A single row of assorted cottages stands sentinel against the ravages of the North Sea whose wild and wondrous waves crash relentlessly against the shifting shingle bank. Here the Alde and Ore estuary reaches the sea, its eastern bank a narrow shingle spit running northwards past Orford to Aldeburgh.
On the southern edge of this tiny hamlet stands one of a series of east coast Martello Towers. Constructed in the early 1800s these small defensive forts were built to protect England against the threat of invasion during the Napoleonic wars.
One officer and 24 men would have manned the tower, the only other inhabitants of Shingle Street being fishermen living in their driftwood shelters on the ridge of the beach; their livelihood supplemented by piloting vessels through the narrow mouth of the Alde and Ore estuary.
Once the threat of invasion had passed, the Martello Tower was used to house the coastguards, before the construction of six Coastguard Cottages northward along the beach and close to the old Coastguard Station in the second half of the 1800s. According to an 1881 map, the old coastguard station was by then owned by the Fonnereau family of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, as a holiday home.
The population of Shingle Street grew throughout the 19th century and a pub, The Lifeboat Inn, was built. Whilst the majority of residents would have worked on the water, Shingle Street’s remoteness and unique beauty attracted its share of holidaymakers, seeking an escape from the rigours of the town.
Shingle Street is not a barren landscape; for amongst the sea-sculpted stones a bright and joyful pallet of colour emerges in the late spring – yellow, pink, white and deep blue and soft green – a garden of shingle plants including the sea pea, sea kale, yellow stonecrop and vipers bugloss.
Tread carefully for this is not simply home to rare and wonderful plant life; the little tern lays its eggs amongst the shingle and the salt water lagoons are home to rare and wonderful sea creatures. Seals bask in the sunshine on the sands at the estuary entrance and the magnificent Suffolk Punch horses and their foals cavort in the spring sunshine on their marshland pastures.
Shingle Street is a strange and magnificent wonderland worth visiting at least once in a lifetime and once visited worth returning to again and again.