the website for Hollesley,
Boyton, Capel St Andrew
and Shingle Street

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    1.    History of the Sandlings
    2.   Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)
    3.   Farming in the AONB
    4.   The Sandlings Forest
    5.   Heathlands
    6.   The Sandlings Coast
    7.   The Estuaries
    8.   Sandlings Wildlife
    9.   The Sandlings in Wartime
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The old names of Sandlings and Sandlands are grimly accurate. Geology was not kind to the inhabitants of the area: sands and gravels derived from the outwash from melting ice sheets covered much of east Suffolk, followed much later by thick layers of shelly soils: the Red Crag deposits. When the climate warmed following the end of the last Ice Age, primeval forest colonised Britain and covered most of Suffolk. The trees were slowly thrust back by the Neolithic farmers who came to Britain from the Continent over 4,000 years ago. Some of Suffolk's most ancient archaeological sites include the world-famous Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, and the burial sites at Snape and Burrow Hill. After centuries of grazing, burning and then more grazing, the thin, acid soil lost its fertility and its trees, and heather and gorse heathland developed first in patches, and then in great swathes between Ipswich and Southwold. For centuries, local people in small and scattered communities have made the best of what is still acknowledged to be a difficult place to farm, due to the sandy, infertile soil that even now is notorious for blowing away. Today, the hamlets and villages are relatively prosperous in comparison, but they are still small, and still linked closely to the land.

   The Sandlings coast is split by large estuaries, which in past centuries made it difficult to travel the length of the 
   coast, unless by boat.  Historically, this has proved to be the saving of the region, because the wide rivers and adjacent 
   marshes prevented the construction of a coast road that inevitably would have brought development in its wake.

   The uncluttered coast, estuaries, farmland, sweeping forest and heathland is of high scenic value, and in 1969 it was 
   designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) that stretches in a single, great block along the coast from 
   Bawdsey to Kessingland, with southerly outliers along the estuaries of the Orwell and Stour rivers.  The estuaries of the 
   Deben, Alde, Butley, Ore and Blyth rivers lie entirely within the AONB.  The feeling of wild remoteness survives within 
   its boundaries, and it is obvious that here at least nature is undefeated.  Although improper development has been 
   controlled, this is not a museum landscape, but one that is dynamic and closely bound to the working seasons of the 
   livestock and arable farms in the area.  The Sandlings AONB is dramatic.  The huge sky, soaring gulls, dark lines of 
   distant pines, golden gorse in the spring, the sandy fields, cattle-grazed marshes and the solitude of shingle beaches 
   washed by North Sea waves are memories you will take away, and ensure your return.


   By medieval times, most of the rural population in Suffolk lived on the heavier, more productive Boulder Clay lands of 
   High Suffolk, west of today's A12 trunk road.  East of that line, the acid, arid and infertile soils of the Sandlings 
   ensured the population was sparsely scattered in farms, hamlets and small villages.  Farming was hard, but there was 
   extensive cultivation of corn, and a large part of the wealth of medieval Suffolk was generated by large flocks of sheep 
   that grazed the heaths: unlike cattle, they require little water, and do well on the wiry grass and heather.  By grazing the 
   sheep on heathland by day, and then close-folding them overnight on adjacent arable fields, farmers managed to maintain 
   the fertility of their fields for crops.

   The Sandlings landscape we see today was born in the 18th and 19th centuries, through the enclosures of open fields 
   and heathland, and the planting of hedges, pine plantations and woodlands to enhance the landscape and also as cover 
   for game.  It was a time of prosperity through agricultural innovation.

   Farming suffered a severe reverse in the late 19th century, and areas of cultivated farmland reverted to their heathland 
   origins: by the 1920's, landowners were selling heathland and derelict farmland to the Forestry Commission.  Large 
   coniferous forests were planted to ensure that never again would island Britain have inadequate home grown timber 
   stocks in wartime.  Farming rebounded following World War 2.  With improved agricultural technology and government 
   encouragement, large areas of heathland and coastal grazing marshes were converted into arable land. 
Sandlings Farmland
Sandlings Crop
   Today, visitors will notice field crops of potatoes, onions, carrots, sugar beet, oats and barley, and 
   also turf farms, flocks of sheep and many pig farms have their miniature Nissan huts.  Beef and
   dairy cattle graze on the marshes with horses and ponies.  Some crops succeed only because they 
   are irrigated daily by giant overhead watering systems that span hundreds of metres.  Hollesley is 
   home to the Suffolk Punch Trust stud.  This magnificent heavy horse originated in Suffolk (photo
   right) and can be seen in paddocks and pastures on many farms.  Other iconic Suffolk farm animal
   breeds in the famed Suffolk Trinity are Suffolk Sheep and the dark red, hornless Redpoll Cattle.
Saddleback Pigs
The Suffolk Punch horse

