Where bough meets the briny

Take a walk among the magnificent maritime trees of the Shotley estuaries and you are strolling through a unique habitat.

Pictures: Simon Leatherdale and Ross Bentley

If you go down to the woods today, you are sure for a big surprise – especially if you find yourself walking along the shoreline of the estuaries of the Shotley Peninsula near the Suffolk coast.

At several locations here, visitors will find large mature oaks growing right up to the water’s edge of the rivers Orwell and Stour, shaped by the salt, sand and sea they nudge up against. The result is a landscape found nowhere else in the UK, according to forester Simon Leatherdale, who has travelled around the country studying maritime trees for a book he is planning to write.

“North and south Devon and the southwest of Scotland may have more coastal trees than here but nowhere I’ve seen matches the sheer size of the trees, the oaks that come right up to the water – in this respect, Suffolk punches above its weight,” says Simon.

Suffolk might not be known for its woods. There is so much pressure on land in East Anglia where you find prime agricultural soil that most of the terrain has gone under the plough but at places like Stutton, Nacton and Harkstead there are thin strips of woodland leading to the water that are on ground that is too steep to cultivate.

“There are so many things that make these woods different to other woods,” continues Simon, who spent four decades working for the Forestry Commission before retiring to enjoy a small piece of ancient woodland he owns and manages just over the border in Essex.

“One is the interaction of salt with trees. Another is how the different kind of light interacts with the trees – one side is always facing the light, which is more intense because it is reflected off the water.

“The temperature is slightly higher as salt in the water holds heat – it’s a more temperate eco-system. The wind speed is also slightly higher around these trees – there is a sea breeze in these estuaries even on a hot summer’s day. These are all subtle variants but together they make a big difference.”


The magic of Suffolk’s maritime woods has as much to do with the aesthetic beauty of these places, as it does with the ecology.

The oaks naturally lean to the sunlight of the open water while the tides undermine them, eroding the soil underneath and accentuating the sloping stance of the trees.

At Stutton, a rising coastal path takes you up through the woods offering views of the estuary as you climb higher. At one point we see an upside-down tree that is hanging off the side of the cliff with its roots growing above the branches. It is easy to miss as it hides itself with its own canopy. It is an incredibly beautiful and stunning place.

“Suffolk’s estuaries are east facing, so they don’t experience any big swells coming in,” explains Simon. “This means that any erosion is slow and soft, so the roots that become exposed have time to develop bark and protect themselves. They continue to grow tentacle-like into the soil supporting and nourishing the tree.”

“The trees interact with the tides – if live buds touch the salt water, it will kill the tree but at these locations you see where the elbow of trees are submerged underwater, and the tree is totally fine with that.”

It certainly brings out your inner child. I could not resist clambering across these large limbs hovering above the water below. Simon tells me that during one high tide, he watched jellyfish bobbing beneath the boughs of a giant mature oak.

A jellyfish under the bough of an oak at Harkstead Picture: Simon Leatherdale

I think about that for a second – jellyfish and oak are two words I never expected to hear in the same sentence. But this place is full of surprises. It is the only space I have been where you can stand in ancient woodland and see brent geese or hear the wonderful bubbling call of a curlew at the same time.

Dead trees

The wonderfully gnarled dead trunks that lie scattered on the shore are another feature of these enchanting places. They make great seats to enjoy the scenery from but are also beguiling natural sculpture; giant driftwood that resemble beached whales.

They also have a significant ecological importance. Today there is a growing understanding of the value of dying and dead trees and a knowledge that they support more species than a tree that is alive.

 For example, there are species that specialise in living in saltwater-soaked wood, such as teredo worms, better known as naval shipworms. These clams are notorious for tunnelling into underwater piers and pilings and for being a major cause of damage and destruction to submarine timber structures and the hulls of wooden boats. See also the delightfully sounding gribble, which lives exclusively by boring into marine wood and plants.


Simon worries that much of this dead wood gets tidied up by walkers and boaters and wants to raise awareness of the importance of leaving alone these huge, half-submerged tree trunks on the shore that provide a specific habitat.

In fact, he would like to encourage a greater appreciation of the value of these thin slithers of maritime woodland full stop but up until now, he feels they have been overlooked.

“There are thousands of books describing coastal habitats and ecology – everything above and below the water – but not one mentions coastal woods, says Simon. “They are not that hidden – everyone who has driven over the Orwell Bridge has seen them.”

He continues: “In other parts of the world mangrove swamps are considered important habitat and many species of fish use them as safe havens to breed in and to hide from predators. The same could apply here. We need to encourage them to occur and get students to study them – it’s a potential whole new field of research.”

“The reason is we haven’t got much coastal woodland is that people don’t like trees spoiling their view of the sea. Here in Suffolk, where land is farmed intensively, you have coastal erosion on one side and farmland on the other and this woodland is being attacked from both sides.

“In the past, the woodland would have simply tumbled back across the land but now there’s a danger it is being squeezed into nothingness.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: