Twenty miles from Ipswich, at the southern end of the most easterly stretch of coastline in the British Isles, the little town of Orford sits on a modest eminence cherishing what is left of its past glories. Centuries ago it had free access to the sea: it was a considerable port, and it supplied men and ships for the navies of the Kings of England. But the river that had entered the sea at Aldeburgh, five miles to the north, was even then altering the shape of the Suffolk coastline and the course of Orford's history.
Deposits on the farther side of the river were forming the ever-growing shingle bank, running southwards from Aldeburgh parallel to the old coastline, that today embraces Orfordness. Today the river pursues a shifting channel through the silt to reach the sea several miles south of Orford, and on the mainland the old Orford quay is flanked by low marshes which the river has flooded and shaped over the years. At some time this flooding and shaping formed two islands in the river between the mainland and the shingle bank; further changes joined the islands together, and they became Havergate Island.
Havergate today is a little under two miles long and covers 267 acres, including a fair stretch of tidal saltings. Most of it is well below the level of normal high tides, and would be flooded if it were not for a drainage system and sea walls - the successors of banks that local people first raised about 500 years ago.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century Havergate's isolation began to make it particularly attractive to smugglers, who are said to have been in league with the owners and to have used the island as a base. It was in that role that it figured in the remarkable story of Margaret Catchpole, the Suffolk maidservant who fell in love with a smuggler and for his sake stole a horse and rode it from Ipswich to London - an escapade for which she was transported to Australia in 1801. The ancient Jolly Sailor Inn near Orford quay still displays a poster, dated 26 March 1800, offering £20 for her capture.
Farmers, too, made their way to Havergate. First they grew crops there, and then they turned to cattle-grazing. From Christina Irene Bayly, whose father's family the Brinkleys lived in a cottage on the island from 1885 to 1925, we know something of their frugal life looking after the stock of the then owner, a Mr. Fiske, who farmed near Ipswich. A Mr. Welham and his housekeeper took over from Mrs. Bayly's relatives but, when they in turn left towards the end of the 1920s, there was no one to take their place.
Throughout the 1930s cattle were still brought to the island in the summer months and left to graze, and in 1933 a gravel company began an attempt to exploit Havergate as a source of shingle. That enterprise proved unprofitable, and the installation of machinery in the cottage brought about the building's final collapse. Only the foundations now remain.
The 1939-45 war completed the changes that had already begun. The military effectively took over Havergate, and for several years nature took its course. Salt water flooded parts of the south of the island: Havergate was losing whatever usefulness it had had in the service of man and man's animals, but it was becoming an ideal haven for birds. Fortunately for us, the avocets discovered it.
Having apparently bred in a number of places on the eastern coast of England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the avocets seem to have left the British Isles in the 1840s and to have ceased to breed there for 100 years. Many reasons - including the activities of egg collectors and wildfowlers - have been suggested for this, but exactly why the avocets left, and why they eventually returned, must remain something of a mystery. Whatever the cause, it was not until 1947 that avocets began to breed again in Britain in some numbers and with reasonable success.
They were first seen in residence in May of that year on the coastal marshes at Minsmere, a dozen miles to the north of Havergate and an area in which the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was already showing an interest; and on 6 July avocets were seen over Havergate itself. Four - perhaps five - pairs bred on Havergate in 1947 and reared at least eight chicks between them. The avocets had come back to breed, but would they come again?