Julie Garton studied at the University of Essex, the Central School of Speech and Drama and Dartington College of Arts. Her professional background is in theatre. She has written plays for young audiences for, amongst others, the Unicorn Theatre for Children, Roundabout and Yorkshire Women Theatre as well as for Children’s TV. She has recently written Walking St Clement’s, inspired by the history of St Clement’s hospital in Ipswich. Julie teaches Creative Writing in London.


We approach the sea from the lane where a thatched-roofed church has been built beside the ruined tower of St Andrew’s church – a marker for ships since medieval times. The lane leads us along a field towards the cliffs, where suddenly the land falls away into nothing.

When the tower of St Andrew’s was built this tiny hamlet, situated 5 miles north of the genteel resort of Southwold, was a prosperous little town. But over hundreds of years Covehithe, as it is now known, has been victim to severe coastal erosion. These cliffs, whose ragged edge we are standing on, are made of loam and clay – materials which have offered little resistance to the might of the North Sea tides.

We pick up a rough track along the cliff top and follow it until it slopes down into a ravine – a breach in the cliffs – where it trails away altogether into the soft, pale sand on the beach. The shore is littered with debris – great slugs of concrete; worn bricks and chunks of smashed pebbledash. We find half of an enamel sink and where the land resumes at the other side of the ravine, loose pipes, the remains of some collapsed shelter, or military installation, dangle from the cliff face.

Another marker of how far the land has retreated here are the trees. The bare branches of those closest to the cliff edge stand out against the grey skyline and where the cliffs have given way, they have fallen onto the shore, or been washed along the coast by the tide. Limbs lay prone across the lines of shingle; broken stumps jut out of the wind blown sand and branches lay in tangled heaps, their greyness conjuring up images of old bones. It’s as if the sea has pounded away at the land to uncover the remains of the earth itself.

It is a bitterly cold afternoon. The fierce wind blows sideways across the beach, spraying us with loose sand. We walk against it, along a strip of beach which will soon cease to exist. I think of the missing land, of those lost towns and villages that once stood along this eastern edge of England, whose remains lay beneath the water, engulfed by the sea.

 March, 2012

Butley Creek

At Butley Creek, close to the place where in the summer months a ferry links Butley with Gedgrave, we find ourselves walking along a grassy ridge which follows the gentle curve of the water’s edge. These river walls were built to defend the low-lying land from the high tides and surges which gather out in the North Sea. Although they are not always shown on the maps, they are a boon to walkers such as ourselves, providing vantage points from which to survey the lie of the surrounding land.

It can take a while for the eye to become attuned to flat landscapes. Along the eastern coast of England I have sometimes had moments of confusion between what is water and land and sky: one appears to reflect the others; or they seem to merge in the hazy light of the horizon. Here by this lonely creek, where the land is kept drained by ditches fringed with reeds, few landmarks stand over the height of a few feet. Those we come across – farmhouses, hedgerows, gates, a mast, a concrete bunker left over from the war – are man-made, and we use them to help us get our bearings.

Looking east, we make out the former laboratories on Orford Ness, the shape-shifting spit of shingle that lies just off the coast, the sleepy River Ore to one side of it, the vociferous North Sea to the other. Up until the 1970s, the island was used as a Ministry of Defence weapons testing facility but is now a nature reserve, its crumbling laboratories, or ‘Pagodas’ as they are known, relics of the island’s grim past. From where we are standing, they appear stranded in the milky light, like a mirage.

May 2012