In our many visits along the Suffolk Coast we have discovered tales of whole cities being drowned and lost to the sea. We have learned about church bells which call from the seabed and a huge black dog stalking the unwary midnight traveller.
And so, to Shingle Street….
What is there to discover about this desolate, stony beach which just drops off the end of Suffolk on a road to nowhere?
We took our very own Mystery Machine to find out…
How to find Shingle Street when it’s not on your road atlas!
Getting to Shingle Street is a foray into the heart of the Suffolk wilderness…the Wild East! It’s not always shown on maps and road atlases.
So, how do you get there?
Off the A14, take the A12 North from Ipswich towards Lowestoft and Woodbridge. Then take the A1152 towards Melton. At the roundabout take the second exit towards Hollesley. You’ll eventually see signs to Shingle Street. Trust us on this!
Tiny lanes with unforgiving hedges might try to grab at your motorhome’s windows and graffiti the paintwork a little should you meet another vehicle. This is an out-of-the-way place.
You’ll drive on and on – wondering if you will end up in the middle of a marsh with no possibility of turning. Then the road runs out. “You are now at your destination!”
This is Shingle Street.
There are no facilities. None.
A smallish free car park will accommodate a motorhome if there is space, and if not the road widens just enough to allow you to park on a grass verge beside a sea defence bank. We have not tried to park overnight here so don’t know if it’s suitable for a wild camp.
Shingle Street beach – watch out for quicksand!
If the word “Street” is a little confusing, the word “Shingle” is not!
Billions upon billions of tiny, polished, shiny pebbles thickly line the water’s edge. The sea has sculpted them into terraces like giant steps for a sea monster to climb!
Seriously though, be wary of the lagoons as you make your way onto the beach. The water drains back into the sea at low tide, meaning that sometimes there is only a thin layer of shingle on top of quicksand!
We have found recent reports of people getting into difficulties at Shingle Street so give the lagoons a wide berth.
Once on the beach, look left (north) towards Orford. You will no longer see the distinctive red and white lighthouse that was dismantled this year (2020) but you will see the strange military buildings on Orford Ness.
Closer, just across the river Ore you may notice seals basking on the spit beaches right opposite you.
To the right, is the “street” of white cottages and the brooding Martello Tower, defying everything the East wind ever threw at them. And that just about sums up the location.
But there’s something about this place that keeps drawing you back…
Borrowing the title of one of Jack Kerouac’s novels, no better word comes to mind than ‘desolation’ here. We love Shingle Street because of it. This is raw Suffolk, away from civilisation.
The coast today isn’t what it was thousands of years ago, of course. The sea here re-arranges the coastline on a whim. But it is what Suffolk looks like now without her make-up on…the Suffolk we love without interference.
There is also a sadness here, a restless melancholy which seems to have echoed down the ages.
The history of this small hamlet is all relatively recent it seems. Indeed, there is no significant human history compared to some of its illustrious neighbours.
No Medieval city, no Priory, no lost churches, as at Dunwich. Just a single row of houses, a watch tower, and a lone bungalow on the beach.
Keeping Napolean at bay
The Martello Tower was built in the early nineteenth century to protect against Napoleon’s ships. Even though the French never arrived, the tower was used as the coastguard/river pilot quarters for a while.
Shingle Street was devoid of any human habitation by a creek and marshland until a bridge was built in 1928. Then it became home to a few fishermen.
However, merchant ships needed to navigate the Ore river. As is usual for this area, the mouth of the river kept shifting along the coast and a shingle spit built up (which is now about ten miles long!). So, a wooden ‘river-pilot station’ was erected, followed by the building of the ‘street’ of cottages.
Normal life ensued. For Shingle Street – a tiny hamlet with no proper street save for a single row of cottages – that was that.
For a while anyway…
Shingle Street – the closest the Nazi’s got to invading our shores?
Pillboxes were added to the defences – as they have been all along the Suffolk Coast – to provide us with some protection against the very real possibility of German invasion in WWII.
In 1940, all the inhabitants of Shingle Street were evacuated. The beaches were heavily peppered with mines and once again human life all but disappeared and the eerie peace descended once more.
There may be little of mankind’s history here but there is a mystery which bubbles beneath the surface of this barren land, rising its head occasionally only to be smartly batted down by the authorities.
You see, there is a rumour here that keeps surfacing only to drown again…
During WWII – August 1940 to be precise, at the height of the Battle of Britain – it is said that a defence mechanism was triggered at Shingle Street by German troops attempting to land. They were under orders to capture the vital RADAR station at Bawdsey Manor then march onwards to the airfield at Martlesham.
Or so the story goes…
But the British military had laid flammable liquid along many of the beaches – including at Shingle Street – and “set the sea alight” as soon as the Nazi’s were within striking distance.
Truth, lies and propaganda
This is a very brief account – intended only to give a picture of what might have happened here. After all, the authorities say there were no civilians present to give eye-witness accounts. The rumours have been debunked many times by politicians and military officers.
But every few years, an eye-witness or their descendants tell highly detailed stories of the sea at Shingle Street being set alight in August of 1940. They tell of the sky being aglow, reflecting the burning water, and charred bodies washed up along the coast.
This is always decried as “black propaganda” of the times, designed to give the British a boost of morale with tales of effective defence of our shores, scare the pants off the Germans, and convince America that we were worth joining up with.
The story (or misinformation, if you wish) was widely reported abroad – in both Europe and America – but restrictions denied the British people the facts, whatever they were.
We Hobos have found many pieces of metal at Bawsdey just along the coast, metal in the shape of fingers which appear to have been melted. We have read that misshapen tools and twisted pieces of metal with rivets sometimes emerge from the sands here as the shore gives up its secrets.
Could these be from German landing crafts which were caught in a trap of flames?
The story is enthralling and has both sides of the argument detailed online…
They range from “complete bunkum” to “I saw it happen”, running through to “this was a trial which occurred on the River Ore in 1914” and “one plane came down in flames and two Germans were washed up”.
Living with the mystery of Shingle Street
Who are we to believe?
The British military and politicians who debunk it all? The Journalists?
What about The Local Defence Volunteers (later known as the Home Guard) and troops who state they were put on standby that night and watched a red glow for several hours?
And what of the story told by a soldier in Belgium who had seen “many badly burned troops being taken to hospitals and morgues”?
And then there are the local Suffolk people who say they witnessed it all.
Perhaps, like the UFO incident at Rendlesham Forest decades later, the truth will always be just beyond our grasp.
But that’s what makes it a mystery. Long may Shingle Street stay that way.
Have you been to Shingle Street in Suffolk? What are your thoughts and feelings about the place?
What do you think might have happened here during the Battle of Britain? Comment below or contact us direct.
Here are some suggested articles you might like to read for more info…
If you enjoy history, a good mystery, or just want a break in our beautiful home county, read about the other places in Suffolk we love to visit in our motorhome.