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Benacre and Covehithe: backrgound notes

Man in a Beach interviews


Benacre is a village and civil parish in the East Suffolk district of the English county of Suffolk. The village is located about 5 34 miles (9 km) south of Lowestoft and 1 12 miles (2 km) north-east of Wrentham, between the main A12road and the North Sea coast. Neighbouring villages include Kessingland and Covehithe with the town of Southwold 5 miles (8 km) to the south.

The village is dispersed around Benacre Hall, the estate of the Gooch family. It had a population of around 70 in mid-2008.[1] The population declined dramatically during the 20th century from 216 at the 1901 census.[2] The area of the parish extends from the Hundred River in the north to Benacre Broad in the south.

At the Domesday survey the village’s name is given as Benagra within the Hundred of Blythling.[3] It formed part of the holdings of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, as it had before the conquest, with one freeman recorded as living in the manor.[4]

The village has few basic services. The former parish church of St Michael is now privately owned by the Gooch family.[5] It is medieval in origin and a Grade II* listed building, although extensively rebuilt following a fire in the 18th century.[5] The church of St Andrew in Covehithe now acts as the parish church for Benacre.[6]

Benacre Broad forms part of the Benacre National Nature Reserve, an important reserve for over 100 bird species including the marsh harrierlittle ternand bittern.[7] The shingle beach also forms an important habitat and the coastal area of the parish is part of the Pakefield to Easton Barents Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Benacre Broad is an isolated coastal lagoon on the North Sea coast of the English county of Suffolk. It is located in the parish of Benacre around 12 mile (0.80 km) north of the village of Covehithe. It is about 2 miles (3.2 km) east of Wrentham, 4 12 miles (7.2 km) north of Southwold and 6 14 miles (10 km) south of Lowestoft.

The broad is part of Benacre National Nature Reserve, a reserve managed by Natural England.[1] It forms part of the area of the Pakefield to Easton Bavents Site of Special Scientific Interest and the Benacre and Easton Barents Lagoons Special Area of Conservation.[2]

The main broad area has traditionally been made up of a number of smaller bodies of water and in 1996 a number of small pools were created to combat the impact of coastal erosion and increasing water salinity on habitats.[3] At a 1997 survey, had an area of 5 hectares (12 acres).[3][4] At the end of November 2011 a high tidal surge broke through the narrow beach separating the Broad from the sea, inundating the area and increasing the salinity markedly. A survey in February 2012 found that the area of the broad had increased to 43 hectares (110 acres) and that the salinity of the water had increased to 22 parts per thousand. The water depth had also increased, although some separate pools within the lagoon area had remained as fresh water.[3]

Benacre National Nature Reserve is a national nature reserve in the English county of Suffolk. It is located on the North Sea coast in the parishes of BenacreCovehitheReydon and South Cove. It lies between the towns of Lowestoft and Southwold and covers 393 hectares (970 acres).[1]

Benacre NNR consists of areas of open water lagoons and reed beds along the Suffolk coast including Benacre BroadCovehithe Broad and Easton Broad and extending as far south as Reydon. The reserve features extensive reedbedswoodland and heathland, as well as pits created by gravel extraction. There are over 100 species of breeding birds, including marsh harrierbearded reedlingwater rail, and occasionally bittern. The flora includes seakalesea holly, and yellow-horned poppy.[1] Reed is farmed commercially for the thatching industry, whilst enabling the bearded reedling to find a habitat.

The coastline has eroded rapidly over time and the reserve is threatened by both erosion and sea level rise.[2] Some of the ongoing work at the reserve is stopping the encroaching sea by digging new lagoons and establishing more sea defences, and replacing the woodland lost to the sea.


Covehithe is a hamlet and civil parish in the East Suffolk district of the English county of Suffolk. It lies on the North Sea coast around 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Southwold and 7 miles (11 km) south of Lowestoft. Neighbouring settlements include BenacreSouth Cove and Frostenden.

The coastline in the Covehithe area suffers from the highest rate of erosion in the UK,[1] and the settlement has suffered significant loss of land and buildings in the past. It is located within the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB.



A possible section of Roman road has been discovered in the parish which, along with pottery finds and a possible Roman enclosure, suggests that the area was inhabited in the Roman period.[2] Anglo-Saxon remains, including a possible cemetery and evidence of sunken feature buildings, have been found in the area around St Andrew’s church and suggest habitation from the post Roman period.[2] A number of mid to late Saxon finds, including an 8th or 9th century dugout canoe found at the coast, support this theory.[2]

At the Domesday survey of 1086 the village is named as Nordhalla or Nordhals[3] and is recorded as being a medium-sized settlement with 13 households of freemen or smallholders.[4] The land was held by William son of Reginald from William of Warenne although other tenants in chief included the King and Roger Bigot.[4]

