National Character Area 82

Suffolk Coast and Heaths - Description

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths today

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths NCA extends along the east coast in an open but narrow band from the edge of Great Yarmouth in the north to Harwich in the south. Its western boundary borders the boulder clay plateau of the Suffolk and Essex Claylands and is incised by the rivers Blyth, Deben, Alde and Minsmere, creating narrow, twisting, east-west pastoral valleys. The landscape is mainly flat or gently rolling, and although changes in relief are slight, they are enough to provide an intimate scale. There are few commanding viewpoints, which limits the scope of inland views.

Underlying geology consists of late Cretaceous Chalk and Eocene London Clay covered by Pliocene-Pleistocene Crag formations, overlain by a drift cover of sands and glacial tills of variable thickness. These sands and gravels are spread in narrow, discontinuous tracts along the coast from Yarmouth to Aldeburgh, extending inland over a low plateau past Woodbridge to Ipswich, giving rise to the characteristic variation in land cover. South of the River Deben the light soils are generally less impoverished and support large-scale rectilinear arable fields, separated by an enclosed network of winding lanes.

The coast is largely undeveloped and undefended with a coast road only between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness. The landscape is subtle with sections of low elevation, soft crumbling cliffs (for example, Dunwich, Covehithe and Pakefield) and shelved, sloping shingle beaches, sweeping in a series of wide bays. The cliff-lines are interrupted by broad inlets such as Minsmere and the Blyth Estuary. The cliffs mark a generally receding coastline that displays active coastal processes of erosion and accretion, the southward tidal current carrying eroded material to downdrift beaches. Offshore waters are generally shallow in nature, with highly mobile parallel shoal and sand bank systems, affecting wave and current interactions.

The coastal forms created by the interaction between the complex marine and geological processes are important wildlife areas. Where large quantities of beach material have been accreted and become stabilised (for example, Shingle Street and Kessingland), they support nesting birds including little tern and communities of specialised plants (for example, sea pea, sea kale and yellow horned poppy).

The most significant coastal feature is Orford Ness, Europe’s largest shingle spit, which with its pattern of shingle ridges, vegetation and pools is a geological and geomorphological feature of national and international significance.

The open, exposed coastal character contrasts with the sheltered peace of the estuaries which display a strong sense of place, both at high and low tide, when vast expanses of mudflat are home to many hundreds of migratory waders and seabirds (for example, black-tailed godwit and avocet). Interest and texture are provided by the subtle blend of reflective qualities of water and mud, the seasonally varied carpet of salt marsh foliage and the geometric shapes of river walls and the curvature of half-hidden creeks and channels. The Stour and Orwell estuaries are wide, relatively straight and bounded by well-wooded estate parkland valley sides with springs and landslides on the London Clay. Their open waters are busy with commercial and recreational craft, as are the waters of the Deben. On the smaller Blyth and Alde estuaries, boating is limited to the lower reaches, as extensive areas of drained marsh and former reclaimed land, now mudflats, encroach on the navigable water.

The wide open expanses of low-lying freshwater coastal levels are protected by low sea walls. Their fens/wooded fens and reedbeds support a rich biodiversity including bittern and marsh harrier and scarce plants such as whorled water-milfoil (for example, Corporation, Dingle and Minsmere Marshes and Covehithe, Benacre and Easton Broads). The remaining traditionally grazed marshlands feature a changing pattern of drainage ditches, older and curvilinear in the north, straighter and more recent in the south. Large, panoramic seascape views are dominated by busy offshore North Sea shipping waters and distant wind farms. Onshore private marinas and vibrant boatyards add a human element. Sense of space, isolation and tranquillity are special qualities of this naturally dynamic environment which offers authentic and revitalising experiences for visitors.

The diversity of coastal habitats and their importance for wildlife are recognised by four Ramsar, Special Protection Area (SPA) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) designations, three National Nature Reserves and numerous Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Offshore waters support populations of porpoises and both grey and harbour seals, while the benthic habitats are extensive spawning and nursery grounds for commercial fish and shellfish species including Dover sole, lobster and brown shrimp. A significant proportion of the open waters are also designated as an SPA because of the key bird species that they support (for example, red-throated diver).

Inland the landscape is characterised by fragments of ancient open lowland heathland (for example, Sutton and Hollesley Commons and Westleton Heath) with mosaics of heather, acid grassland, gorse, bracken and birch. Many of these wild, sandy stretches, known locally as the Sandlings, are included in the SPA designation. They are a vanishing refuge for species including nightjar, woodlark, adder and silver-studded blue butterfly. The large estates of Benacre, Henham, Sudbourne and Sutton provide a degree of uniformity to the land cover. Agriculture is dominated by commercial-scale cereal and vegetable cropping with turf production and the use of irrigation rigs and plastic covers contrasting with the surrounding naturalness. Outdoor pig units utilise the light soils, while conservation grazing takes place on the heathlands. Field boundaries in the Sandlings are defined by distinctive pine lines, shelterbelts and remnant elm hedges. Further south, along the Shotley Peninsula, holly hedges predominate while to the north and west hedgerows are diminished in their extent.

