15th April, 2019
We’ve just returned from our first trip to Suffolk, where open landscapes and abundant birdlife take centre stage and everything feels gently connected. The food’s pretty good too.
It’s a logical step from speciality coffee to serious chocolate. I first learned about bean to bar just a few months ago, when Geri gave me a slab of Pump Street's Sourdough & Sea Salt (a slow chew reveals the taste of warm buttered toast). We’ve since worked through their entire collection, and I reckon the Rye Crumb, Milk & Sea Salt is my second fave. London's Land was next, with their aptly named Malt Dark. More recently, Naz introduced us to Dandelion's outstanding craft chocolate produced in the US and Japan: their Hacienda Azul conjures the flavour of toffee, caramel and crackers from only cacao and sugar. Danish beer lords Mikkeller are also on the case with Bean Geeks; the Single Estate Guatemala is on a par with Dandelion’s Kokoa Kamili in terms of deep, fruity magic.
This chocolatey backstory is necessary because it’s chocolate that led us to Suffolk, a county neither of us had visited before (at least, I don’t recall a visit or even passing through). We knew that Pump Street Chocolate was the product of a famed bakery, so we looked up the location, discovering it to be… nowhere near anywhere. More specifically, it’s in the small village of Orford on the Suffolk coast, a good few hours from here. Well, maybe one day.
I slept on it, then woke on it and hit the Interwebs. I found a stunning Airbnb close to Orford castle and the village centre. It was available for Geri’s birthday, and I booked it. And so, we’ve just returned from three days organising our activities around the opening and closing times of a small village bakery.
We made sure to arrive before 4pm closing and made straight for our reward: toasted hot cross buns and the justifiably celebrated hot chocolate topped with enormous floating cuboid marshmallowberg. Only then did we check in to our Airbnb for a relaxing evening. Saturday morning began with a Pump Street breakfast: better-than-expected flatties and eggs and avocado skillets with buttered sourdough. Brains caffeinated and tums full, we wandered down to the quay. As the ness is still closed for the season, we opted for a leisurely drive between Orford and Aldeburgh (or, as Geri prefers, "Chris Aldeburgh").
It is new to me, this landscape. I’ve some familiarity with Cambridgeshire and the fens, but I wasn’t sure what to expect of Suffolk. Initially, it seemed mostly to be pleasant but unspectacular arable land punctuated by yellow fields of rapeseed and sprawling pig farms. Always, it was under enormous blue skies with little fluffy clouds. Sometimes we’d glimpse heathland beyond the telltale splashes of yellow gorse. I think the marsh is where it’s at; the way close proximity to reed beds seem to foreshorten the landscape, drastically reducing the distance to the horizon. With a sea of reed crowns at eye level it feels as though the land is stitched to the sky right in front of us. I know that if we had more time we’d find broad expanses of heath and marsh along the coast.
By the river, there’s an opportunity to really see the distance in the landscape. It has infinity to it, an openness that clears the mind. In the foreground, the reeds glow; reflecting golden edges in the shimmer of the Alde. It is said that to walk through Suffolk is to “walk through sound”. The whisper of the reeds, the call of the curlew, the trickle of water. As Simon Jenkins suggests, “It is not a place of dramatic hills and vistas, rather the slow accumulation of sensory enchantment.”
I knew nothing about famous British composer Benjamin Britten, but that afternoon we were in his footsteps, unconsciously connected to several vital chapters in his life: the town of Aldeburgh and the classical music festival he founded; his vision for Snape Maltings concert venue; the paths he trod between the marshes and the sea; the unique landscape with its big skies, wading birds and stirring sounds that inspired so much of his work. It’s only on returning home that I’ve Googled all this stuff and realised that much of what we saw connects to and through Britten.
One of the many nobody cares skills that I'm unable to monetise is my ability to spot a bird of prey from very far away. I might have been a sparrow or shrew in a previous life. Every so often I’ll mistake a pigeon for a peregrine (in flight they have a similar ‘flap’) or a crow for a buzzard, but usually, we’ll get closer, and I’ll be right. While driving or without binoculars, I mightn’t get the exact species, but I sure do know a raptor when I see one.
We were watching godwits probing the tidal mud banks when I first saw something hovering over the marshes north of the Alde — probably too big for a kestrel, but also too far away to be sure. I glimpsed it again from the craft shop window; closer now, banking in the wind, and definitely no falcon. Back outside, I could see a pair swooping low over the reeds, so we walked along the bank and onto the path that traces the reedbeds, parallel with the concert hall.
The two birds had just been mobbed by a crow but were now flying unhindered, their wings often in a shallow V. I didn’t have my binoculars to hand, but I was satisfied enough to make a claim. “Geri, I think they’re marsh harriers.”
I’d noticed a couple of women watching the same birds from further up the path. I wanted confirmation, and have also been trying to push myself to engage strangers lately, so as they approached I asked their opinion. They were happy to chat and stood with us, confirming the sighting and that it was indeed a pair. I was thrilled that they offered us a closer look through their powerful bins, and we watched the birds swooping low over the reeds against a brilliant blue sky. The birds were completely at ease in the wind, dipping in and out of slipstreams and entirely focused on the reeds below. With enhanced vision, I could see their faces, their talons, their dark wing tips; occasionally a swoop would reveal the paler crown feathers. Eventually, something caught the eye of one bird, and both dropped into the reeds and out of view.
Marsh harriers had been on my list since I was a kid, but as a carless family, our experience of these East coast habitats was limited to two backseat day trips around the Norfolk Broads. Harriers were a genuine UK rarity, and in the 1970s only a single breeding pair remained, but now, mostly thanks to careful habitat management, there are around 400 breeding pairs. I was incredibly chuffed to see one of those pairs and immensely grateful to the birders who let me get a closer look. Had it not been Geri’s birthday and the wind so icy cold, I might have wandered off up the river in search of the avocets the birders reported seeing earlier.
We had a wonderful, lazy time in Suffolk. We enjoyed rhubarb doughnuts and gibassier (a big french pastry flavoured with orange peel and anise). We devoured “Angels on horseback”, sizeable sea bass and creamy fish pie at Butley Orford Oysterage. We found bean to bar gelato in Aldeburgh. We spent a few hours by the sea at Southwold, finishing with delicious fish and chips. In between, we lounged around our lovely Airbnb, throwing tunes from Sonos to Sonos and sneaking squares of Hot Cross Bun-flavoured chocolate.
I’ve returned home with thoughts of vast new landscapes. I’m usually lusting after hills and mountains, but today I’m imagining whispering grasses, golden reflections and fluffy white clouds. I’m thinking about meandering rivers and the promise of new birds; I’m reading about curious places and the routes that connect them; the people, and history. I am also thinking of hot chocolate and rhubarb doughnuts. I might have to go back to Suffolk with my boots and binoculars, and I think that might be soon. I might also burn off as many calories as possible beforehand.