7.30 a.m. on Saturday 8th March with a grey overcast and a moderate SSE wind.
Ten members of Deben RC gathered in Eversons boatyard to travel to Orford. For most, the event was initiation into cruising under oars with the object of exploration and adventure in good company.
The rush of the grey ebbing waters of the Ore and the bleak chill of the wind off the cold sea was very different from our home on the Deben with its pastoral banks and the moderate tidal stream. The Ore is really a fast flowing tidal channel between a marshy alluvial plain on the edge of the Suffolk Sandlings and the massive shingle spit stretching from Aldeburgh in the North to Shingle Street at the river mouth. The bleak and windswept spit or ‘Island’ as known locally; has an eerie, sinister beauty only partly due to the remains of mysterious buildings the legacy of Britain’s atomic bomb project.
The rushing ebb bore us away into a chill wind and a grey salty haze. Down we went with a fast tide under us: through the moorings of Orford, past the aptly named Stony Ditch and into the ‘Narrows’ at Cuckolds Point where the river divides in two. ‘Narrows’ is the channel between the Island and the Internationally renowned RSPB reserve of Havergate. The origin of ‘Cuckolds Point’ is left to the imagination.
The internationally renowned birds were absent except for a disinterested curlew and a few gulls. However, the waters of the Narrows were smooth and my crew brightened up as it appeared the cruise was survivable.
The South end of Havergate is ‘Dove Point’ where the two streams of the Ore unite in ‘Long Reach’. Under the steep shingle banks of the Island the water remained smooth and our brisk sculling soon brought us to within sight and sound of the roaring maelstrom around the shingle knolls of the entrance.
The Voyage Plan expected the tide to be at slack low water but 2 knots of ebb persisted for another hour after prediction, probably as a result of the small rise and fall of only 3.6 metres on that day.
After a consultation between crews it was decided to approach the entrance with caution to experience a little of the frightening and inexorable power of thousands of tons of water boiling over uncountable millions of pebbles. We would let the boats sense the uneasiness of the mighty ocean. We looked and wondered then turned and worked up into the last of the ebb to approach the Island at ‘Weir Point’. The name is well deserved!
Each tide the shingle structure of Weir Point is sculpted into hollows and cliffs of pebbles artfully poised where a ripple can start a trickle and a trickle becomes an avalanche. Blind chaos produces subtle arrangements of form and beauty with curves of mathematical precision, only for them to be destroyed and re-made twice daily.
We landed with caution as the pebble beach was hard, but steep and plunging into deep water. Soon we were all ashore on our desert island with the boats pulled up for safety.
Orford Island is an unusual habitat in that there is no soil and every plant is adapted to salt laden air with roots in dry shingle and the desiccation of the east winds. The shoots of Sea-Kale were emerging but the Sea-Holly, Sea-Pea and Thrift were yet to appear.
The knolls (islands of shingle) in the various streams of the river mouth were black with thousands of cormorants. This huge number of birds indicates the abundance of small fish passing over the shallow channels to make an easy meal. Among the cormorants were gulls of many varieties. Not so long ago, the island had been a roost and nesting ground for gulls in their hundreds of thousands, but through disturbance and discouragement from conservationists who prefer avocets, many now live on the roofs of buildings instead.
Our crews walked over the Island to view the sea and the great sweep of Hollesley Bay but the grey haze in the brisk SSE wind made the lighthouse invisible.
Back on the river with flood setting in, we were swept upstream past the old Colonial College. There, where young men were trained to cultivate our Empire, the site has been turned into a prison. Passing that the place I wonder if the prisoners in their austere confinement stare through the tiny windows and envy our freedom.
Up Long Reach to Havergate we took the landward channel of ‘The Gull’. Halfway up the Gull is the hidden entrance of the Butley River marked by nothing more than a ‘withy’, a branch stuck in the mud. The river is narrow but ideal for sculling boats as the twists, turns and the slow tidal stream makes for calm water. The crews sculled without rest until our keels grounded some half mile above Gedgrave.
We turned our boats and dropped back down past the oyster beds and smoke houses of Gedgrave with the intention of landing on the Butley/Gedgrave ferry jetty. However, the late tide had failed to reach the lower end of the staging. Our crew would not be deterred and Andreas in bow seat heroically floundered through the deep mud to help us all ashore over the bows. The fun was not without incident as one of our number with his boots firmly anchored in the ooze, staggered and sat down with mud and water up to his waist.
The other boat, after exploring the landing possibilities at Boyton Dock (a ridiculously grand name for a brick shed beside a little wall) followed our example and soon all ten of us were ashore to eat our well deserved picnic lunch sheltered from the wind. There, certain persons made themselves known for their snoring.
‘Burrow Hill’ is a large grassy hill of regular shape with steeply sloping sides. The hill is around twenty metres above chart datum and set in the flat plain of the Butley river near to the ferry. The geological feature provides panoramic views of the Butley river, the lower reaches of the Ore, Orford Island and far away to seaward. We all climbed to the flat brow of the hill for the view and inspection of the remains of the Iron Age community who had once lived there protected by the surrounding marshes.
Back at the boats the making of the tide had been sufficient for us to board easily from the jetty. Leaving Butley river and entering the Ore at the ‘Bosom of Abraham’ the boats were swept up by the strong tide and hurried along towards Orford. The ‘Bosom of Abraham’ as marked on sea charts, is a very sheltered part of the Gull channel where the banks slope steeply to very deep water (more than ten metres at low tide). I like to imagine the age of sail when fleets of barges, collier brigs and ketches may have lain safe on the Bosom of Abraham while waiting for a fair wind.
The two quads were pulling well for the last leg of our adventure and appeared to have enough energy left for ‘full pressure’. I am sorry to have to admit that despite my stern warnings against racing there was enough energy left for a thousand metre test. Neither boat showed a clear advantage so we calmed down for a more dignified progress through the Orford moorings and completion of our tour. Many thanks to Jonathon and his Landrover. Thanks also to Orford Town Trust who kindly allowed us to park the trailer and tow vehicle without charge.