The large 20th-century Scots and Corsican pine plantations of the Sandlings Forests (Dunwich, Tunstall and Rendlesham) offer vertical and textural landscape elements, giving a sense of uniformity, enclosure and tranquillity. Older, mainly broadleaf plantation woodlands occur within the country house estates and landscaped parklands along the Stour and Orwell valley slopes as well as along the A12 corridor (for example, Orwell Park, Wherstead Park, Holbrook Park and Freston Park). Elsewhere there is a scattering of mixed copses and coverts planted for shooting. Semi-natural ancient woodland and wood pasture is comparatively scarce. Most is located in the parishes of Sudbourne, Wantisden, Rendlesham and Iken. Staverton Park is a unique feature of national importance containing 4,700 medieval pollard oaks, forming a last remnant of the previous landscape.

Across the majority of the NCA settlements are small, sparse and tucked into the landscape. Larger later settlement is restricted to the north and south. The Sunrise Coast, a stretch of tourist coastline to the north-east of the NCA, encompasses the popular seaside resort towns of Lowestoft, the UK’s most easterly town, and Southwold with its colourful beach huts overlooking Sole Bay. Further south the Heritage Coast runs from Walberswick to Felixstowe, which is known as the Garden Resort owing to its south-facing gardens and promenades. The Haven Ports, three deep-water ports (Harwich and Felixstowe on the confluence of the rivers Stour and Orwell, and Ipswich) are constantly busy with commercial freight movements. The urban centre of Ipswich extends eastward into the NCA with its 19th- and 20th-century suburban developments contrasting against the surrounding small rural settlements. Traditional coastal buildings are more often of brick than flint with clay pantiles, some showing the influence of Dutch architecture in their shaped gables. Inland, traditional buildings are timber frame with straw thatch and painted render in a variety of colours (often ‘Suffolk Pink’).

A rich archaeology including evidence for some of the earliest human occupation of Britain, the internationally important Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial site, Napoleonic Martello towers that appear as sentinels over the low-lying, coastal landscape and the Orford Ness ‘pagodas’, relics of the area’s strategic military importance, add local distinctiveness, as do more recent structures including the Orwell Bridge, Sizewell nuclear power station and offshore wind farms. These imposing and dominant, vertical features add contrast to the otherwise level and natural stretch of coastline.

The diversity of landscapes, wildlife habitats, geomorphological and manmade features combine to make the area a major tourist destination, especially seaside resort towns such as Aldeburgh which are often packed on sunny summer days.

The landscape through time

In geological terms, the Suffolk Coast and Heaths is a young landscape. Approximately 4-2 million years ago a series of shell-rich, muddy and sandy marine sediments were deposited on the sea bed, near the western margin of the southern North Sea, which covered the entire area, to form today’s Pliocene- Pleistocene Crag formations.

Over the next few hundreds of thousands of years the climate cooled as the last ice age began. The ice sheets reached their peak with the Anglian glaciation (450,000 years ago), depositing vast amounts of chalk and clay as glacial tills (boulder clay). As the ice retreated, fast-flowing streams transported sands and gravels over the landscape, giving rise to some of today’s sandy soils. At the end of the ice age the coastline was well to the north of its present position. As sea levels rose the sea encroached southwards and around 8,000 years ago the coast began to resemble its current outline.

Around 4,000 years ago Neolithic farmers began clearing woodland from the river valleys and areas of light soil to allow primitive cropping which continued into the Bronze Age 2,500 years ago. The sandy soils meant that farming was often temporary or marginal. Grazing was the main land use. This prevented the re-growth of trees and allowed heather and gorse to spread, initiating the Sandlings heaths, which stretched continuously from Ipswich to Lowestoft.

Roman occupation from 43 AD lasted for 350 years and contributed trading settlements and roads that still provide the backbone of today’s transport links.

From the 5th century the area’s wealth and importance grew and is evidenced by the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial site and the development of early Christian centres in the 7th century (for example, Iken and Blythburgh, and somewhat later at Leiston, Butley, Dunwich and Campsey Ashe).

From the 12th century onwards, reclamation of large areas of estuarine salt marsh by enclosure with sea walls led to the creation of extensive low-lying grazing marshes. The coastal ports gained importance as centres for trade, ship-building and fishing, although Aldeburgh and Orford suffered the effects of longshore drift and deposition. Lowestoft developed as an important fishing town, with herring fishing acting as its main identity until the 20th century. Dunwich, one of the largest seaports in eastern England, fell foul of large winter storm surges from the 13th century, and was gradually worn away. Today’s buildings were once a mile inland, demonstrating the changing nature of this coast.

