Bawdsey Quay is one of those out of the way places in Suffolk, not yet found by the masses.
It’s not entirely motorhome friendly; the decent sized car park with clean toilets has a dreaded height barrier. But this means that, as a motorhomer, you have no choice but to park by the riverside and admire the wonderful views.
Bawdsey is also the place of one of our biggest van life disasters!
Read on to find out what happened in one of our favourite Suffolk places…
Bawdsey Quay – a Suffolk gem
Bawdsey Quay sits neatly at the end of the B1083, a pretty, typically East Suffolk road which turns off the A12 at Melton near Woodbridge.
Running past Sutton Hoo and through the villages of Sutton, Alderton and Bawdsey, the road is wide enough for our van with one or two small grocery stores en route.
There will usually be a motorhome-sized space along the riverside or on the quayside itself, unless you’re visiting in peak periods.
We have heard about local council discussions taking place to extend the main car park so that it includes a few dedicated motorhome spaces (and this would presumably mean the height barrier would be removed).
The talk is to ban all vans from parking along the banks of the river. But 2020 – the year where time stood still – has put paid to any changes…for now, at least.
So, we’ll keep parking right by the river and watch the glorious sunsets – and suggest you do the same!
Wild camping by the river
The main reason for these proposed changes – we believe – is to stop people wild camping in their vans.
Almost every night of the week there will be someone here sleeping overnight in their camper or motorhome. We’ve done it a few times ourselves. And on our last visit, we got speaking to a guy who had spent the whole of lockdown here in his van – with no hassle from the police at all!
Our advice is this…
To wild camp at Bawdsey, like anywhere else, do it quietly and with respect to locals. Noisy parties, litter and camp-fires will attract complaints. And, please, never ever empty onboard toilets into anything other than a designated sewer!!
We say more about the do’s and don’ts of wild camping here.
OK, lecture over! Back to Bawdsey and let’s delve into a little bit of history…
Where we won the war!
Let’s look closer at where we are…
On the way to Bawdsey Quay, you will have seen signs to Bawdsey Manor. The manor was owned by the RAF during WWII, right up until 1990 and its claim to fame is that it was the research station for the development of RADAR.
Without this, we may not have won the Battle of Britain in 1940. Hitler’s armies would surely have invaded.
Several times a year Bawdsey Manor Museum with the history of RADAR opens to the public and is well worth a visit.
Carrying straight on past the manor entrance for another half mile or so, you will eventually arrive at the riverside and quay. Once parked up, you can explore the shores of the river Deben.
At high tide, there is a small sandy beach. Low tide reveals a muddy river bed with rugs of ragged seaweed. Follow it inland and during summer months you may find succulent samphire to garnish your supper.
Look too for the rotten ribs of sunken boats, revealed when the tide is low, and the Minecraft-like blocks of concrete, placed in a line to defend us against the Nazi’s.
Indeed, you’ll often see these strategically placed along the Suffolk Coast in what were thought to be vulnerable areas, such as at Minsmere.
Along with the concrete ‘tank blocks‘, if you look south-west 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.
On a quiet evening, we like to sit with the hab door open, watching the waders in the mud or just listen to the waves gently lapping as the tide creeps in.
But this is a place that demands exploration…
If you browse the foreshore of the river Deben, there is often “treasure” to be found – depending on your definition of treasure, of course! We have trotted away with a decent length of decking and a smart wooden box – brought in by the high tide – both of which we’ve made use of.
Walk towards the quay past the Boathouse Café and you’ll see where the small ferryboat operates from. It’s back and forth all day long at weekends and costs £4 for a return across the water where there’s a pub, ice creams and fish ‘n’ chips.
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. We love watching the hypnotic, swirling little whirlpools battle against each other as the tide rushes in or out.
But a word of caution: do not attempt to swim here as you’re sure to be swept away!
Psychedelic shells and apocalyptic skies
Looking out at low tide, you can see vast sandbanks which makes navigation in and out of the Deben a little tricky. Indeed, we once sat in our van at Old Felixstowe watching a small boat caught adrift on one such bank, waiting for the next high tide to rescue him.
On Bawdsey 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. Gav likes to look for what he calls ‘psychedelic shells’ which have a ‘mother of pearl’ sheen on them.
But little of any real value is washed up onto the shingle. Other than shells and bleached drift wood, our scavenging never bears much fruit. But what is found here is of greater value – peace, tranquillity, a sense that this area is largely untouched by greedy human hands.
Bawdsey Quay: the scene of one of our biggest van life disasters!!!
We must cite one of our van life disasters and hope it never happens to you!
On one occasion, returning to the van, we realised that there was a steady drip coming from the engine. 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!
Immediately his advice was “get it towed” and he left us feeling grateful that someone knew what they were talking about.
The next morning – yes, we’d stayed overnight – we were picked up (literally) by Hammond’s Recovery. It was heart-breaking to see the old girl on the back of the truck. Especially since, in less than two weeks, she was supposed to be our wedding vehicle!
A few frantic phone calls led us to Last Transmissions. And one worry-filled fortnight later, we had a rebuilt gearbox and she was raring to go. Well, raring may be a little optimistic; simply on the road was good enough!
We’re pleased to say Cree got us to Scotland and back without missing a beat.
You can read about part of our Scottish adventure here – the road trip along the A82 to Glencoe.
While you’re at Bawdsey…
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 and Bawdsey Quay.
AUGUST 2020 UPDATE: You can no longer wild camp on this field! We turned up just before 10pm one night and the land-owner – whoever he is – was locking a newly erected gate. Signs on the gateposts stated clearly ‘No Overnight Sleeping’.
That’s another wild camping spot lost to the authorities. We say more about this on our wild camping page.
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.
Early one morning during lockdown (when we had wild camped, before the new gate was put up), 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, at 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.
The epitome of East Suffolk
A poster in the porch on the history of Ramsholt church tells you who is buried where. Given that Ramsholt now seems to consist of only the church, the pub and just a handful of houses, it shows that the village once had more inhabitants 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 enjoyed reading about Bawdsey. And what about Ramsholt? Have you visited yourself? What other out-of-the-way places could you tell us about?
Contact us here. We’d love to hear your story.
Back to Visit Suffolk (for more out of the way places we like).