Between the Orwell and the Stour at Shotley
Views of Harwich and Felixstowe from a lonely spit between the Stour and Orwell estuaries.
6 miles (9.7kms)
The rows of silent headstones in the sloping cemetery of St Mary's Church tell the story of HMS Ganges. Between 1905 and 1976, more than 150,000 recruits passed through the doors of this naval training establishment at Shotley. When they arrived, they were little more than boys, and some of them never came out. Among the graves of submariners killed in action and German prisoners of war are those of numerous boys aged from 15 to 17 who died before they ever got the chance to serve their country.
A newer churchyard across the way contains the graves of those killed in World War II. Here are commanders, petty officers, ordinary seamen and 'a sailor of the 1939-45 war known unto God', the different ranks, named and unnamed, brought together in death. Here, too, are 16 crew members of HMS Worcester, who lost their lives in February 1942. And, from a later generation, a 19-year-old seaman who drowned in Nova Scotia in 1968. The first HMS Ganges was built in 1782, a gift to the Royal Navy from the East India Company. A second ship of the same name was manufactured at the Bombay shipyards and eventually became a boys' training ship, arriving at Shotley in 1899. The ship left but HMS Ganges remained, as the name of a new shore-based training centre. Discipline was legendary - Edward, Prince of Wales said in the 1930s that it made the French Foreign Legion seem like a Sunday school. This was a regime of cold showers and rations of bread and cheese, a system designed to take boys and turn them into men.
Change of use
HMS Ganges will soon be developed for housing, though the 142ft (43m) tall mast that stands in the parade ground will remain as a memorial to its past. At one time it was the custom for naval cadets to shin up the mast during training. In 1918, to celebrate the end of World War One, the entire school of boys climbed the mast, resulting in several accidents.
Shotley is situated on a lonely peninsula where the rivers Stour and Orwell meet as they flow into the sea. To one side is the ferry port at Harwich, to the other Felixstowe Docks. The area has historical associations with Anne Boleyn (1501-36), the second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth I, and whose uncle was the owner of Erwarton Hall. Before her execution, Anne is said to have requested that her heart be buried at Erwarton. There is no evidence that it happened, but in 1836 a lead casket in the shape of a heart was found in a wall of the church. It is now buried beneath the organ.
Start at the Bristol Arms, looking across to Harwich, and head left along the waterfront to Shotley Marina. Pass to the right of the HMS Ganges Museum (open on summer weekends and bank holidays) and keep right to walk across the lock gates to Shotley Point. A path follows the headland around the marina basin, with good views of Felixstowe Docks. Turn right to continue along the flood bank between marshes and mudflats. After 1 mile (1.6km) the path passes some old oyster beds and swings left beside the salt marshes at Crane's Hill Creek.
Half-way around the creek, where you see a three-finger signpost, descend the bank to your left and go through a gate to join a meadow-edge path. Go through another gate and turn left along a track to climb past vineyards to the Frankenstein's monster that is St Mary's Church.
Walk straight ahead at the crossroads beyond the church, on a tarmac lane leading to Shotley Hall. A full 300yds (270m) after Shotley Hall turn left along a wide track signed 'Footpath'. Stay on this as it bends right at a junction, following the waymarkers diverting the path around the right-hand side of a field to the B1456.
Turn left and walk alongside the road and after 50yds (46m), turn right along a lane, signposted 'Erwarton Walk'. At the end of this lane, turn right, passing the red-brick Tudor gatehouse of Erwarton Hall. Stay on this quiet country road as it bends towards Erwarton village. Just after a right-hand bend, turn left beside the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin on to a wide track. Pass to the right of a cottage and turn left along a fieldedge path with fine views over the River Stour.
At the end of the field, turn right and follow the field-edge down to the River Stour. Turn left and follow the Suffolk Coast and Heath Path beside the river, eventually passing a row of cottages and a property called Stourside.
Continue between fields and the river. Just as the path is about to climb a hill, turn right through the trees at a sign marked 'Coastal Path'. Follow this riverside path back to the start.
Field and riverside paths, country lanes
Farmland between Stour and Orwell estuaries
On lead on farmland, off lead on riverside path
OS Explorer 197 Ipswich, Felixstowe & Harwich
Opposite Bristol Arms at Shotley Gate
30yds (27m) uphill from the Bristol Arms
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About the area
Suffolk is Constable country, where the county’s crumbling, time-ravaged coastline spreads itself under wide skies to convey a wonderful sense of remoteness and solitude. Highly evocative and atmospheric, this is where rivers wind lazily to the sea and notorious 18th-century smugglers hid from the excise men. John Constable immortalised these expansive flatlands in his paintings in the 18th century, and his artwork raises the region’s profile to this day.
Walking is one of Suffolk’s most popular recreational activities. It may be flat but the county has much to discover on foot – not least the isolated Heritage Coast, which can be accessed via the Suffolk Coast Path. Southwold, with its distinctive, white-walled lighthouse standing sentinel above the town and its colourful beach huts and attractive pier features on many a promotional brochure. Much of Suffolk’s coastal heathland is protected as a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and shelters several rare creatures including the adder, the heath butterfly and the nightjar. In addition to walking, there is a good choice of cycling routes but for something less demanding, visit some of Suffolk’s charming old towns, with streets of handsome, period buildings and picturesque, timber-framed houses.