also interesting to note that Alfred Dutt makes mention of
the humble wild-fowler who has his home in an ark-like houseboat in some marshland creek when describing the Aldeburgh marsh in his 1910 publication
The Norfolk and Suffolk Coast.
The craft was latterly used as a houseboat by Kathleen Hale, the British artist, illustrator, and children's author of the many Orlando (The Marmalade Cat) books which were set in Owlbarrow, the name she coined for Aldeburgh. Eventually the boat became unsafe and was deliberately and dramatically burnt down in 1974 to leave little more than what remains today. A video of some photos taken at the event can be seen on youtube
Messing around on the River Alde
A few years ago I had the privilege to head up river on a boat that had been recently acquired by a close friend after the previous owner sold it when it was sunk during the 2007 storm surge which had inundated its moorings at Slaughden Quay. The idea of having a boat to mess about on the river was all the motivation it took to renovate this little cruiser and with a bit of loving care, a new engine and some curtains and other creature comforts added to its cabin, the boat became something of pride for that summer. Now, the new owner had little knowledge of sailing let alone captaincy and I certainly had no nautical blood running through my veins, but nonetheless an expedition was planned to navigate up the river to Snape.
This was not to be the boats inaugural voyage. A little confidence had already been gained on a couple of previous outings along the river which I had not been party to, so the journey over to Slaughden Quay with the boat in tow on a trailer was something that was rehearsed if not well practised. Slaughden Quay provides a landing stage where boat trailers can be offered down to the waters with minimal of fuss, even for novices such as ourselves. Duly, the trailer was lined up and the boat made ready for launch. It was at this moment, prior to pushing the boat off, that we noticed just how choppy the waters looked. A stiff breeze was blowing, creating large waves across the wide river and the noticeable absence of other craft on the waters was somewhat unnerving. Maybe this was not a good idea. Maybe the experienced boatmen and mariners who regularly sail this river knew better. Maybe putting this little craft out in such weather would end up with the thing turning turtle and being lost forever in the murky waters of the Alde.
As we stood there in dubious debate of the conditions, we noticed an old seadog standing close by, propped up against a boat that sat on the quay. He was a stereotypical old boatman with skin beaten by a thousand gales, an old pipe clenched between his lips and an aura of a true hardened sailor. He had to have years of knowledge and experience of these estuary waters. He would soon advise us.
Without beating about the bush the question was put straight to him, 'Is it safe to go out?'
He looked at us. He glanced at the water. He gazed to the overhead clouds that drifted by in frantic fashion across the sky. Then he drew on his pipe before uttering in broad Suffolk tones, 'If oi was out on that thar sea...' he pondered leaving us waiting for a few seconds, 'Oi'll be heading straight for port', he cautioned, 'no doubt about that boi' and he stared at the waters.
'So it's not safe out there?'
'Not on that sea, not with that wind getting up'
'Nor on the river?'
'Ahhhhh, the river boi, you be wanting to goo out on the river doo you?' he looked at the two of us, 'you be safe on the river boi,'
So, we took his advice. Despite the choppy waters, despite the howling gale, despite our qualms and inexperience of boating, we pushed the trailer down the landing stage and into the briny waters. I was elected to stand in the craft and take charge whilst the captain took hold of the mooring rope to bring the boat around to the quay. However one thing that was quite noticeable when the boat slid into the water was the amount of dampness in the bottom of the craft. In fact it wasn't just dampness but a veritable puddle of sloshing water. Fortunately there was a plastic container which provided means to bail this water out. However, the more effort put into bailing the boat, the more the water appeared to be rising. An inevitable conclusion was soon arrived at - 'we are sinking'.
A few moments of pondering from the captain as he gazed down from the quayside at my boots which were slowly being covered with water. He pondered at the situation. It was definitely sinking. This was something it definitely had not done on previous excursions. 'Ahhhh I know...', eventually came the revelation. He walked over to the car, returning with something in his hand, 'I think this will solve the problem' he shouted. It was the drain plug. Yes, we had a big hole in the boat which was used to drain the water. Now this was supposed to be drained when the boat was lifted from the river. When in the river it allowed the river to drain into the boat. He tossed the plug down, the hole was plugged and finally the bailing out became successful.
Unperturbed by these setbacks, and the fact that the waters seemed all the more rough as we put out to the main channel, we headed up river towards Snape against the tide and against the wind with all the careless abandon of a team of grockles. The river is broad and, with ensuing low tide, vast mud banks emerge from the waters on each side of the river. The main channel is marked out by sticks and poles that stand vertically either side of the channel. Despite our attempts to follow these markers, the boat kept hitting the mud banks and eventually completely hit ground somewhere near Iken and some way off our desired destination of Snape. We had to give up on this expedition and, once the boat was released from its grounding, followed the tide back down to Slaughden with every admiration for how the captain of the pleasure cruiser Lady Florence which regularly navigates the journey between Snape and Orford.
Despite this first trip, we did embark upon a second voyage. This was a fishing trip accompanied by an experienced sea angler with spare rods to allow us to try our hands at this art. He did all the technical stuff like baiting the line and guiding our cast and tutoring our new found skills, or lack of them. Plenty of eels were caught and even a bass. The bass was a prize catch which provided a moment of pride until I was told it was too small and had to be thrown back to the waters to grow some more. Alas, for all the efforts, dinner had to be fish from the chip shop on that day.
