Three years after I relocated to the other side of the country, going back to the top right quarter of East Anglia makes me a peculiar kind of dizzy. I can’t quite compare it to anything else in my own firsthand experience but I imagine you’d feel something similar if, after living in a normal-size place, you got shrunk and were awarded the chance to explore a model village for a weekend: maybe not shrunk really small, so you were to scale with the houses and parks and shops, but reduced to perhaps the size of a hare or a young fox. Everything seems so soft and mild here, and to put it down solely to the flatness would be incorrect. Where East Anglia is at its flattest, from west Norfolk into north Cambridgeshire and south east Lincolnshire, a distinctly harsh and unmild ambience is created. But this delicately sloping part of Norfolk and north Suffolk can feel like a Young Player’s Edition of where I live now, in Devon, with hillocks taking the place of hills and heaths functioning as bonsai moors. It is possible to be lulled into the erroneous belief that it is a place where nothing bad could ever happen.
On the half dozen occasions between 2009 and 2012 when I went for walks along the coast from the north Suffolk village of Covehithe, I perceived the road that leads to the village from the A12, near Wrentham, as remote and a little wild. This now strikes me as absurd. Since then I’ve negotiated hundreds of blind, narrow, remote Devon lanes, slammed my car into hedged banks as men in Audis and BMWs – and it is almost always men – heedless of the defensive road etiquette of the Deep South West have hurtled at me from the other direction. Its paintwork looked vaguely new in early March 2014, just before I moved from Norfolk, but now it has that archetypal “I live near or on Dartmoor” look, its left side granite-dented and branch-fucked. This straight, not especially narrow, country lane to the coast, with wide views to its sides, is a treat and a let off for the car, just as the walk at the end of it will be a treat and a let off for me: driving and walking, undoubtedly, but not the kind of proper driving or walking that leaves visible marks on those doing it. Then there are the cliffs we’re heading towards: not towering immovable South West Peninsula cliffs overflown by birds of prey but crumbling fairy cake cliffs where sand martins make their nests. The cliffs’ defences are no match for the sea and Covehithe’s coastline has been forced back more than 500 metres since 1830.
It’s five years since I last walked here and that’s long enough to notice the latest dramatic leap the shoreline has taken backwards. It is as if someone has popped a balloon or crisp packet next to the shoreline when it has not been expecting it. What I thought impossible has happened: Covehithe looks even more post-apocalyptic than it did half a decade ago. The remains of a clifftop copse I walked through, on the way to Benacre Broad, in 2012, are now scattered on the beach, the salt-blasted roots of its trees being shaped by the tide more each day into something an elaborately branded enterprise might give a sculptor down the coast in Southwold or Aldeburgh a handsome cheque to produce. The stretch of beach beside the broad itself – which was already becoming a salty lagoon on my last visit – is now unnegotiable unless the tide is right out, freshwater and saltwater having finally become an irreversible cocktail. “Can we get across that?” I ask Isabelle, an old East Anglian walking companion I’ve been reunited with today, assessing the churning sandbanked natural well where sea meets broad. “Yeah!” But we can’t. We don’t even try. We’d be up to our waists in no time. Bad things can happen here, despite the soft lull of the land. This was the place where Charles Halfacree, an Essex factory worker, made a failed attempt to float the body of his sister’s ex-husband out to sea on a lilo, in one of the weirder East Anglian murder cases of the last two decades. The church – actually a church within a church, most, but not all, of the original structure having been knocked down by Cromwellians in the 17th Century – has its own personal interior breeze, which still whistles inexplicably around the pews on the calmest of days.
