Covehithe is the last stop on our Suffolk Coast road trip and it’s well worth a visit if you’re looking for an out-of-the-way place by the sea.
There is really nothing here save for crumbling cliffs, a sandy beach, and the ruins of a once magnificent church. But this alone, is well worth visiting.
Hobo Trudi’s happiest childhood memories are of Covehithe, so this piece is written by her, from the heart.
We hope you like it and that it inspires you to visit before it’s devoured by the North Sea.
Getting to Covehithe in a motorhome
If you journey up the Suffolk Coast, heading north along the A12, past the busy resorts of Southwold and Walberswick, you’ll find a forgotten and remote part of the county.
Covehithe – another Suffolk village disappearing into the sea – makes for the perfect destination if you’re looking for somewhere quiet and secluded.
We recently took Cree, our van, along the tiny roads from Wrentham to Covehithe, just as we started to emerge from the coronavirus lockdown.
But let’s begin with a word of warning if you, too, are visiting in a large camper or motorhome…
On these single lane roads there’s a chance you’ll meet the odd car coming toward you which, thankfully, will be happy to pull over into a passing place.
However, farm machinery may take a little more creative thinking to get around. This is arable land, after all, and tractors, 4x4s and even combine harvesters seem to be the vehicles of choice.
And the dark, damp woodland trees which punctuate the route can drop a little low.
We talk about low-hanging trees and the damage they can do in our free ebook. It’s something to bear in mind when on these types of roads. Indeed, on one previous visit to Covehithe, Gav had to clear a large branch which had fallen into the road.
As well as being narrow, the roads into Covehithe are also prone to deep puddles coming in off the marshes – possibly hiding potholes. It’s another hazard to be wary of, unless you’re fond of changing your springs regularly!
Parking at Covehithe
Once you arrive, you’ll notice there is no car park at Covehithe, other than a grass verge – just wide enough for the average motorhome.
On our July visit many cars were already parked when we turned up. It seemed that, with the bigger attractions at Gt Yarmouth and Lowestoft still being closed, people were looking for something simpler, something closer to nature.
Maybe lockdown has reminded us that we don’t need to be constantly entertained, that sometimes we need to press the pause or stop button and return to our essential natures? Covehithe will do this for you.
Once parked, walk down the lane where you’ll find a footpath about 20 yards before the church, off to the right. It will take you along a sandy path and through peaty reed beds and bracken before leading you neatly to a point where the cliff levels off and you can join the beach.
However, before heading to the beach you must see the extraordinary church! This is where your phone camera will start to become extra busy…
Covehithe church – built from the body of its mother
Look closely and you’ll see two churches in one…
The magnificence of the larger church of St. Andrew lays in ruins. The cold exo-skeletal remains of a display of wealth – designed to impress even God – shows the transience of mankind.
However, the sweet little 1672 church, protected in its mother’s belly, is still alive and used to this day. Nestled at the foot of her huge tower, it is almost insignificant amongst the bared remains of the former building, erected in the 14th century during Covehithe’s heyday.
Indeed, the wealth of Covehithe rivalled Lowestoft at the time. Known then as Nordhals (now North Hales) the quay was probably used by Romans and Anglo-Saxons way before its name was changed to mark the hithe or quay that the De Cove family used.
But like so much of the Suffolk Coast, the settlement fell victim to erosion. The Hundred River silted up to barely a stream and with the population dwindling the church building was too big for those left to maintain, so it was pulled down, save for the tower.
The stone was then used to make something less ostentatious but more manageable, affordable…and more pious.
Memories linger whilst the coastline crumbles
The stark beauty of the silhouetted stone window frames and shattered walls, and the North Sea winds ripping through the open arches, always leaves me with a feeling of mourning.
Another hundred years and all trace of the church – mother and child – will be gone. Gone beneath the waves along with the rest of this small hamlet.
My maternal grandparents lived at Benacre, just a mile or so up the coast.
As a child I remember being able to walk much further along the road past the church than you can today. The road my little feet trod has long since been swallowed by the hungry sea.
I can look beyond the sand across the waves and still see my grandfather walking on the road we both knew.
“Why don’t they stop it?” I asked him all those years ago. He explained that if Covehithe’s cliffs did not fall, then Lowestoft would lose its sandy beach.
But it wasn’t just Lowestoft that would be under threat if an attempt was made to save Covehithe; Southwold – another tourist town – would also be vulnerable to erosion if defences were erected. In effect, Covehithe became a tactical loss.
Welcome to the harsh reality of a world driven by money!
Sopwith Camels and Flying Circuses
In one final attempt for notoriety, Covehithe had an airfield during WW1. The Sopwith Camel often flew from the base before it closed in 1919 and returned to agricultural use.
In the 1970s Monty Python filmed some Flying Circus footage here and someone attempted to conceal a murder by floating the body out to sea on a lilo. Separate events – although the latter would have made a great Python sketch!
On this cloudy, cool July day we carried on along the road past the church and Anchor House, formerly the only pub. This is the road I would have taken so many years ago, now a damp, bramble-covered path which ends suddenly. A stark warning sign stops you falling to your death.
There is a cliff top path – with recent land slips along its length – and it is possible in places to scramble down but to do so is irresponsible and will certainly speed up the coastal erosion.
The glacial sand cliffs lose 17 feet of land per year, and are unconsolidated; scrambling down away from the prescribed route can hasten the demise of another section…and possibly kill you at the same time!
So, we retraced our steps back past the church and took the sign-posted footpath toward the beach.
Covehithe beach is a place you do not forget.
When not sandwiched between the sea and the cliffs, the beach gives way inland to broads, beloved of many small coastal birds and their larger predators.
As we passed Benacre Broad, a moderately sized brackish lake, a warden was patrolling, asking for people to keep moving; the Little Terns were being disturbed by people standing about watching them. Happy to comply, we understood the distress too much human interference can cause. We feel it ourselves!
The chance to find amber brings some human visitors but mainly it is the draw of the destructive beauty of the sea that lures you back.
With the striped layers of the crumbling cliffs, the little Sandmartin nesting holes and the ever-changing shape of the shoreline, it’s as if God is playing sandcastles, each storm re-moulding Suffolk’s coastal boundary.
Then you will see the trees, not on the cliff top but fallen onto the beach years ago.
Ghosts of trees, bleached and sand blasted into smooth shapes that would challenge the deftest of sculptors to reproduce. Partially buried, they emerge from the sand as unworldly spectres, reaching up to the living for redemption.
Less spookily, they have accommodating trunks and branches which provide dry seated comfort for weary walkers.
A pocketful of memories
When we turned to walk back, we had pockets rattling with hag stones and sea glass – and hearts brimming with memories.
I suddenly recalled a childhood visit to Covehithe where I found three one-pound notes (remember those?) being blown along the beach. My parents, keen to show me right from wrong, took the money to the nearest police station.
A few weeks later, my grandad was alarmed when a burly policeman knocked at the door asking if he knew of a Trudi Sturgeon. Fearing the worst, he said he did…upon which the pound notes were handed over as unclaimed.
How times have changed! The Covehithe coastline is a sure sign of that.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading Trudi’s personal account of Covehithe.
Have you visited yourself? Let us know your thoughts below or contact us here direct.
Remember, if you’re heading east and want to get away from it all take a look at the other places we recommend you visit in Suffolk