I recently re-read The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, partly because my housemate is from Suffolk and the book claims to be about walking through Suffolk. It isn’t really (it’s much more than that), and it starts and ends in Norwich, in the adjacent county of Norfolk, where Sebald taught at the University of East Anglia. I’ve previously written about Norwich, and also about Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham, which are in Suffolk but nowhere near Sebald’s route. And now I’ve just cycled down the Suffolk coast (loosely speaking), from Lowestoft to Woodbridge – because it’s marshy in places and eroding fast in others, there isn’t a road or cycle route along the coast, but there is often a path.
Sebald begins by discussing Sir Thomas Browne, who was a doctor in Norwich from 1637 until his death in 1682 and is occasionally remembered as the author of some remarkably eccentric books. The most relevant is Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burial, supposedly an account of some Anglo-Saxon pots then recently excavated in Norfolk, which veers off, in majestic but melancholic Baroque prose, to discuss human burial customs and thus mortality itself. Sebald’s first chapter is written in similarly dense prose, and although he loosens up a bit in subsequent chapters, The Rings of Saturn is also largely about death and the futility of human life (Saturn was the god of melancholy, of course). Considering that it was actually written in German and translated into English, the parody of Browne’s style is remarkably good, although there are a few clunky bits (the Shakespeare quotes were easier to put back into English, though). His trip through Suffolk was just a starting point for huge and eccentric digressions on all sorts of topics (often literary), which seem random and confusing but add up to present a coherently pessimistic worldview in which the Holocaust and other disasters are always waiting in the wings. Sebald was also notable for embedding pseudo-documentary photos in his books. The Rings of Saturn is hard work but darkly fascinating – it’s interesting just how many writers and artists revere Sebald and how much influence he’s had (see below).
Sebald was a great believer in buried correspondences and random connections, and I often pick up on similar links in my own posts. In The Rings of Saturn there are lots of references to Rembrandt and the Netherlands, where I was in September, but also to the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, which played a rôle in the previous book I read, Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallet; he also mentions the 1987 ‘hurricane’ which also appears in Peculiar Ground, although moved to 1989; there’s mention of Borges’ connections with Uruguay, which I explore in my Bradt Travel Guide to Uruguay (which I’m updating at the moment); and I recently read Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, who is a professor in the same university department as Sebald, along with the poet George Szirtes, whose work has referred to Sebald.
Anyway, I started by taking a rather more modern train to Lowestoft than the one Sebald took; the easternmost town in England, it’s a port that is run-down in parts but nowhere near as bad as Sebald makes out – I get that he was a professional miserabilist, but claiming that the economic collapse caused by Thatcherism was somehow making previously literate people illiterate, and that a third of the Dogger Bank’s fish are now born with deformities caused by heavy metal pollution, is a bit much. The slow-burn approach he took elsewhere works far better. Sebald (or his narrator, who is not quite the same person) stayed at the drab Albion Hotel, which is presumably the Victoria, now warmly recommended by a friend of mine, as it happens.
After passing Benacre Broad, where the trees were all dying (it’s now Benacre Nature Reserve, and seems pretty healthy to me) and Covehithe (see below), he reached Southwold, a lovely town which I’ll say more about in my next post. For some reason this stretch of coast is known as Sole Bay, but Sebald (or his translator) also refers to the German Ocean. The battle of Sole Bay in 1672 is largely forgotten now because there was no clear winner, but it involved no less than 168 ships in the Dutch and Anglo-French fleets and between 35,000 and 50,000 men, of whom around 4,100 died. Another classic Sebald digression involves twenty pages on Joseph Conrad’s early years (interleaved with Roger Casement, the Belgian Congo and the Battle of Waterloo) – it turns out that Conrad’s first English landfall was in Lowestoft, where he began learning English by studying newspapers in pubs – and the pub opposite Lowestoft station is today called the Joseph Conrad. It’s a Wetherspoon pub and I didn’t stop (well, it was barely lunchtime).
Like Sebald, I crossed the Bailey Bridge from Southwold to Walberswick – this is not the original bridge (Sebald got this wrong), but is on the route of the narrow-gauge railway that linked Halesworth and Southwold from 1879 to 1929. One of his less plausible digressions concerns the railway’s carriages, allegedly built for the Emperor of China’s private railway; it seems that the six-wheeled carriages did have rather exotic balconies at either end (removed after the First World War), but that’s as far as it goes. But this leads him to the topic of silkworms, forced to become a metaphor for not just inevitable death but also the Holocaust and other genocides in general. He didn’t mention either Walberswick or Aldeburgh, clearly far too nice and genteel to fit his theme, but I will look at them too in my next post. Dunwich, on the other hand, famously a major port until the thirteenth century which was then abandoned and largely washed away, is perfect for his theme of decay and disaster. In Anglo-Saxon times it was capital of the East Angles and then rivalled London as England’s chief port on the North Sea (too early for it to have figured in the European Hanse Museum in Lübeck) – but storms in 1286 and 1287 wiped this out and its churches and other buildings disappeared as the cliffs eroded over the following centuries. Now there are a few houses, a tiny museum (next to The Ship, a fine pub known for its food) and the ruins of the Greyfriars priory, as well as a few bits of rescued masonry next to the Victorian church of St James.
Incidentally, Dunwich is also known to some of my friends as the destination of the Dunwich Dynamo, an all-night cycle ride from London on the Saturday night closest to the July full moon. Once a loose post-pub tradition among London cycle couriers, it became semi-formalised from 1993, and in recent years over two thousand cyclists have tackled the 112-mile ride, with hot food and drink available at village halls, before collapsing on the beach at dawn.
