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Colours of Shingle: Shingle Street, Suffolk

Shingle Street is a small remote coastal hamlet at the mouth of Orford Ness, connected via Hollesley village situated between the ancient town of Orford and the small manor town of Bawdsey. My understanding of the place has changed and deepened since my first visit in January 2020 on the eve of Brexit. The subsequent Covid-19 pandemic seriously limited my ability to pursue the sort of documentary work around economic and political views of local people – not only for my protection but because many are retired and older than me.

This project is explicitly subjective, reflecting the ways my own experience of the place has evolved and deepened. My first very bleak impressions in my dark mood of post-Brexit alienation from anything English – heightened by the multiple Union Jacks on the deserted brown grey shingle where the only features were the shrivelled pillars of mullein. But on repeat visits at different times of the year I have come to really feel at home in the constantly changing environment where colours change dramatically with the seasons – flower cycles that transform the landscape, bird migrations and bird song and favourite times for colourful kites as holiday-makers join local people.

Shingle Street itself consists of a row of cottages of varying age in a minimalist and haunting shingle landscape. It was established as a community of fishing families and river pilots for the River Ore in the early 19th century. The four Martello towers south of Shingle Street were built in 1808-1809. Coastguard cottages at the North end of the beach housed coastguards who worked as pilots, lifeboatmen and excise men to control the smuggling. In the 1930s it became an important place for remote tourism when several of the houses remaining today were built. During World War II this area of the coast was one of the main lines of defence and several buildings were destroyed, including the Lifeboat Inn, the hamlet’s only pub.

Today many of the cottages are picturesque but quite expensive holiday lets. An important feature is the Shell Line artwork created by two friends who visited during recovery from cancer. It has since been continually maintained as a prominent local landmark. The settlement has also inspired music and poetry. There are also a number of historical and environmental books by local people, and a Facebook page for people who visit regularly – discussing issue like fishing, local developments etc.

The settlement is part of a very fragile and unique coastal strip. The beach is a designated SSI because of its rare vegetated shingle, little terns, saline lagoons and geology. A report from October 2004 suggested that Shingle Street is at risk from the sea and could disappear by 2024 if sea defences are not erected. North Sea windfarms can be seen in the distance on a fine days. Current proposed development of the area around nuclear power at Sizewell and the current Freeport proposals for Felixstowe and Harwich also mean that the whole area will change significantly in the coming years.

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