RSPB offers trip back in time to discover Havergate Island’s rich history
- Credit: MIKE PAIGE/RSPB
There’s much more to Havergate’s history than its post-war colonisation by avocets. The RSPB’s south Suffolk coast warden Lyndsey Record previews a special trip that will explore its bygone years
Havergate lays claim to being Suffolk’s only island. It boasts a colourful history which spans centuries and attracts visitors - both avian and human - to its shingle shores each season.
The island’s association with people goes back about 500 years and throughout that time Havergate has been managed, farmed and shaped by its human inhabitants and visitors.
Havergate was formed as nearby Orford Ness expanded southwards, causing sediment to settle and build up at the mouth of the Butley River. The elements of Butley River, the River Ore and the ever-changing weather has ensured the landscape has continuously changed, but, as it grew from the settled sediment and vegetation established, the island has remained an established constant in this varied and beautiful environment.
Before 1949 and Havergate’s association with the RSPB, the island was farmed by local marsh keepers.
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Recognising Havergate’s rich and silty soil and its potential to grow crops, the marsh keepers constructed walls and embankments to prevent flooding by the tides that for so long had swept over the island. The marsh keepers inhabited the island and later introduced livestock, which ensured the site was constantly grazed.
The island remained inhabited until the 1920s but the cattle were now only summer visitors to Havergate. Amazingly, the animals were swum over at low tide! Thankfully for the cattle, a barge was eventually constructed to ferry them over.
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Havergate ceased to be farmed some time in the early 1920s but it wasn’t long before the island’s potential was recognised yet again. This time, a gravel company moved onto Havergate and attempted to extract one of the island’s plentiful resources - shingle. The shingle was moved down to the shore in railway buggies powered by electricity and was transferred onto Thames barges. In fact, the remains of the extraction pits, tracks and some buggies can still be seen on the island!
Many people who have visited Havergate Island will have seen the remains of the old cottage. It was in this cottage in which the generator that supplied the electricity for the railway buggies stood. Unfortunately, the vibrations of the generator were too much for the cottage to take and the building eventually disintegrated into ruins.
Throughout the Second World War Havergate Island was left unattended and it is believed that this resulted in the failure of the sluices that had been installed to prevent the island from flooding and being reclaimed by the tide. The walls and embankments eventually collapsed and this allowed the island to be flooded in several places.
Far from being a total disaster, this resulted in perfect conditions for a bird that hadn’t bred in Britain for 100 years - the beautiful avocet. Incredibly, avocets were discovered nesting on the island, which led to the RSPB purchasing Havergate in 1949. This was the beginning of a new chapter in Havergate Island’s colourful history.
Reg Partridge was appointed as the island’s first warden and promptly began the task of rebuilding the river walls and creating the lagoons that can now be seen today and which are enjoyed by a wide variety of wildlife, including wetland bird species such as avocets, spoonbills, curlews and many others.
Throughout the 68 years since the RSPB purchased Havergate, the island and its management has changed and grown with the times, to support the different and increasing number of species that rely on it for a home or resting or feeding place.
On October 21, visitors who have arrived on the island in the RSPB boat October Storm will be able to see the remains of the old Havergate cottage, hear how the gravel company shaped the island and learn more about the site’s rich history. Perhaps some stories will be told about how the old marsh keepers lived in such a remote place. The special Bygone Years on Havergate tour will be led by RSPB volunteers Davene and Steve Everett, who are well known specialists guides who often show visitors the delights of the RSPB’s famous Minsmere nature reserve.
It’s now more important than ever that the public and the RSPB support and look after Havergate as many species rely heavily on the island and its rich ecosystem to survive and thrive. With stronger tides and fiercer storms each year, another chapter of Havergate Island’s history is being written. We should all enjoy and support the island and you can do so by booking onto one of the visitor trips that regularly go out there throughout the year. This will help ensure this beautiful island in Suffolk’s River Ore, just south of Orford, remains to be enjoyed by generations of humans and animals to come!
For booking details and more information on the Bygone Years of Havergate tour, or other trips to the island, visit rspb.org.uk/havergateisland or call RSPB Minsmere on 01728 648301.