In the Middle Ages Covehithe prospered as a small town and during the reign of Edward I was granted a fair on the feast day of St Andrew. It takes its modern name from the de Cove family who held land there at that time, and the fact that it had a hithe, or quay, for loading and unloading small vessels.[5] By the 17th century however it had fallen victim, like nearby Dunwich, to coastal erosion. The large church of St Andrew, which had been built on the back of its wealth, was largely pulled down, although its tall tower remains, and a smaller church was erected amongst the ruins in 1672.[6]There is archaeological evidence of the linen industry having been carried out at Covehithe until the 18th century.[2]

The church of St Andrew at Covehithe

In 1910 Peter Ditchfield wrote:[7]

At Covehithe, on the Suffolk coast, there has been the greatest loss of land. In 1887 sixty feet was claimed by the sea, and in ten years (1878–87) the loss was at the rate of over eighteen feet a year. In 1895 another heavy loss occurred between Southwold and Covehithe and a new cove formed.— Peter DitchfieldVanishing England

Erosion caused the coastline at Covehithe to retreat more than 500 metres between the 1830s and 2001, according to contemporary Ordnance Survey maps. This can be seen most obviously on the sand cliffs above the beach where the road running from the church simply falls away down onto the beach. The only recorded pub in the village, the Anchor public house, had closed by 1882 although the building remains in use as a house.[8][9]

During World War I Covehithe airfield, a night-landing ground, was operated from 1915 to 1919 by the Royal Naval Air Service as a satellite station for RNS Great Yarmouth. The airfield, covering 33 hectares (82 acres) and equipped with searchlights and paraffin lights for night landing, was used for anti-Zeppelin patrols by the Number 73 Wing.[10] In 1918 the station was transferred to 273 Squadron of No. 4 Group RAF which flew DH9DH4 and Sopwith Camel aircraft from the site.[10] The Covehithe airfield was closed in 1919, its land returned to agricultural use.[10][11][12]

During World War II the coastline at Covehithe formed part of the defence line against possible German invasion. A series of pill boxes and other defences were in place, although most of these have since been lost to coastal erosion.[2] A Chain Home Extra Low radar station was established at Covehithe in 1942 by the Royal Air Force.[13]


Eroded road running from the church

The coastal cliffs at Covehithe are formed of glacial sands and other deposits. Loose and unconsolidated, they erode rapidly, currently at around 4.5 metres a year,[14]although Environment Agency studies found that 75 metres (246 ft) had been lost between 1992 and 2006 at a rate of 5.3 metres (17 ft) a year.[15] The main part of the settlement at Covehithe, around 250 metres from the current shoreline, is expected to be lost to erosion by 2110, possibly even by 2040.[14][16][17] Any future attempts to protect Covehithe are thought to be unsustainable, and would likely increase erosion rates at the larger settlement of Southwold to the south.[14][17]

To the north of Covehithe, Benacre Broad is an area of open water lagoons and reed beds with a shingle beach and alder carr woodland.[18] These form important habitats for bird species such as marsh harriersbearded reedling and water railBitterns have been recorded in the area.[19] Along with Covehithe Broad and Easton Broad to the south this forms Benacre National Nature Reserve and falls within the Pakefield to Easton Bavents Site of Special Scientific Interest.[19][20]

Present day[edit]

Modern Covehithe has a population of around 20.[21] The parish of Covehithe has been combined for ecclesiastical purpose with that of neighbouring Benacre.[22] The area is largely used for agriculture and has formed part of the Benacre Estate since 1742 and owned by the Gooch family since 1746.[17][23]

P. D. James mystery, Death in Holy Orders, was set in Covehithe and a television episode was filmed at the church ruins,[24]and in 1999–2000 an adaptation of David Copperfield filmed a boat beach scene on the beach nearby.[21] It has also featured in W. G. Sebald‘s The Rings of Saturn, a record of a journey on foot through coastal East Anglia.[25] The Monty Python sketch “The First Man to Jump the Channel” was partly filmed at Covehithe beach.[21]

Covehithe beach sits on a somewhat forgotten stretch of the Suffolk coast. The beach is set at the end of a lane which runs across fields before abruptly stopping at the cliff edge. The pace at which the coast is eroding here is rapid – something confirmed by a quick look at Google maps, where the lane continues into the sea.

The beach at Covehithe is a peaceful stretch of sand backed by the crumbling golden cliffs. To the south is Benacre Broad, a brackish lagoon and conservation area.

Along the beach are the smooth, blanched sculpture-like tree trunks of trees that once lined the cliff top. A reminder of the constant march of the North Sea. 

If you travel a little way back up the lane towards Covehithe you will come across the dramatic ruins of the medieval St Andrews Church. This once impressive church became too expensive for the parish to maintain and was eventually cannibalised to build a much smaller church within the shell.

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.