SHINGLESTREET! That is the way they used to write it - as one word. Defiantly independent, the Shinglestreeters were never willing to be thought a mere street in a village. They were a community, isolated, proud and outward-looking across the German Ocean to the Baltic, the Netherlands and beyond. They were often referred to as Orford Haven, for that was the justification for their presence, perched at the northern limit of Bawdsey Beach, and officially part of Bawdsey Parish. Unless you are willing to walk the shingle or the sea wall you must take the only road into or out of Shinglestreet and pass through Hollesley and Alderton before you reach your Parish Church in Bawdsey.
The community came into being late in the eighteenth century when some form of inn appeared on the beach to offer shelter and succour to river pilots waiting for the next vessel to need guidance over the terrible and treacherous shingle bar across the mouth of the River Ore & Alde. That 'inn' might have been an abandoned and upturned ship's hull. Without the pilots, who worked also as life-boat crew, salvagers and scavengers, trade, shipping and ship-building would have petered out on the river, farm produce would not have been shipped out and coal would not have come in for the mouth of the river moved with every storm - as it still does.
Those were the days of wooden sailing boats and Nelson's navy fighting the French, and Hollesley Bay was the regrouping place for the Baltic Fleet after military action, their shelter in bad weather and where they took on fresh food and water from the surrounding villages.
After the defeat of Napoleon the Martello Tower was handed over to the newly formed Coastguards and the adjacent wooden cottages to the families of the river-pilots who, from that time on, had a real home on the shingle.
Changes came slowly: in the 1870s Shinglestreet became a holiday home for affluent families from Ipswich and beyond. In the 1880s the Coastguard Station and cottages appeared. In the 1890s the Martello Tower was used for Roman Catholic Mass and the first R.C. British Judge and MP moved his family to Alde House for their holidays. Shinglestreet was a place where the Victorians could loosen their stays and take some of the pins out of their hair, where the children could learn to swim, to row, to sail and fish, where they could ride and roam and cruise in their yachts to Aldeburgh for golf or to Cowes, to pay their respects to Edward VII.
Decay came with WWI and the predominance of steam shipping, too big for the river, and railways accessing other seaside resorts. In WWII, when invasion was imminent, the Shinglestreeters were evacuated, the beach was mined and the inn was used for target practice by the RAF. After the war some of the damage was repaired, some of the Shinglestreeters returned, but never again has the hamlet been a working community. It has, however, thrived as a refuge for wild life, as the largest naturally vegetated beach on our East Coast, as a paradise for bird-watchers and walkers and as a strange, romantic but potentially savage magnet for fishermen and visitors.
Come and see for yourselves - but watch your children carefully when they are in the water and take care that your dogs do not chase the wild life or get caught by the tidal currents. Once you hear the mermaids singing you will be drawn back again and again!
Sarah Margittai for BPC