||riverrun, past Eve and
Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay. Ours
was the marsh country, and from the strand I
climb to the marsh gate, and there across the
wide marshes stands All Saints. Here, thousands
every year see Ramsholt church for the first
time, and every time is like the first time. Now,
I step out across the marshes, and in my mind I
am Dickens's Pip, I am Joyce's Dedalus;
signatures of all things am I here to read.
A bright, freezing day in January 2017, and a
perfect day for cycling out to Ramsholt church. I
caught the Lowestoft-bound train to Melton, and
then cycled out along the long, rolling, busy
peninsula road, the traffic quietening as it
peeled off to larger, less remote places. The
fields flattened out, punctuated by wind-swept
pines. The lanes narrowed, zig-zagging down the
sides and along the ends of pre-enclosure strips.
A sea of mud and ice caked the road surface, and
soon almost every trace of human habitation had
disappeared. Curlews and oyster-catchers huddled
miserably in the open fields as I reached the end
of the long lane which leads up to Ramsholt
Hardly anyone lives in this parish,
but it still maintains a service a month as a result of
the Anglican diocese's benefice system. Although this
church is just about accessible by car, most people who
visit here will come on foot. This is because, just
beyond the lane that leads to the church, another lane
leads down to the pub on the quayside, the Ramsholt Arms.
Today, this pub is one of the busiest in Suffolk. It
hasn't always been so; When I moved to Suffolk thirty
years ago you could come here on a sunny day and enjoy
the silence of the shoreline as you sat behind your pint
of Adnams. It was considered by those who knew of it one
of the best kept secrets in the county. A peaceful,
laid-back pub overlooking the wide river - what more
could you want? The food was superb, and you could be
assured of the friendliest of welcomes.
And then came the 1990s, and Suffolk was 'discovered'. It
is hard to remember now just how unfashionable it had
been before. As recently as 1986, Michael Palin could
make a comedy film, East of Ipswich, about going
on holiday with his parents in the years after the War to
Southwold. Southwold! How absurd! Who would ever want to
visit such a backwater, let alone go on holiday there!
Nowadays, it is hard to pick up a colour supplement
without finding an article about some actor, or designer,
or investment banker who has a holiday cottage near the
mouth of the Deben or the Blyth. Foodie articles focus on
Suffolk produce and Suffolk restaurants. House prices
have rocketed; it simply isn't possible for young locals
to live here any more. A beach hut recently exchanged
hands in Southwold for about the same as my house in the
middle of Ipswich is worth.
And places like Ramsholt are becoming overwhelmed. From
being a quiet haven where you took your mum for lunch
when she visited, the Ramsholt Arms has become a tourist
pub, its large garden full on a summer's afternoon with
yachting types up from London for the weekend. Does this
sound snobbish? I'm sorry. But you might as well be in
Southwold or Aldeburgh. I am seeing my lovely Suffolk
destroyed, and it seriously pisses me off.
A large field has been converted to a tourist car park
about half a mile before you reach the pub. You walk down
onto the strand; although we are a good three miles from
the sea, the beach is sandy, and children dig holes and
build castles. The lazy river is shallow and slow, if a
touch muddy, and paddling is certainly safer than it
would be a couple of miles downstream at Bawdsey. The
tide is very dramatic; at the turn, it retreats a hundred
yards out in less than twenty minutes, leaving a vast
expanse of shiny mudflats, an aerodrome for the seagulls.
You wander along the strand upstream, taking care not to
step on the samphire that grows there - I'll be along in
the spring to harvest some of it, and I don't want it all
trampled, thank you very much. You step up onto the level
above, and through a gate onto the bridleway through the
marshes. And you see the church for the first time.
From across the reeds, it rises dramatically above you.
The round tower appears square at this distance, but as
you come closer it begins to look oval, an illusion
caused by the buttressing. A similar illusion occurs at
Beyton, Suffolk's other buttressed round tower.
The bridleway winds leisurely across the flat marsh. But
it is best to keep to it; deep channels snake among the
reeds and gorse, and only the brown cattle that somehow
find something to graze here seem sure of not falling
|If you have come here in
spring, you are in for an absolute delight when
you pass through the gate on the far side of the
marsh. Here, a sunken lane winds up to the
church. Until fifty or so years ago, these were
so common, but most were either turned into
roads, or allowed to return to nature. This one
is lined by high banks, six feet or more, and
they are a riot in spring of wild flowers and
grasses. Poppies spangle them into the distance.