   German U-boats very nearly achieved a stranglehold on Britain during World War 1, and our reliance on imported timber 
   was thrust into the spotlight.   Britain's forests were simply inadequate to supply the nation with what it needed, and so 
   the Forestry Commission was created in 1921 to create timber resources for the nation from new forests.
   At that time, farming was in recession, and landowners were eager to sell poor, semi-derelict farm-
   land and heathland to the Commission.  Large areas of poor, sandy soil in the Sandlings region of 
   Suffolk were eventually planted and today they have grown into atmospheric pine forests at Dunwich,
   Tunstall and Rendlesham (see photo).  They are far smaller than the 80 square miles Thetford
   Forest that was planted about the same time on the blowing Breckland sands of northwest Suffolk
   and west Norfolk, but they make a bold statement as landscape features, and are fine for many
   forms of recreation, as well as being of great value to forest wildlife. 
Rendlesham Forest


   Heather, gorse or bracken once covered most of the Sandlings region.  Centuries of enclosures, conversion to farmland, 
   fragmentation by roads, housing developments and the construction of vast military airfields has left us with just a few 
   swathes of heathland large enough to support wildlife that can exist nowhere else.  Upper and Lower Hollesley Commons 
   are fine examples of large surviving heathlands that support heathland wildlife species such as the attractive silver-
   studded blue butterfly, woodlark, stonechat, Dartford warbler, nightjar and hobby.  Fallow, red, roe and muntjac deer 
   also live on heathland in the Sandlings, together with a very great number of small, creeping creatures called 
   invertebrates: they exist in huge numbers, and include insects.  Most are dependent on heather or other heath vegetation, 
   and very many are predatory.  They are an important food source - especially for birds and small mammals.

   Heathland was once valued by Commoners - local people who lived nearby and exercised their rights to graze livestock 
   on the heaths, or to cut gorse, bracken or wood.  These activities, reinforced by wildfire, kept the heathlands open and 
   largely free of trees.  Today, occasional fires and grazing by rabbits are not enough to stop woodland invading the 
   heaths: once a heath becomes covered with trees, it is only a matter of time before its special wildlife disappears and is 
   replaced by woodland wildlife.  To keep heathlands in their best condition it is necessary to control invading woodland, 
   by physically cutting down the young trees and ideally introducing grazing animals like sheep, goats or ponies that will 
   eat the tree seedlings.
Sandlings heathland

   The last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, and the North Sea was created. Rising waters of the young sea penetrated 
   far inland up river valleys to form the great estuaries that are a feature of our coast, whilst tides have mounted a 
   twice-daily frontal assault on the soft Suffolk coastline that will continue for as long as the North Sea exists.  As the 
   soft cliffs dissolve, stones within them fall into the waves and become part of the ceaseless process called Longshore 
   Drift, where stones are gradually moved down the coast by wave action and tidal currents.  Visitors can see the latest 
   progress of the stones by standing on the beach at wonderful Shingle Street or nearby Bawdsey, which is at the shingle-
   clogged mouth of the Deben.  If you are lucky, you may find amber amongst the stones.  Looking north up the coast, you 
   will see Orford Ness with the red and white lighthouse at its tip.  The Ness is described as the largest accumulation of 
   vegetated shingle in Europe, and it is very, very old.  The shingle on the beaches appears to be barren, but in July a 
   million beautiful wild flowers create an artist's palette in the  windswept wilderness.   The stones have had a profound 
   effect on the rivers of the Sandlings, by blocking their exit into the sea and forcing them to turn north or south to find 
   a way past the shingle banks. 
   The most famous lost town in Britain lies tumbled beneath the grey waters of the North Sea off the Suffolk coast.  The 
   houses, streets, churches, market place, inns, warehouses, quay and harbour of Dunwich are all famously gone forever.  
   It was a centuries-long, heart-breaking battle with the sea, with an inevitable conclusion.  Not far away, half of 
   Aldeburgh also lies on the seabed: the surviving half is a delight to visit in all seasons.  Sizewell, just up the coast, is now 
   best known for its two - soon to be three - nuclear reactors.  Even though it was wrong to site it on our superb coast, the 
   giant golf ball shape of Sizewell B has a strange beauty.  Minsmere Nature Reserve, Dunwich Heath, Walberswick, 
   Southwold, Thorpeness and Kessingland stretch northwards along the coast: all lie within the AONB, and each is very 
   different, and very attractive to visit.  Between these gems are mile upon mile of uninhabited farmland, seawall, shingle 
   beach and grazing marsh full of the sound of waves, the sound of birds, and the sound of solitude. 
Mouth of the Deben

