Suffolk’s best walks: Exploring the Stour and Orwell from the Shotley Peninsula
- Credit: Lindsay Want
Lindsay Want explores a riverine world of contrasts on a Stour and Orwell walk at Shotley
The best way to enjoy the tip of Shotley Peninsula has to be on foot. Few Suffolk waterside walks leave such a big impression like a wander along the river banks and stony shoreline of the Orwell and Stour.
By the remains of the Victorian jetty, once graced by passenger-laden steamers, the lazy Stour starts its great wide yawn at the sea. Nimbly negotiate the footbridge over the lock and you're confronted by the mighty machinations and container ships of the UK's largest port.
On the widest of waterways, tiny white-sailed craft make a daunting dash to the safety of the upstream Orwell, dwarfed for what must seem an onboard eternity by the port's vast vessels.
Looking back, once the river wall path has led you past vegetated mudflats and moved alongside the marshy home of the UK's biggest Emperor dragonflies, the cargo ships' piled containers are little more than stacks of tiny Lego bricks.
By the time you reach Crane's Hill Creek, where the upstream horizon is frosted with the distant white spinnakers of Woolverstone Marina, the world is all waders and waft of sea-lavender.
Somewhere in these parts, the Edward Plantagenet kings and Edward the Black Prince moored up and made merry at a quayside inn as they went about their business on Suffolk's wealthy early medieval coast. It was next to the church, long before the Orwell's sea defences kept tides at bay.
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Inland and uphill, past hedgerows decorated with dangling summer fruits and alongside unexpected rows of well-trained vines, St Mary's sits distinctly proud above the now distant blue ribbon of river.
The 15th century architects who created the glorious hammer-beam roof of St Mary's would be bemused today by the mighty classical curves of its great Venetian windows which bring light flooding into a church of urban London proportions. It is awesome, breathtaking. But what lies outside in the churchyard is more soul-stirring yet.
When you're distracted by the vast estuary harbourlands, it's easy to pass by the unassuming buildings of the HMS Ganges Museum at Shotley Gate.
And there's not an interpretation board in sight to explain that the marina's leisurely fun and games fill the gap where an old naval training school's athletics track and sports field used to be.
Between 1905 and 1976, 150,000 boys arrived at the HMS Ganges naval training unit, a place which, in the 1930s, Edward Prince of Wales said made the Foreign Legion look like Sunday School.
Some of the young lads never made it to sea. Just down the estuary they rest in the churchyard above the Orwell, joined by Royal and Merchant Navy comrades of all rank and file, by Dutch and German prisoners of war, each individual white tombstone harsh and clear-cut.
On the dark horizon, there's a soft, gentler echo as wispy white triangles ride the ebb and flow of river tides and drift anonymously on the Suffolk breeze.
It's an overwhelmingly big picture which can't help but accompany you along the little lanes and field-side footpaths which weave past Shotley Hall, away from the Orwell towards the cockle creeks of the Stour.
At Erwarton a 'walk' lined with vintage sweet chestnuts recalls a different sort of past. Before you can say 'King and Country' you find yourself peering across paddocks at an eccentric brick gatehouse and a fine-looking little Tudor mansion, Erwarton Hall, once owned by Anne Boleyn's uncle, Thomas Howard, third Duke of Norfolk, and apparently oft times frequented by Henry VIII.
As you edge around the hall, the mighty gnarled sweet chestnuts frame the square-towered church set just across the manorial fields.
The Stour sticks its head briefly above the horizon, as paths reveal an unexpected lake, scattered with tiny tree islands and flanked by swathes of majestic parkland and strange exotic planting.
There's much twittering, an idyllic country air and a certain serenity here on the upland plateau. You can see why the young and playful Anne Bullen loved it as a child. After her royal marriage and sad demise, she left her heart here too, apparently, now buried under the organ in Erwarton's medieval church.
Alongside the churchyard the path opens out into the widest Stour estuary panorama. From this angle, a huge cruise ship at Parkeston Quay almost merges into the horizon's thin streak, leaving the limelight to the gold and green stretches of Suffolk's ripening crops.
Field margin paths answer the call of the river, turning to hug the cliff, ducking and diving through tree tunnels all the way down to the water's edge. Towards Shotley's Victorian pier, the Stour looks like one enormous lake. It is vast, and the shells on its shoreline tiny.
The Shotley Peninsula is clearly one outstanding area of natural beauty, a precious part of Suffolk, full of contrasts.
A place that puts everything in perspective.
Ordnance Survey maps are available from all good booksellers and outdoor stores or visit our online shop www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/al
1) Start by the HMS Ganges Museum at Shotley Marina (IP9 1QJ). Keep right to cross the lock gates at Shotley Point. Take estuary-side path around marina to follow river-wall path between river and Shotley marshes all the way to the old oyster beds at Crane's Hill creek.
2) Follow footpath sign left, down bank and through gate. Meadow-edge path leads over sleeper footbridge towards another pedestrian gate alongside a vehicle gate into lane.
3) Go through gate at next fork left, uphill past Shotley Vineyard (left) to St Mary's Church.
4) Be sure to view churchyard memorials on both sides of the road, then continue to crossroads and turn right at telephone box. Keep on the track, ignoring footpath to the right.
5) Take next track on left and follow it as weaves around Shotley Hall to reach road (Shotley Walk). Turn right along road until next footpath (left).
6) Go down footpath, going right at junction of paths, then follow it left parallel to road.
7) Cross main road (B1456) to Erwarton Walk lined with ancient trees which leads to road junction.
8) Erwarton Hall and its fantastical gatehouse is in front of you. Turn left, then look for footpath almost immediately right by farm buildings. Footpath leads between paddocks, lined with ancient sweet chestnuts. Path continues downhill with views of reservoir and estuary beyond.
9) Keep left along reservoir, but ignore signs for Stour & Orwell Walk (left), following path right, around the water to continue uphill to road. Turn left.
10) Church of St Mary the Virgin, Erwarton has the magnificent Bacon family tombs as well as Anne Boleyn's heart. Take footpath left just before church and village sign.
Go down track to admire amazing estuary views. At the field turn left to go along top edge into next field where path leads right downhill to Erwarton Bay marshes at Waterhouse Creek.
11) Turn left along estuary path towards Shotley. Path snakes between buildings to emerge near Rose Hall Cottages and a barge, then continues along field edge before dropping back down to the river. Turn left.
12) Path goes along river beach - detours possible (signed left) to explore Heritage Park's wooded cliffs and viewpoints - emerging onto road by The Bristol Arms. Keep right to go around headland to the marina.
Distance: 8 miles/13 kms
Time: 4 hours
Start: Shotley Marina (IP9 1QJ)
Getting there/back: suffolkonboard.com, harwichharbourferry.com for Harwich Foot Ferry from Landguard Point, Felixstowe
Parking: Shotley Marina (IP9 1QJ)
Access: Riverside, field-edge and woodland footpaths, some tarmac roads, gates, steps.
Map: OS Explorer 197
Ts & Ps: Shotley village & marina
A naval heritage
HMS Ganges Museum is open every Saturday, Sunday and bank holidays, 11am- 5pm, until the end of October. Special visits out of usual hours can be arranged. Entry to the museum is free, although all donations towards running costs are welcome.
This summer's display is about the loss of HMS Gipsy, off Harwich, in the very early months of the Second World War.
Also commemorated is the Battle of the River Plate where HMS Achilles, HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter took part in the destruction of the German pocket battleship Graf Spey.
For information visit hmsgangesmuseum.com