The lane climbs, and suddenly you reach the
churchyard. It is about eight feet above you, and
you can either continue up to the field and
around to the north east, or there is a little
stairway cut in the bank of the sunken lane. This
takes you up into the graveyard itself.
It would be silly to call this a
lonely place, because it has thousands of visitors every
year, and unless you come in deepest winter as I did, you
cannot be here for long without someone else turning up.
But it is lonely in the sense that it is virtually all
there is under the sky, apart from an impossibly pretty
thatched farmhouse down in the dip beneath the church.
The river stretches beyond the marshes (you can just make
out the spire of Felixstowe St John on the horizon, some
six miles away) and the air is empty except for plaintive
bird cries and the wind in the reeds. On a hot, still
day, even these are silenced, and you'll swear you can
hear the distant clink of boat masts in the river, half a
This is an ancient place. There was a church here a
thousand years ago, and perhaps the base of the tower
survives from that time. The church is broadly Norman;
the later medieval windows can't disguise this. North and
south are strange sets of dumpy lancets, which could date
from any time, I suppose. They allow you to see how thick
the walls are.
However ancient All Saints is, the strongest resonances
here are of the 18th century. This seems to be the last
time the Parish was populated to any extent, and there
are some superb 18th century headstones set in the wild
grasses, including one with a sexton's tools. My four
favourites are in a line, to the Waller family. The
Wallers can still be found locally; they owned the living
at nearby Waldringfield and presented their sons to the
living. The last Waller rector of Waldringfield died in
harness as recently as 2013.
The location and pre-Tractarian
character of the graveyard and church meant it provided a
perfect setting for a recent BBC adaptation of Charles
Dickens's Great Expectations (although the book
is actually set in the north Kent marshes, of course).
Curiously, there are hardly any stones to the north of
the church. This may be used as evidence for the myth
that people are never buried on the north side of
churches (in practice, they are - take a look at a few
churchyards!) but I think it is simply that people here
have chosen to be buried looking over the river - well,
you would, wouldn't you.
As you step through the 19th century porch (the frontage
is most unusual; bricks lining unknapped flintwork, like
a seaside cottage) and into the open church (it is always
open) you might be forgiven for thinking that the
interior is also an 18th century survival. There are
simple wooden box pews, a brick floor, a two-decker
pulpit rising on the south side. It is all just about
In fact, all of this is the result of a restoration of
the 1850s. In the first half of the 19th century,
Ramsholt church was derelict; unused and unloved. The
nave was open to the sky; the walls were 'green with
damp'. It seems extraordinary that a church would be
furnished in the prayerbook fashion at such a late date,
although it probably reflects the predilections, and
memories, of elderly churchwardens. Ramsholt is such a
backwater that this was still thought to be the proper
manner of furnishing a church. As you walk up to the
altar, you'll notice that the seats face west, towards
the pulpit, rather than east, towards the altar, a
reminder that for 300 years it was the Word that was the
focus of Anglican worship, not the Sacrament.
|There's a nice late
medieval font, which seems rather out of place
here; you feel that a chunky Norman font, or one
of those 18th century bird baths as at
neighbouring Bawdsey, would be more appropriate.
The simple Norman doorway into the tower seems to
call out for the former. If you look through the
cracks in the door, you'll see that the base of
the tower has been furnished as a vestry.
The damp of the estuary inevitably creeps into
this building still, but that is part of its
charm. On a summer's day it is cooler inside than
out, as if the church were holding on to the grip
of winter. On a winter's day the church becomes a
sanctuary, but in all seasons a serious house
on serious earth... the ghostly silt
not yet dispersed. There is something organic
about this great oatmeal tower, and the way it
and the sandy bluff merge into the reeds and
pines above the Deben estuary, at one with its
setting, its parish and its long generations.
And that is all there is to Ramsholt now. The
pub, a farmhouse and the church, each about half
a mile apart. And the marshes, and the water, and
the wide Suffolk sky.