Inspiring people to love

David Green met the man in charge of a new project on the Suffolk coast

BILL Jenman has a fascination for the Suffolk coastal strip, with its soft landscape, its nature reserves and its cultural and military history.

He first came to the area in the late 1980s for a heathland conference and this sparked a series of weekend visits over the succeeding years, some of them as the leader of walking and cycling groups.

Now he has moved to live in Suffolk to develop a new �1million project called Touching the Tide, financed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It is aimed at inspiring more people about the special qualities of the Suffolk coast and to prepare them for environmental change, in terms of climate and land loss.

The project is the idea of the unit which works to safeguard the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and will involve engaging with local communities to develop a greater understanding of the heritage of the coastal strip, its complicated natural environmental processes and the need to adapt to change.

“This coast has been evolving for 10,000 years and the process is not going to stop,” Bill said.

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The project will also try to help more people to learn about the history of the area and, hopefully, to inspire them to record the present and plan for the future.

“It will help them to become engaged in conserving the things that make this landscape so special,” said Bill, 48, who comes to Suffolk after working on a similar landscape partnership project in Orkney.

Brought up in rural Kent, he completed a first degree in applied biology and then took a masters degree in forestry at Oxford.

He worked for Sussex Wildlife Trust for 14 years, mostly as reserves manager but was also responsible for coastal defence, planning, and marine conservation issues.

Bill spent five years working for Hampshire County Council and the two South Downs AONBs, managing the South Downs Way National Trail, the long distance path between Winchester and Eastbourne. After that he served for three years as head of biodiversity for Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, covering planning, river conservation, community wildlife and an NHS-funded project for people with mental health problems.

Bill said the Touching the Tide project was designed for a four-year period but the money would be allocated in stages and depended on full details being approved.

“Heritage Lottery Fund liked the draft ideas put forward by the AONB and the other partners last year.

“Over the forthcoming year my job is to take those ideas and turn them into a proper worked-up plan, with costs and commitment from all the people who will deliver each part of the scheme.

An important part of this is going out to the various community groups and active individuals and making sure that their aspirations are at the heart of the final plan.

“We have to submit the finalised plan next December. All being well, the scheme itself will then start in April 2013.”

Several issues are now driving an increasing level of public interest and debate about Suffolk’s changing heritage coast.

These include the pace of coastal erosion and the possible measures which can be employed to limit further losses of land without a detrimental impact on the landscape.

One of the most important aspects of the new project will be an impact assessment of coastal defences and the production of a design guide for future defences,

“We need to look at building defences which are more creative and sympathetic to the natural landscape. Rock boulders, such as those at Bawdesy, are quite incongruous along this coast,” said Bill.

“I’m sure the rocks will do the job but they effectively block access to the coast – they don’t look very nice and may cause some downstream problems. The challenge is to find something more appropriate. There’s got to be a solution in between abandoning a stretch of coast and building a concrete wall.”

He intends to involve a wide cross-section of the coastal communities – such as schools, art and history groups, local museums and businesses – in examining coastal issues.

A community conservation fund will be established to finance a range of initiatives which could vary from saltmarsh restoration to a commemoration of Orfordness lighthouse, which is soon to be abandoned to the sea, and studies at Covehithe, where coastal erosion is destined to engulf the church and local homes as well as more agricultural land.

The project may also support studies of the lost city of Dunwich, most of which is now beneath the North Sea.

A partnership board will be set up with representatives from the public, local authorities and voluntary organisations.

Bill intends to encourage oral history recordings and to attract more volunteers to become coastal wardens

He is particularly interested in the history of the coast and its military remains, including the Martello towers which date from Napoleonic times.

“I want to make sure that information about the coast and coastal change – past, present and future – is available in an accessible way and as widely as possible using various media and workshops,” he said. “These, in turn, will inform visitors, residents and businesses how to respect the important natural areas, understand coastal processes, and learn about adaptation. I want to engage people in learning about the built and natural heritage features of the Suffolk coast, especially the important military heritage, how and why coastal change happens and why the saltmarshes and the vegetated shingle of Suffolk beaches are nationally important.”

Two coastal conferences with community involvement and an educational focus are planned, together with activities with young adults and schools. Museum exhibitions will be held each year, where possible showing the past, present, and future stories of the coast.

Bill will be living in Wickham Market while he runs Touching the Tide. His special interests are birdwatching, walking, cooking and good local food. “I make my own jams, pickles and chutney and stuff. One of the reasons I have been coming back to Suffolk over the year is Orford – for its oysterage and smoke house,” he said.

What interests him most about the Suffolk coast? “For me it’s about sense of place, it’s about places having deep roots and about history – about how places get to be as they are over hundreds and thousands of years; that’s what I find really fascinating.”