Bawdsey Quay – a gem along the Suffolk Coast

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Want to get away from it all? Bawdsey could be your answer. Situated along the Suffolk coast, this out of the way place where the river Deben meets the sea has long been frequented by vanlifers who wild camp on the riverside. We’ve done it ourselves, but things are changing…

On this page we’ll tell you why we love Bawdsey – even though its the place of our biggest van life disaster – and report on the latest changes to parking along the riverbank and why this might spell the end of wild camping…

VW T4 in silhouette at Bawdsey

How to get to Bawdsey

Bawdsey is a tiny village on the Suffolk coast where the river Deben meets the north sea.

If you’re coming via the main A12 route past Ipswich and Woodbridge, you’ll take the A1152 signposted Melton and Orford. Then, once through Melton you’ll join the B1083 heading toward the famous archeological site of Sutton Hoo (which is well worth a visit).

If you want to head straight to Bawdsey continue on the B1083 for several miles, past Sutton Hoo and through the villages of Sutton and Alderton. With a couple of grocery stores on route, you can stock up on supplies. Within 25 minutes you’ll reach the village of Bawdsey and just a little further on, Bawdsey Quay.

Previously you could park here by the river or, if there were no spaces, drive on down to the quayside. However, come 2023 and the parking situation is changing…

Changes to parking at Bawdsey

During lockdown some motorhomes were parked along the riverbank for months on end (with some people living in their vans the whole time). Occupants of the houses became angry. Who could blame them? Would you want your picturesque view ruined by a row of 10-foot high motorhomes?

Arguments between local residents and vanlifers ensued and eventually many of the spaces were made unusable by the placement of upturned rowing boats, railway sleepers, and bollards.

The local council got involved and discussed the possibility of adding a few designated motorhome spaces to the main car park (on the left before you get to the riverside). This would either mean removing the current height barrier or creating new spaces for motorhomes in front of the barrier. At the time of writing, the height barrier is still in place and there are no spaces for motorhomes in the main car park.

As of April 2023 you can’t park along the riverbank either as this now resembles a building site. So, if you’re in a motorhome there’s no alternative but to park right down at the quay.

new parking rules along the river bank at Bawdsey. Is this the end of wild camping?
Parking changes at Bawdsey. Is this the end of wild camping by the river?

Wild camping at Bawdsey

Bawdsey had become a popular spot for wild camping over the last few years. There were always a few vans parked up overnight along the riverside, especially at weekends. We wild-camped here a number of times before the troubles began.

On one occasion we got speaking to a guy who had spent the whole of lockdown here in his van before heading off to Greece.

And we were shocked and saddened to hear of the death of another vanlifer. John Pelham – who also spent much of lockdown living here by the riverside – died in his van.

Although it’s long since gone, we took a picture at the time of a memorial made by other vanlifers to remember him.

R.I.P. John.

vanlifer, John Pulham's memorial at Bawdsey in Suffolk

Whatever the reasons for the changes to parking, we feel that vanlifers have drawn the short straw. This is happening mainly to stop wild camping by the riverside or at least regulate it in some way.

If we are still allowed to wild camp at Bawdsey after the work has been completed we’ll do it quietly and with respect to locals and the environment. This means no noisy parties, litter and camp-fires. However, we suspect that the dreaded ‘No Overnight Camping’ signs are sure to be erected.

We’ll keep you updated on this in our newsletter. We worried that wild camping at Bawdsey was a thing of the past. However we are informed that there are a couple of spaces at the far end where vans can still park up. We will be checking this out!

RELATED CONTENT: Read our top tips about wild camping in a motorhome

Bawdsey Manor Radar Museum

So, if wild camping is no longer possible here, what else is there to see and do in and around Bawdsey?

Just before you get to Bawdsey Quay, half a mile back, you will have seen signs to Bawdsey Manor. The manor was owned by the RAF during WWII until 1990. Its claim to fame is that it was the research station for the development of RADAR.

Several times a year Bawdsey Manor Museum opens to the public. If you want to find out more about RADAR and what was happening in this area during WWII it’s well worth a visit.

If you’d prefer to while away the time by the river you can relax on the small sandy beach at low tide or walk a little inland and – during summer – look for samphire to garnish your supper.

You’ll also see the rotten ribs of sunken boats and the Minecraft-like anti-tank blocks of concrete, placed in line to defend us against the threat of Nazi invasion. Indeed, you’ll often see these strategically placed along the Suffolk Coast in what were thought to be vulnerable areas.

The river Deben at Bawdsey

Along with the anti-tank blocks, if you look across the river to Felixstowe Ferry you’ll see Martello Towers which look out to sea to warn of Napoleon’s approaches.

There are also pillboxes, landmines, barriers of scaffolding and ‘flame fougasse’ installations (flame throwers). Serious solutions along a vulnerable stretch of low-lying beaches.

Bawdsey ferry boat to Felixstowe

Walk towards the quay past the Boathouse Café and you’ll see where the small Bawdsey ferryboat operates from. It’s back and forth all day long throughout the summer months and costs £4 for a return across the water to Felixstowe Ferry where you’ll find a pub and restaurant.