By the 13th century, sheep farming dominated the local land use and economy, maintaining the vast heathlands as sheepwalks. Rabbits, too, were farmed in warrens from the 14th century until the 19th century. Place names arising from these traditional practices are still used today (for example, Aldringham Walks and Snape Warren). Settlement was sparse, with small, clustered villages and a scattering of estate farms. Dry tracks and boats meant that it was relatively simple to transport wood products from elsewhere. Woodland was subsequently unimportant to the area’s economy, allowing the heathlands to expand.

From the 17th century onwards the use of brick, clay tile and render became characteristic. Up to about 1900, most house walls were either left as a raw ‘plaster white’ or given a coat of whitewash. A significant Dutch influence, the use of shaped gables, also became a feature of the coastal towns. Trade with Europe and aristocratic connections with London increased wealth in the area and saw a number of imposing houses and large estates developed on the fertile soils of the larger southern river valleys and claylands (for example, Broke Hall and Woolverstone Hall on the Orwell; Stutton Hall and Crowe Hall on the Stour; and Heveningham Hall and a dozen others situated inland).

The ‘ancient countryside’ of the inland river valleys and claylands underwent extensive piecemeal enclosure by 1700 and few new farms were built here after 1750. Strip-like patterns of medieval irregular drained meadow enclosure and small-scale fields define these areas (for example, around Falkenham, Wrentham and Blunderston). The 18th century saw much of the coastal strip divided into large leasehold or privately owned blocks of estate land, with large farms often over 120 ha, mainly grazing sheep, dairy cows and bullocks.

By the 19th century the area became renowned as sheep-breeding country, with famous flocks being kept, particularly at Martlesham and Butley Abbey. Few farms were entirely confined to Sandlings soils as estate farms straddling the varied soils and marshland could operate large-scale mixed farming. Formal enclosure of some extensive Sandlings heaths came in the 18th to mid 19th century, often associated with new farmsteads, following agricultural improvements fuelled by high corn prices. Many heaths were, though, ‘held in severalty’ (that is, privately owned and had been so for a long time). The impact of enclosure on the landscape was profound, creating a network of rectilinear fields with belts and coverts. Areas of coniferous plantations, such as Lord Rendlesham’s Tangham Forest, were also trialled.

The arrival of the railways at the end of the 19th century increased the accessibility of the coast and the former fishing ports of Aldeburgh, Southwold and Felixstowe developed into flourishing seaside resorts with seafront villas and gardens.

Thorpeness is noteworthy as an early-20th-century purpose-made holiday village, with Jacobean and Tudor Revival eccentric styling. The use of colour render (creams and pinks) became popular, with brighter colours by the 1930s.

Sheep farming became uneconomic in the early 20th century and many estates were purchased by the Forestry Commission and planted with conifers, forming the Sandlings Forests. After the Second World War, agricultural advances and irrigation allowed profitable arable farming on the light soils and many remaining heaths were ploughed, drastically changing the ancient landscape character. The once large mosaics of heath and acid grassland became fragmented and much reduced in size, with about 80 per cent being lost since 1900. Ancient woodland, on the interface with the claylands, was also felled to form arable land, or felled and replanted with conifers.

The 1970s saw the designation of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB (1970) and Suffolk Heritage Coast (1973) as well as the outbreak of Dutch elm disease, which removed the once-common sight of mature elm trees from the landscape. Within the Sandlings Forests a process of age diversification was in progress, until a severe storm in 1987 devastated the plantations, particularly Rendlesham Forest. The replanting regimes that followed did, though, achieve greater habitat diversity.

While the area’s fisheries had collapsed completely by the 1960s, the late 20th century saw the development of oil and gas exploitation in the southern North Sea with Lowestoft becoming a base for the industry. The ports of Felixstowe and Harwich rapidly developed and today the Port of Felixstowe is the UK’s busiest container port, linked to the rest of the country by the A14 trunk road which crosses the Orwell Bridge, opened in 1982.

Today, Sizewell’s A and B nuclear reactors (opened in 1967 and 1995 respectively) combine with significant historic military structures including Felixstowe’s Landguard Fort (17th century to the Second World War), Napoleonic defences (late 18th and 19th century), Second World War gun emplacements and the Orford Ness ‘pagodas’ to form distinctive and ethereal features. Distant wind farms increasingly dominate the seascape, while onshore infill housing and a proliferation of retail development expand from the east of Ipswich. Major tracts of heath, marsh and shingle are now managed for nature conservation with historic practices such as sheep grazing and reed cutting helping to maintain them. Planned future habitat creation is taking place on a landscape scale in Dunwich Forest, with the creation of 640 ha of grazed woodland and heathland habitat linking the internationally important Walberswick and Minsmere reedbeds and Westleton Heath. This is the first time such a project has been undertaken on this scale within the UK.