I remember the first time I went to Shingle Street, though not who I was with, or what we did before we arrived or after we left. I remember only being startled at the sight of it: a shingle beach, one maybe even 200 yards wide, carved into rough dunes; a short row of 20 houses or so, marching towards the point where the air, the water and the earth converged. Waves like shipwrecked sailors rose out of a sea the colour of dull steel and threw themselves upon the beach. Above the water lay the slit of the horizon and above the horizon, an astonishing expanse of sky.
Someone once told me that “you come to Suffolk to look at the sky and not the land”. Suffolk is a lowland county, on a latitude with the Netherlands. At Shingle Street the sky looms over the row of houses, which appear immensely vulnerable, suspended between heaven and earth. It dominates every image I’ve ever seen of the hamlet: clear or dappled; streaked, lit with the glow of daybreak or sundown; darkened by the threat of an incoming storm; or else with streams of sun in vertical descent through sliver-edged clouds.
I married a man from Suffolk whose family had a house in Aldeburgh, 17 miles from Shingle Street, and since then I’ve returned many times. At Shingle Street there are no pubs or restaurants, no facilities for visitors, no reason to go or to return, except to walk and watch the sea and the sky. Every visit we do the same thing — we park a short distance from the first of the houses and walk down to the beach accompanied by various dogs.
Up on the higher reaches of the beach, wide clumps of sea kale grow and at certain times of year, yellow poppies and small violet sea peas pop up here. We follow the waterline for a few hundred yards and then head back inland to the Martello Tower, circling it solemnly once. This giant edifice, built to protect England from invasion during the Napoleonic wars, was Shingle Street’s first building. Thereafter sailors and fishermen began to build cottages, and a glance at the 1841 census shows the unvarying occupations of the residents: sailor, coastguard, pilot and a single publican, owner of the Lifeboat Inn.
A few years ago, on a weekend with friends in Aldeburgh, I suggested we all drive to Shingle Street. Halfway there, one of the women suddenly realised exactly where we were heading and shuddered. She’d visited Shingle Street once before many years ago, she told us, and left with relief. She called it “the eeriest place” she had ever been.
I can see that Shingle Street could strike a person like that. The whole of the Suffolk Coast is full of mystery. Every year more cliffs and houses tumble into the sea along the eroded coastline. At Dunwich, they say that on certain nights you can still hear the tolling of church tower bells from the sunken village. During the 13th and 14th centuries, a series of storms swept much of the village into the sea. In all, 10 or so churches now lie under the waves.
Just up the coast from Shingle Street is Orford Ness, where the first radar experiments took place. And what exactly happened in Shingle Street when the entire village was evacuated suddenly and without explanation on 22 June 1940, the occupants given just three days to leave? Rumours include a landing by German forces, 30,000 bodies engulfed in flames, a secret bomb, weapons testing. Who knows? What’s true is that the Lifeboat Inn was blown up and never rebuilt.
Two months ago I visited Shingle Street, a last trip out of the city before my husband and I left England to spend four months in Massachusetts. There were people at Shingle Street: kite-surfers. Young men hovered in the air above the waves, buoyed by billowing kite sails and watched by a huddled row of girlfriends and dogs. I was faintly vexed; the silence I loved was ruptured, gone was the sense of standing alone at the tip of the land. I took a few photographs and then turned my back on the kite-surfers and photographed the line of houses. Only later did I notice a curious thing: above the kite-surfers the sky is full of puffy, white clouds, unremarkable; but above the houses rises an extraordinary funnel of cloud, one which gradually darkens until at the very edge of the photograph, it is completely black.
Aminatta Forna is the award-winning author of the novels The Hired Man, The Memory of Love and Ancestor Stones, and a memoir The Devil that Danced on the Water. aminattaforna.com
Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)