Just wave the bat at the end of the ferry and the boat will come along to pick you up.

If you don’t fancy a ferry ride head straight on past the lovely timbered cottages then along a narrow shrub-lined footpath. After passing through bushy dunes, you arrive at a shingle beach.

This is where the River Deben meets the sea and when it’s quiet, say, late evening, there’s not another soul about. On the stony beach there are ribbons of shells showing the varying tide-lines. We enjoy picking out our favourites, lost in the childhood fascination for shiny, pretty things.

Other than mother-of-pearl shells and bleached drift wood, our scavenging brings us hag stones. These we suspend from cord or twine to make pendants or wall hangings. Ebay store Hobo-reading-room! But what is found here is of greater value than cash. Peace, tranquillity, and the relief that this area of Suffolk remains largely untouched.

Bawdsey Quay: the scene of our biggest van life disaster!

So, what about the ‘van life disaster’ we mentioned in the intro?

You don’t want to see oil dripping under your van. And with less than two weeks till our wedding road trip to Gretna in Scotland, this could have potentially put a real spanner in the works.

With the bonnet up, a passing cyclist stopped to have a look. He examined the colour of the issuing fluid – and there was a silence which said so much! This wasn’t engine oil but gearbox oil.

His immediate advice was, “don’t drive it: get it towed.”

We phoned for recovery the next morning and were picked up by Hammond’s Recovery. It was heart-breaking to see the old girl on the back of the truck. Would she be fixed in time for the wedding?

VW T4 motorhome in the back of a tow truck
Gearbox oil leak at Bawdsey: Hammond’s Recovery to the rescue!

A few frantic phone calls led us to Last Transmissions. Ten days later we had a rebuilt gearbox and she was raring to go. She got us to Scotland and back without missing a beat.

RELATED CONTENT: You can read about the first part of our wedding adventure here – the road trip along the A82 to Glencoe.

While you’re in the area…

If you’re exploring this part of the Suffolk Coast and are keen to find other quiet places like Bawdsey, it’s well worth checking out Ramsholt a few miles away…

Just inland, back along the B1083 follow a sign saying ‘Ramsholt Arms’. It will lead you on a winding journey along narrow country lanes until you eventually arrive at a car park – just a grassy field – with views down to the Deben.

This is another place that you used to be able to wild camp – but no more. We turned up just before 10pm one night to find a newly erected gate. Signs on the gateposts stated clearly ‘No Overnight Sleeping’.

That’s another wild camping spot lost to the authorities. It seems as if there’s some kind of vendetta against vanlifers!

Anyway, parked up (during the daytime) walk down the road towards the Ramsholt Arms pub. This is more tourist pub than country snug, but it is lovely. You will likely meet more people from outside Suffolk than locals – arriving by car or boat. Or motorhome, of course!

On a quiet day, you can appreciate the meandering river, soak up the tranquil sounds of water lapping the shoreline and breathe in the spirit of Suffolk.

Ramsholt church

Early one morning, we walked along the riverbank and spotted Ramsholt church.

We hopped back in the van and drove to the church car park. In hindsight, the walk from the Ramsholt Arms through the fields would have made a far prettier approach. However, we were keen to explore.

And how glad we were to be able to walk around the outside of this stunning little church on our own. The oval-shaped tower with buttresses is a design shared by only one other church in Suffolk. Beyton, near Bury St. Edmunds. 

Even though the COVID-19 situation meant that, on this occasion, we couldn’t look inside the church, the outside sufficed. The churchyard has mowed paths but is otherwise a wildflower paradise. Never have we seen so many colours in a graveyard! Nature has reclaimed this place.

Ramsholt church, Suffolk
Ramsholt Church with the view of the river Deben in the background

The beauty of East Suffolk

Ramsholt church has a poster which tells you who is buried where. Ramsholt now consists of only the church, the pub and a few houses. The poster shows that the village was bigger in the days when fertile fields and the river were all one needed to survive.

Fields, tidal rivers and a slower pace of life are what epitomises East Suffolk for us. That’s why we keep coming back.

The poster speaks of parishioners in days gone by, people who would have watched the tides turning and the seasons changing. Their photographs smiled out at us, their words telling stories which these old church walls had heard first-hand.

We felt time slip back to the slower days of the past. It was almost like we – with our smartphones, wifi, and gas-guzzling van – were intruding on the gentle realms of our countryside ancestors.

What would they think of us 21st century van-lifers, we wondered?

We hope you’ve found this page helpful. Have you wild camped at Bawdsey? What do you think of the recent parking changes? Is this the end of wild camping?

Contact us here or send us a message on our social media channels:

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Read our tips about wild camping in a motorhome and please answer our short survey

how to go wild camping in a motorhome

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Want to bring more meaning to your road trips? Read our ebook MEETING GOD IN A MOTORHOME about our van life travels to seven of the UK’s most sacred places with a 3 ton walking companion!

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