‘There’s a small river running through my sleeping bag,’ said Phil. There were two things we’d not bothered to check before setting off on our latest Boy’s Own adventure – the weather forecast and the waterproofing of Phil’s ancient bivouac bag.
It was some time after two in the morning, and we were lying on the shingle of Dunwich beach, while a storm raged around us. We could hear the roar of waves crashing down on the bank, full of stones and thunder. Through the thin waterproof sheet of my new bivi bag, I could feel raindrops crashing down on my cheek, cold and heavy. Through a chink in the bag’s hood, I could see gleaming wet shingle and not much else. I thought uneasily of the weight of sodden, unstable earth shifting above us, on Dunwich’s famously crumbling cliffs.
I’d become enthused with the idea of getting closer to nature after reading Robert Macfarlane’s intrepid and wonderful travel book The Wild Places, in which he explores Britain’s wilderness. From mountain summits to deserted moorland to deep forest, there’s nowhere Macfarlane won’t contemplate sleeping. I’d thought that sleeping on the beach on August bank holiday, within shouting distance of a rather good pub, would be tame by comparison.
Dunwich was our second night out. We’d started the previous night among the sand dunes and heath at Kessingland, bedding down after fish’n’chips and a pint in the Sailor’s Rest. The weather was warm and dry, although a smattering of rain woke us around dawn. We ate blackberries and yoghurt for breakfast, rolled up the sleeping bags and pedalled off across heathland and deserted gravel pits.
The weather turned. By the time we reached the lonely village of Covehithe, it was raining in earnest. We stopped to see the unusual church – a small, whitewashed chapel snuggled within the remains of a vast stone edifice, monument to a rich medieval farmer who built a cathedral out on the cliffs. Eventually upkeep of this huge church became too much for the village, and in the 17th century the church wardens took the decision to demolish it and build one more suitable for their needs within the same grounds. It was a lonely, strange place to be, early on a rainy Saturday.
We pedalled hell-for-leather to Southwold. We’d been following the Suffolk Coastal Path, riding where possible and pushing the bikes where not, avoiding the roads. But we’d reckoned without a completely impassable marshland stretch, ominously called Rough Walks. It was the roughest walk I’d been on – the path was invisible through overgrown brambles, rushes, hawthorn bushes and vicious stinging nettles. Eventually we made the decision to turn back, dragging the laden bikes back to the road.
Bedraggled, we sat in a Southwold cafe, inspecting our nettle stings, bramble scratches and the sodden map. Press on to Dunwich, or admit defeat? It’s amazing how a cup of coffee can restore the spirits. We voted to press on at least as far as Walberswick, a delightful village the other side of the Blyth river. The deeply picturesque path follows the river past moorings, boat sheds, fishing boats and some enterprising restaurants and fish shops. The rain lessened to a manageable drizzle, then ceased altogether. Hearts gladdened, we set off on the final stretch, an easy ride along the road, then through well-drained paths through Dunwich Forest to the sea.
More drizzle prompted a lengthy visit to Dunwich Museum, which tells the story of how this once prosperous and populous port was destroyed by storms that blocked the harbour mouth, then ate away at the cliffs. The shore now stands miles inland from the original coast line, and the remains of half a dozen churches (to say nothing of countless houses and cottages) lie fathoms deep.
After the museum, we took a walk around the beach and cliffs, scouting for likely places to sleep. We contemplated spending the night among the ruins of Greyfriars’ monastery, but the remaining walls gave little shelter against a determined northerly wind. The woods on the cliff tops might have been an option, but we’d seen the body of a squashed snake on the road. I couldn’t shake the fear that a grass snake or adder would find my sleeping bag a warm and dry place to spend the night, and despite my new-found appreciation for nature, I didn’t fancy sharing. We decided on the beach, spotting a niche sheltered by a sand dune, where the cliff was lower and secured with vegetation.
Spot picked, we had an excellent dinner in The Ship before retiring for the night. I was deeply glad of that sticky toffee pudding as the rain lashed down and the wind howled. It was a long night, but my sleeping bag retained warmth well and I did manage some sleep.
I woke shortly after six, to see a pale gold disc nudging its way above the horizon. The sun! Shred and patches of clouds streaked the sky, but there were washes of azure between them. As the sun rose higher, we threw off our damp bedding and pulled on swimming costumes. The sea was fretful, uneasy with the memory of the storm. Migrating birds streaked over the water, a long line like a train. Gulls bobbed on the waves. I walked in to waist height, then swam along the golden path towards the sun.
There was a long bike ride ahead, with challenging stretches through mud made thick by the night’s storm. But just for a moment, life could not have been more perfect.