The stone track from Trimley St. Mary runs down the hill passing ancient limes and oaks before turning east below a dense cordon of tall and stringy ash trees that runs round the huge container terminal at Felixstowe for a mile or so; here the sounds are not of the countryside or the coast but grating metal scraping metal, sirens, bells and shrieking whistles as the nation’s cargo is shipped in and out in neat stacks of identical containers, moved from train and lorry to ship and back again by huge gantries that hang over the Orwell estuary; a stark, black line of steel sentries standing to attention before the low, winter sun.
Suffolk countryside meets freight terminal at Felixstowe.
When the port was extended as a neat rectangle of levelled concrete within the wide Orwell Estuary, a freshwater marsh was constructed adjacent to it to offset the loss of the mudflats. Dug from flat fields of arable agriculture, Trimley Marshes is comprised of pools, reedbeds and wet grassland, and managed by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust as a nature reserve. Below the shelter of the sea wall, the reserve edge is dotted with black-painted wooden hides and a small visitor centre. These are only accessed by the track running all the way from Trimley St Martin.
Trimley Marshes Nature Reserve next to Felixstowe Docks.
The wetland is full of ducks, sharp in freshly moulted plumage, the only waders are large numbers of lapwing. The view from a hide presents a scene of calm, as flocks of teal, shoveler, mallard and gadwall dabble and duck-dive and wigeon graze the grassland margins. Small numbers of shelduck stand out in brilliant white.
Wigeon climb on the grassy banks to feed on the long grass at the waterside.
Then a marsh harrier flies through and all the ducks take flight in small dancing flocks, circling and swaying, staying low, before returning to the water unceremoniously with splashing panic, heads up, paddling hard, totally alert.
Marsh harrier quartering the reeds and water’s edge.
Ducks and lapwing in flight.
Ducks take sanctuary in the water.
Greylag geese come crashing in.
Peace is restored and the duck head for the land or water’s edge once more.
Beyond the reserve, the smart path deteriorates to mud and grass and where the sea wall turns abruptly inland beyond is a large, lagoon of wet mud. The sea wall has been torn back by diggers and the sea water allowed to return. This so-called managed retreat to enlarge the estuary is held in check within the neat confines of the new, indented sea wall. This enlargement of the estuary was undertaken to mitigate the loss of habitats from the widening and deepening of the access channels to the ever enlarging ports of Harwich and Felixstowe.
Beyond the Trimley Marshes nature reserve the sea wall has been breached and the land reverted to mudflats upon which redshanks feed in loose flocks.
So the Orwell Estuary, sitting between low Suffolk hills is at once contracting with the bite of industry and expanding because wildlife legislation demands that the overall integrity of the protected coastal habitats, and the birds that they support, is not diminished. How long the high sea walls will maintain the careless estuary within its engineered contours is uncertain. The sea level is steadily rising and one day the surging flood tide may return to the base of the hills reclaiming fields and all before it.
In 1953, the infamous storm surge all along the east coast of England on the night of 31st January breached the Orwell sea defences where the container port is today and flooded the low lying south end of Felixstowe with the loss of 41 lives. This is not an event that any wish to see repeated but how such security is to be achieved, with an increasingly turbulent climate and unhelpful geography, is hard to comprehend.