Isabelle has lived in Norfolk for many years but she’s from Switzerland and misses the dramatic plateaus there. Being a hill addict I know where she’s coming from but as we walk along the beach on our altered route, in the direction of Southwold, I realise how much I’ve missed these soft atmospheric lowlands, which make for a different kind of Rural Spooky to Devon Rural Spooky. There’s a whole other kind of treachery afoot in this terrain: it’s treacherous like a hypnotist with a kind face might be treacherous. If you listen to the silence, it has a contrasting timbre to the silence in the west. I remember how on my Norfolk and Suffolk walks, totally alone, in winter, I would often feel “followed”, have an impulse to spin around to see who was behind me. I have seen plenty of unnerving sights in Devon on the edges of fields and footpaths – death heads on severe inky-bricked churches, boundary posts dressed in rags to create unforgettable fence witch ghouls – and it is a county whose ghosts and folklore are arguably more palpable and bloodthirsty but I never feel the same “followed” sensation there. The sensation is created, at least in part, by the vastness of the horizon. It is almost as if there are so many hiding places for the malevolent, in the crevices and folds between the bunched hills of Devon, the brain will refuse to accept them. In Suffolk and Norfolk, the malevolent hides in subtler places, nearly in plain sight, which is ultimately more troubling. This tells you a lot of what you need to know about why the nuanced ghost stories of MR James – many of which are set on this coast or near it – are the scariest and most enduring ghost stories of all. James also knew that the hostility of an inanimate object can also be that much more powerful in a wide open space. A perfect example is the bent scarecrow that Isabelle and I see juddering in the breeze as we look back across the tilted farmland from the crumbling toffee-coloured clifftop to Covehithe church. There is no breeze, which makes it all the more concerning (perhaps it’s that mysterious wind inside the church, out for a wander).
“Tom, that’s just a guy with a metal detector,” says Isabelle, who has better eyesight than me.
It is a rare East Anglian walk in spring when you don’t see an actual scarecrow. I spot disappointingly few of them on my walks in Devon but, as I said, perhaps that’s just because they have more folds to hide in. Many of them in Norfolk and Suffolk are monuments to dark agricultural creativity: not the overdone ones at the village festivals, but those made with few raw materials and a lot of imagination by farmers. Upturned paint buckets on dusty boiler suits under cloth skies. Gnashing faces from the crypt scrawled in black felt pen on polythene stuffed with old newspaper. Millennial CDR heads on eerie ripped safety tabard bodies, drenching a fussy allotment in the macabre. I miss the scarecrows. I miss this long straight line of islandless shore with its sunken churches and old quiet shingle monsters. I miss so much more about this region: the way my existence here seemed more effortless in many ways, less necessarily toughened up, although in others less challenging and less brightly, scarily alive. I miss, massively, my friends in Norfolk. But I shove it all down inside. I have to. There’s nothing to be done about it. History has proved that people can’t have two lovers: not successfully, not on a long term basis, where all three parties feel equally rewarded. I have to keep choosing just one. Besides, there’s an almost-four hundred mile gap in the middle. It doesn’t exactly make the process of two-timing easy.
On what might be seen as the plus side – although not if you are currently living in one of the buildings a hundred yards inland from Covehithe’s shore – my two romantic interests are getting closer every year. Visibly so, in the case of the eastern one, today. The large volume of polite 19th Century holidaymaker graffiti scratched, with excellent calligraphy, into the church windows, suggests a time when Covehithe might have almost been a small resort, rather than a dystopian non-village at the rim of the planet: there’s even the mark of a visitor from Buenos Aires, dated 1889. Nowadays, though, the church doesn’t even bury bodies in its grounds, anticipating the deeper more forsaken place where coastal erosion will soon take them. As well as the desolate tree corpses, a boxy red brick structure lies smashed and part-submerged on the beach today. I take it for an old lookout shelter I once sat in but the Suffolk artist Kate Batchelor later tells me it’s a septic tank. On my last visit here, in 2012, the tank was still buried unseen in the hillside. Back then, the road through Covehithe ended in a jagged precipice over the sea, like a dismantled piece of unusually crude Scalextric track. That bit of tarmac, serrated by nature, has long since been washed out to sea. But Covehithe is subject to an unusual amount of eclectic paraphernalia being washed onto, as well as away from, its beach. Today this includes rounded glass pebbles, a seablasted lunchbox, various lengths and colours of old rope, and a wristwatch. The second time I came here, in 2009, there were large planks scattered all over the shore: strong-looking joists, good quality, probably fallen off a cargo ship. A group of men – opportunists in the timber trade perhaps or just people who, like me, really enjoy wood – were carrying the planks back up the beach, one plank at a time, two men to a plank. The image has stayed with me over the years and I remember thinking at the time how much they looked like pallbearers.