That summer further lazy days messing about on the river never happened. The boat seemed a good idea at the time but with such busy lives it rarely got used and was eventually sold on to another budding sailor who probably also forgot the drain plug, also ventured out in storm-force winds, and also attempted some fishing but never caught anything for dinner.
Slaughden, or the shingle spit that once held the village, is under continual attack from both tide and weather. During the winter months of 2015, going into 2016, the storms removed the shingle beach resulting in the tide hammering the concrete sea defences. This resulted in a large crater opening up on the river side of the bank which needed emergency repairs. There are photos of the damage sustained on the Aldeburgh Coastguard Facebook page. A second incursion in March 2016 produced even more dramatic photos along with a video.
When one stands on the shingle bank amid the towering waves and sea spray, it does make one wonder just how much longer this narrow barrier between sea and river will last. Even 3 hours before high tide can bring some spectacular waves as witnessed on a Youtube video which I recorded during late February 2016. Maybe just one large storm will breach the barricade and allow the river to drain directly into the sea. It happened at Dunwich in the 13th century. Climatologists indicate such storms will become all the more frequent in our brave new world of global warming. Additional defences made up of rocks and replenished shingle have now been put in place. Only time will tell whether such works will keep the river on its course.
The walk traces the defence banks that following the River Alde inland, returning via the footpath on the southern edge of Aldeburgh
The footpath from Slaughden Quay is clearly marked on the northern side of the boatyard. This follows the river estuary upstream. Ignore all other footpaths that head across the marshes. Eventually the river turns north-east and the defence bank has a sharp turn to the right. At the far end of this straight section, where the river bends back northwards, the footpath comes to an end, with another leading off of the defence banks and through the marshes.
The path through the marshes is obvious and this emerges through the allotments and onto a paved footpath that runs behind Aldeburgh. Turn right and follow the path through. There are large houses with huge gardens on the left and more allotments on the right. Beyond this there are more allotments on the left and the Pump House on the right and just beyond this the path meets a road. Turn right and follow the road down to the southern end of Aldeburgh High Street. Turn right and follow the road through to Slaughden Quay or alternatively turn left and follow the road to the White Hart pub which is on the right opposite the chip shop. Return by cutting through the alley by the side of the pub, navigating down to crag path. Follow this beach side path through to Slaughden.
White Hart, Aldeburgh View in OS Map | View in Google Map
- High Street, Aldeburgh
This Grade II listed building dating from the 18th century, is a single roomed bar with wood panelling and decorated with nautical memorabilia. Originally a reading room, it became an alehouse during the early 1800s. The pub offers Adnams ales plus guests and has occasional music and basic pub food. At the rear of the building is a wood fired pizza oven and seating.
There are always a couple of guest ales on at this establishment. On this occasion one was the mighty Fullers ESB. Wildly abused in youthful years, it still is a delicious pint of beer and very satisfying on a cold winters day.
The Vale of SlaughdenView in OS Map | View in Google Map
The Vale of Slaughden is a name rarely used in modern times. Indeed the hamlet of Slaughden is probably unknown by the masses, its existence now all but disappeared under the waves. The Gentleman's Magazine from the 19th century offers a couple of quotes for the Vale of Slaughden (Vol 89 Pt 2), stating that
[aldeburgh] is pleasantly situated in the valley of Slaughden, under the shelter of a steep hill, which runs north and south the whole length of the principal street, a distance of about three quarters of a mile. This vale of Slaughden extends along a part of the East Anglian coast from Thorpe to the haven of Orford, having the sea on the east and the river Alde which washes it on the west. Its present appearance differs widely from that which it anciently presented, as there was formerly an immense forest, two miles east of the coast at Dunwich extending to a considerable distance, parallel with the shore which at that period was exceedingly steep and rocky.
In a later volume of the same publication (vol 155), there is a denigration of the Suffolk poets of George Crabbe and James Bird, berating their poetic romancing of the Suffolk landscape of The Vale of Slaughden, by putting a more down to earth and 'say it as it is' description of this area:
The boasted Vale of Slaughden, gentle reader, is a mixture of a withered common, a rushy moor, a sandy heath anda slimey marsh.
Although most visitors these days would probably side with the words of George Crabbe himself.
Here samphire banks and saltwort bound the flood,
There stakes and sea-weed withering in the mud ;
Lo, where the heath with withering brake grown o'er,
Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor,
From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thia harvest waves its withered ears ;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o'er the land and rob the blighted rye.
As for the village of Slaughden, W.A. Dutt, in 1909, described Slaughden as a
small, sea-threatened cluster of cottages bordering a primitive quay and grouped around an ancient inn with a huge bone of a whale suspended over its front door’.
By these times it was succumbing to erosion but had once been a port of significance. During the 17th century it had superseded Dunwich as the main port on this stretch of coastline. This appears to also coincide with Thorpe Haven silting up just north of Aldeburgh. Thorpe Haven was the outlet to the Hundred River and there are some references which appear to indicate that this was the original River Alde, with the present day Alde being named the Ore along its full length rather than the stretch beyond Orford. Slaughden was obviously boosted by the importance gained at this time and at its height boasted twenty houses, a pub, a warehouses, a fish curing store and a soap factory.
The pub was lost in the early 20th century not long after WA Dutt paid visit.
Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information
Summary of Document Changes
Last Updated: ... 2017-02-21