Pastimes: A walk on the wildlife side

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The Independent Online
Taking in marsh harriers and ghostly churches, Emma Haughton takes a walk through the solitary landscape of Suffolk.

This seven-mile walk hasn't the advantage of being circular, but what it lacks in convenience it amply compensates for in diversity and beauty. The countryside, part of the 150-square-mile Suffolk Coasts and Heaths area of outstanding natural beauty, is unfailingly serene and a sanctuary for many kinds of wildlife.

One way or another, get yourself to the small, attractive Suffolk village of Westleton. In spring, the village pond next to the pub chokes with impossibly cute brown and yellow ducklings. At whatever time of year, though, take some bread and you'll instantly find yourself the irresistible object of ducky affection. When you have had enough (they never will), head up the green and along the Blythburgh road towards Southwold; just outside the village a footpath on your right marked to St Helena takes you down a grassy track towards Dunwich forest.

When you intersect the dirt track, turn left, then right diagonally through the pine forest. Head towards Rookyard wood across sandy paths littered with pine needles and fir cones, then turn right at the large track and walk until you see a sign for Walberswick Nature Reserve. The path stretches through lovely woods of birch, holly, oak and chestnut, passing an inexplicably abandoned railway carriage; when it narrows to a fork, turn sharp left towards Sandy Lane farm (you'll know it from the flock of noisy geese) and continue until you hit the Dunwich road.

If you're hungry, Dunwich provides the perfect detour. The Ship Inn serves a range of hot meals, but the fish and chips at the Flora Tea Rooms on the seafront are legendary. Coachloads of visitors flock to this undistinguished black clapboard building for enormous fresh cod, haddock and plaice (pounds 4.95), skyscraper sundaes in every flavour, and wonderful home-made jammy doughnuts. Eat inside, and enjoy a veritable kingdom of kitsch; the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with garish tea-towels of every description.

Dunwich museum charts the rise and fall of this now diminutive village, once the largest port in East Anglia, with 12 churches. The violent storm of 1328 and relentless coastal erosion eventually claimed the churches and 1,350 houses; at low tide you can sometimes see the remains of All Saints church, which fell into the sea in 1919.

Alternatively, turn left up the road, then left again into the pebbly bridleway at Bridge Farm. Through the occasional gaps in the hedgerows you can look past cows grazing on Dingle marshes towards Dunwich beach. Keep on for a mile or so, cutting through Fowburrow Wood and down towards the sea.

Once through Sandymount Covert, follow the footpath on to Walberswick marshes, skirting Dingle Great Hill (more of a hillock), until the path meets Dunwich River. Keep going past the disused windmill, hop over the stile, and take the first right through the reeds. If you get lost, head towards Walberswick spire in the distance.

Don't forget to take a break and absorb the sounds of this solitary landscape, the incessant swish of the reeds and distant waves on the beach. These marshes shelter a number of rare birds, including the bearded tit, found in only a few places in Britain, and the majestic marsh harrier, sometimes seen circling in the sky above the reedbeds.

Bear right uphill above the marshes, and through the fields and lanes leading to Walberswick Church. Church Lane takes you past the ruins of the 15th-century tower, once a monument to the prosperity of this small fishing village. Cut right behind the houses until you meet the Tarmac track leading to Southwold; on your left you'll see a seat commemorating the site of Walberswick station, the penultimate stop on the narrow gauge line from Halesworth to Southwold that was abandoned in 1929.

You'll follow part of the route of the old railway as you pass through Walberswick common, once used for grazing sheep and cattle, now overgrown with gorse, bracken and heather, and over the bridge across the River Blyth, with its cluster of yachts and fishing boats. As you push on through Woodsend and Busscreek marshes, the giant concrete water tower looms ever larger, superimposed on the cheerful town of Southwold, its spire and stumpy white lighthouse unfailingly romantic in any weather.

Turn right towards Southwold common, cutting across the golf course and bypassing the water tower, until you reach the outskirts of this genteel resort. Southwold offers many good places to eat, but none beating The Crown (roasted peppers and vegetable risotto with sweet pepper dressing, casserole of local beef and sun-dried tomato mash, and baked trout fillet with canton spices, are typical offerings for pounds 8). But the heart of the town is the Adnams brewery (hence the ubiquitous smell of hops), and wherever you go you can be sure of a pint of Broadside.

This walk can be followed on Ordnance Survey Pathfinder maps 966 and 987.

The 167 bus service runs from Southwold to Westleton on Sundays and public holidays at 12.55pm and 3.55pm. A taxi will cost you pounds 9 with A to B Taxis (01 502 722111) or Southwold Shuttle (01502 725073).

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