I also stopped in Clayhithe, a few miles north of Southwold, which Sebald only mentions in passing – this was also a port, though far smaller than Dunwich, and has also been lost to the sea. The coast here has retreated at least 500 metres in the last two centuries, a process which is clearly not going to stop. The wrecks of wooden ships are increasingly being discovered along this coast – in 2018 and again in February 2021 one dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century was revealed by the shifting sands here, and in March 2021 another appeared at Thorpeness, further south, which may possibly be a collier like Captain Cook’s Endeavour. The church of St Andrew is now a small thatched building (quite common for churches in this area) within the ruins of a much larger one – on top of which a pair of kestrels were nesting.
Continuing south, I pushed my bike along a short stretch of shingle beach, from the National Trust’s Dunwich Heath property to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve – this is one of their flagship sites, known for its reed beds where large numbers of ducks and geese overwinter, and rarities such as avocets, marsh harriers and bitterns breed (I heard a bittern booming further down the coast, which was a first), but there’s also plenty of sandy heath where stone curlew, wood larks, Dartford warblers and nightjars can be found. I was also surprised to see three groups of red deer in this area, as well as lots of single muntjac deer, which are something of a plague across the region. As in many places along this coast, there are signs warning of adders, and there are various unusual butterflies here too.
After Minsmere, I cycled through Leiston and Thorpeness (avoiding Sizewell, although you can’t avoid the sight of the nuclear power station) – Leiston Abbey is free and open daylight hours, and there’s rather more of it than at the ruined churches just north. A Premonstratensian monastery was founded in 1182 at Minsmere, and moved here in about 1363 when flooding made the original site untenable. After the Reformation it was used as a farm and a residential music school now occupies the main building. Thorpeness is an oddity, a holiday village created just before the First World War by the local landowners, the Ogilvies (who also owned Minsmere); it didn’t really take off but there are some very attractive Tudor Revival houses as well as a charming lake and golf course. As it turns out it’s ideal for the age of AirBnB, one of the most prized rentals being The House in the Clouds, converted from a water tower in 1923.
Continuing south from Thorpeness you’ll soon pick up a decent cyclepath along the promenade that leads in to Aldeburgh, a delightful town that I look at in more detail here. Sebald actually skipped Aldeburgh in The Rings of Saturn (it’s far too nice to fit his theme); he got a lift from Southwold to Woodbridge and, after walking north to investigate the home of Edward Fitzgerald (eccentric translator of Omar Khayyam and starting-point for stories about the Anglo-Irish (my people) and their decaying country homes), walked to Orford. There’s a fine castle and church to be seen here, but the main attraction is Orford Ness, a rather ghostly shingle spit (only accessible by boat) which was closed off as a testing ground for weaponry for eighty years and is now preserved by the National Trust. I haven’t taken the boat to the ness yet, but Sebald found it ideal for musing on post-apocalyptic ruins.
Sebald then returned north inland, with other weird encounters and digressions (such as a visit to his friend, the post and translator Michael Hamburger) – but I was slightly surprised that he didn’t mention Akenfield, Ronald Blythe’s portrait of an English village was actually a compilation of several villages just north of Woodbridge in the 1960s (but still largely untouched by the huge changes in rural life and farming that were lurking just a few years into the future) – perhaps it was too bucolic for his purpose, but recent research by the University of East Anglia has looked at the utter transformation of the countryside since Blythe’s time, with results that might have given Sebald food for thought.
As for me, I cycled to Orford via Butley and Iken (each with another attractive little church), and then along the south side of Rendlesham Forest (known for UFO sightings, supposedly) to Woodbridge, and caught a train home. This is an area known as the Sandlings, which I’d not heard of but which certainly lives up to its name, with sand blown across the back lanes and some bridleways that were so soft and loose that I had to push my bike. The light sandy soil was used only for grazing sheep until the Victorians fell in love with blasting birds out of the sky in the name of sport – it turned out that breeding pheasants was an ideal use of the land. Just before reaching Woodbridge I called in at Sutton Hoo, the Anglo-Saxon ship burial site currently enjoying a moment thanks to the film The Dig (with Suffolk-born Ralph Fiennes) – thanks to the lockdown the indoor exhibits and viewing tower were all closed, so all I could actually do is look at some mounds, but the café was open, which was what I needed.
Woodbridge is a pleasant little town that’s known mainly for still having a high street lined with independent shops; there’s also a nice church further up the hill, and on the waterfront (still active so not over-prettified) a white weatherboarded tidal mill (usually open to visitors, but also closed due to Covid-19). The Whistlestop Café at the station is also a highlight for some.
So, what to make of all this? Is there any good reason to follow Sebald through Suffolk? Well, no, it doesn’t really work, given all his digressions through time and space. Robert Macfarlane (who has also written beautifully about Orford Ness) said in 2012 that he was planning to follow in Sebald’s footsteps to produce an ‘unconventional biography’ which will be fascinating, but as far as I can see this has not yet emerged. Film director Grant Gee (who has worked with Joy Division, Radiohead, Blur and Nick Cave) has produced a short film retracing Sebald’s journey which seems interesting, and writers and artists such as Iain Sinclair, Marina Warner and Tacita Dean have written about Sebald – these are all rather more worthwhile, I would expect, than just walking down the coast. There are also various blogs attempting to pay stylistic homage with varying degrees of success (but getting basic facts wrong, which offends me as a real working travel writer). In any case, and partly because hotels are still closed due to the Covid-19 lockdown, I chose to cycle, with one night camping in Dunwich Forest, rather than follow the actual walk.
The artist Ali Pretty (who I knew at school) is leading the Beach of Dreams project, a 500-mile walk from Lowestoft along the coast to Tilbury this summer (starting on 27 June 2021 and finishing on 1 August) – it’s a community project asking the question “How can we creatively reimagine our future?”. Now that does sound worthwhile.