   The five estuaries of Suffolk are the natural glories of the coast.  They were all formed when the rising waters of the 
   young North Sea crept inland, flooding coastal river valleys and turning them into inlets of the sea.  All are 
   characterised by mud, seawalls, salt marshes, mudflats, reclaimed grazing marshes and wading birds and wildfowl 
   attracted by the solitude and the food that is so abundant for them.  In Saxon days the inlets were on a truly vast scale, 
   with the sea reaching far inland, and many small islands of slightly higher ground.  From earliest times, the estuaries 
   were an important food source of fish and wildfowl; salt, reed for thatching, and for trade and transport in ages when 
   land travel between communities was long and difficult.  In the car-fixated 21st century, we admire the estuaries for 
   their beauty and their wildlife, but regard them as a barrier.  It's a long drive from Bawdsey Ferry to Old Felixstowe 
   on the opposite shore of the Deben ! 

   Saltmarsh and mudflats make fine, fertile farmland when separated from the sea, and the first reclamations were made 
   perhaps 1,000 years ago.  From about 1650 AD, the fluctuating, prolonged deterioration in Britain's climate known as the 
   Little Ice Age resulted in a lower sea level, and acted as a spur to landowners to reclaim much more land from the sea.  
   It is calculated that over 10,000 ha of saltmarsh and mudflats have been converted to farmland, marinas, dock facilities 
   or other uses in Suffolk.
   It has always been hard for Suffolk's rivers.  The ceaseless progression of Longshore Drift moves shingle southwards
   along the Suffolk coast.  Repeatedly in history, storms have left harbours choked by shingle, offshore shingle banks 
   have suddenly emerged from the sea, and the mouths of rivers have been blocked by the overwhelming stones.  The most 
   dramatic example is the River Alde, which is forced south at Slaughden Quay, (just 100m from the sea) by the great 
   barrier of Orford Ness: the river flows for a further nine miles before finally escaping into the sea at Shingle Street.  
   At Bawdsey, only the force of the surging tidal current across the notorious bar in the constricted Deben river mouth 
   keep the river on its present course. 
   Each of the five large estuaries (Stour, Orwell, Deben, Alde/Ore, Blyth) is very obvious on the map, and has its own 
   special character and 'feel.'  Locked away in its own hidden and lost world, the tiny Butley river struggles to emerge 
   from a vast reedbed and then flows into the Ore (which itself is the enforced southern extension of the River Alde, 
   but with a new name !). 
Deben River Traffic
Barge on the Alde


   If rooks like a piece of countryside, then it is likely to be good for other wildlife as well.  The farmland in the 
   Sandlings has lots of rooks, and lots of livestock.  The two are linked: sterile arable fields have little to offer birds 
   in the way of food, whilst pastures with sheep, cattle and horses are quite different.  The area within a short drive of 
   Hollesley and the other Website villages offers one of the most varied wildlife experiences in Suffolk.  Farmland, 
   heathland, pine forest, grazing marsh, saltmarsh and the sea can all be enjoyed in a single walk.  Depending upon the 
   season and the weather, you will see swathes of purple heathland rich in insects in summer, including the rare silver-
   studded blue butterfly, and the grayling.  Watch - and listen - for the display flights of soaring, singing woodlarks.  
   Scan areas of old heather for the dark-flitting shapes of Dartford warblers, and the bolt upright singing stonechats.  
   Come back at dusk and you will be surrounded by the weird churring of invisible nightjars (see photo left).

   It's an easy walk from Hollesley to the sea at Shingle Street.  In spring, the lane passes beneath a raucous rookery, 
   and then crosses a tidal creek to wander through grass pastures that were saltmarshes until they were reclaimed a 
   long time ago.  In autumn and winter, the long grass and the reedy dykes are a great hunting habitat for marsh harriers, 
   long-eared owls and barn owls.  The sward of short, rabbit-grazed grass near the cottages is a good place to study 
   insects and lichens in summer, when the sea of stones on the beach is a riot of colourful flowers.  Valerian, sea pea, 
   yellow-horned poppy, sea kale and sea campion flourish in the shingle: it's a tough environment, but the flowers have 
   evolved ways to survive.  In the breeding season, the adjacent Orford Ness has thousands of pairs of nesting herring 
   gulls and lesser black-backed gulls.  In all seasons, the extreme tip of the Ness usually has gulls and cormorants, and 
   small offshore shingle islands that are exposed at low tide attract basking seals in winter. 
   The cool, shaded pine forests are better in the summer.  You can walk or cycle for miles on sign-posted, purpose-built 
   tracks.  Sunlit clearings, rides and ponds are sure to have interesting wildlife.  Watch out for the dark, gliding white 
   admiral butterfly near honeysuckle and bramble flowers, and the darting, jewel-like dragonflies whirring around the 
   forest ponds.  Deer love the dark depths of the forests by day, and emerge at night - often to raid gardens in Hollesley 
   and other villages !   The forests at Tunstall, Dunwich and Rendlesham are sunny, full of life and very welcoming to 

   For a completely different summer wildlife experience, how about visiting one of the small Sandlings churchyards, 
   where wild flowers, birds and insects find refuge from the 21st Century?  Ramsholt churchyard is near Alderton and 
   Bawdsey, and overlooks the river Deben.  Suffolk Wildlife Trust has surveyed the churchyard wildlife and declared 
   it a Wildlife Sanctuary.

   In autumn and winter, a walk on any seawall at low tide is great, with lots of wading birds and wildfowl on one side, 
   and waterbirds and farmland species in the reeds along the borrowdykes on the other.  You can walk all day along the 
   coastline, or follow the estuaries inland.  The acid, sandy soils of the Sandlings fields, lanes and tracks may be 
   difficult to farm, but it is fine for the wide variety of wild flowers that you will see.  Check your map for old Crag 
   pits: they are great for  wild plants.

   Farther afield, there are renowned nature reserves at Minsmere, Walberswick, Dunwich Heath and Westleton Heath. 
   Shingle Street and the heathland on Hollesley's doorstep are both Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), 
   whilst the RSPB has nature reserves at Boyton Marshes and Grove Farm marshes.

   Staverton Thicks - one of oldest and best preserved ancient deer parks in Britain - lies about four miles from Hollesley.
Yellow Horned Poppy
   9.   THE SANDLINGS IN WARTIME (photos of airfield, pillbox, heathland landing strip etc. to follow).

   It's hard now for most of us to imagine the tension and fear that gripped Britain in the last World War, but the people 
   who went through it will never forget.  The Sandlings coast has no high cliffs or other natural defences to repel a sea-
   borne enemy, whilst the gently rolling farmland inland would pose few problems to invaders. Just across the North Sea 
   lay German-occupied Europe: the Suffolk coast was simultaneously seen as a weak point in Britain's defences, and a 
   potential spring board from which we could launch aerial attacks on the enemy, and defend ourselves from formations 
   of their aircraft coming in over the sea.

   In the Sandlings, the declaration of war with Germany in 1939 saw the region designated as a Defence Area: all 
   signposts were removed, beaches were mined and wired off, and the movement of people was restricted and monitored 
   by special Auxiliary Units.  Populations were compulsorily removed from Shingle Street and Sudbourne to allow military 
   experiments and battle training in preparation for D-Day.  The rolling, open spaces of heathland at Hollesley, Sutton 
   and Dunwich were ideal for troop and tank training.  Because they were also inviting as landing areas for enemy gliders, 
   long ditches were excavated in them that can still be seen today.  'Decoy' airfields were constructed on heaths and 
   farmland to mislead German photo reconnaissance aircraft.
   Justifying the American view of East Anglia as an unsinkable aircraft carrier, many airfields were 
   constructed in a very short time.  One of the largest was RAF Sutton Heath, between Woodbridge and 
   Hollesley.  It was one of three Emergency Runways built specifically to receive fighter and bomber 
   planes returning from missions with damage, or low fuel problems.  The site chosen was in the middle of 
   Tangham and Rendlesham Forests.  Relatively fog-free, close to the coast, with an unobstructed approach 
   over a sparsely populated area, the site was ideal - but for the one million trees that had to be cleared 
   first!  Built with the nightmare scenario in mind of several damaged aircraft crash-landing in a single 
   incident, the new airfield was 5,000 yards long, with three alternative parallel runways.  The vital FIDO 
   fog-dispersal technique was developed here.  When war ended, over 4,000 Allied aircraft - and one 
   German Junkers - had made emergency landings, saving many thousands of lives.  Other airfields in the 
   Sandlings region included RAF Bentwaters and Martlesham Heath.
RAF Woodbridge
   The development of RADAR at Orford Ness was a huge step.  Later development took place at Bawdsey.  When you visit 
   East Lane at Bawdsey and look out across the grey waves to what was once German-occupied Holland, you are standing 
   on the roof of a massive, sealed concrete gun emplacement.  In the summer, swallows flit in and out of the slits of what 
   must be the most secure nest box in Britain.   Nearby, you can see the Martello Tower built during another era when the 
   Sandlings - and Britain - was again under threat from a sea-borne invasion.  Look north along Hollesley Bay to the 
   coastguard cottages at Shingle Street.  Something happened here in 1940 that was a closely guarded secret at the time, 
   and has inspired books, articles and arguments ever since.  The 'Bodies  on the Beach' saga is a wartime mystery of the 
   Sandlings that may never be explained.
Martello Tower, Bawdsey