Seaside Special - Sniffy, spooky, handsome and grounded: Suffolk

Sheringham sets a solid standard when it comes to attractive seaside towns seeking to push back at the 21st century.Norfolk as a whole does a fine job of preserving its heritage. But Suffolk may put its northern neighbour in the shade The most impassioned and entrenched zeal for preservation is surely in Southwold. A couple of years ago, East Suffolk Council published a Conservation Area Character Appraisal for Southwold which described ‘one of the most picturesque seaside towns in England’ in 67 glossy, detailed pages, rich in photos of architectural merit; and at pains to re-affirm the Council’s commitment to ‘pay special attention to the preservation and enhancement of the conservation area’.

The Southwold and Reydon Society, dedicated to protecting the character and amenities of the community, has 400 fully paid up members. Particularly healthy when you consider that the town’s population at the 2011 Census was only 1,098. Top recruiting. Reports on its work are published each month in the Southwold Organ. Just had to be, didn’t it?  

Southwold: sniffy, but gorgeous

Southwold is beautiful, traditional and unique. Well worthy of protection. Far from taking pot shots at those leading the conservation fight, I applaud their dedication and marvel at the attention to detail. For instance, villages and towns like Southwold are renowned for historic pink-washed halls and cottages. The shade has become known as ‘Suffolk Pink’. It was developed by local dyers as early as the 14th Century when they added natural substances to a limewash mix. By tradition, a true Suffolk Pink should be deep dusky terracotta rather than the more popular pastel hue of modern times, imported from the Med. This distinction is crucial and has caused controversy when home and business-owners have been reprimanded for using colours deemed incorrect, with some being forced to repaint to an acceptable shade. This is what it is like for foot soldiers on the heritage front line, day in day out.

Moving south, we come across one of my favourite spots on this coast. Dunwich is now a remote and tiny village, clinging to the mid-Suffolk coastline with a tenacious grip absent in its medieval forebears. The original port of Dunwich resides in an offshore grave 32 feet and more beneath the surface of the North Sea.

Prolonged coastal erosion and some violent storms caused the abandonment of the village some time in the 1500s. And yet in the 11th Century it was the tenth largest town in England. Two monster storms in 1286 and 1326 resulted in the loss of its harbour and started the slow decline.

A Southampton University acoustic imaging project a few years ago mapped the village quite accurately. It found that the church and priory remained clearly identifiable, at least they did to sound waves, as the water is too murky for visual images. Looking along the flat coastline, it is surprising to learn that these important buildings actually fell over a cliff. There’s absolutely nothing left of it now.

The coastline remains fragile. And a bit bleak and isolated, too. A good place for a brace of nuclear power station you might think? You’d be right. Sizewell B hovers on the horizon over the edge of coastal lowland and heath. It is currently the nation’s newest nuclear station until Hinkley Point C is completed later this decade. Possibly. Sizewell A is in the process of being decommissioned and plans for a Sizewell C continue to ebb and flow.

Nuclear plants, whether for power or reprocessing, go hand-in-hand with remote, beautiful coastal areas of low population density: Sellafield, Seascale, Hunterston, Dungeness… Here the sand and shingle beach north of the station gives way to dunes anchored by tufted grasses constantly bending against the breeze. In turn they submit to the pools and lagoons of the Dunwich Heath and Minsmere RSPB Reserve. If you look carefully, you can see Chris Packham watching Dartford warblers, nightjars and woodlarks.

In amongst all this, the current 120 souls of the remaining Dunwich village can console themselves with a pint and a bite to eat in the fantastic Ship Inn. This most welcoming multi-roomed pub once seduced us so much with its smugglers tales and rumours of tolling bells out at sea that we were late getting back to Ipswich for a gig. Our hosts were less than amused and appeared not to give a flying fart for romantic pubs on crumbling coastlines.

Ghostly tales and fine ale: The Ship Inn

Further south, Aldeburgh, like Southwold, does plenty to hang on to its charming old-Englishness. Nevertheless, there is something a fraction more earthy about this town with the long, steeply shelved shingle beach and the 16th century timber framed Moot Hall on the seafront, still used for council meetings. Maybe it’s the chip shops with steady queues down the High Street of folk waiting patiently for punnets and trays of the original English fast food. Or maybe it’s the pubs serving up pints of nutty Adnams Broadside to punters in beer gardens who spill out onto the beach.

Back in 2006, we took a weekend break with friends in a beautifully appointed apartment above the Regatta Restaurant on the High Street. The place sat handsomely on the seafront behind its buff, rendered fa├žade. The apartment was in the same ownership as the restaurant below and on the busy Saturday of the late Summer bank holiday, staff served our party in the apartment’s conservatory because the restaurant was full. All the comforts of dining at home lifted to new heights by table service and food from a professional kitchen brought up the back stairs of the restaurant and through the garden.

On Bank Holiday Sunday morning, myself and my mate Nick informed the wives that we were off to play golf. Simple as that. And that it would be great if there was Sunday lunch on the table when we returned. Incredibly, and of course completely undeservedly, that is just what happened. After a tense nine holes filled with hooks, slices and air-shots at the majestic, salty-aired Aldeburgh Golf Club, we returned to tuck into delicious roast beef and all the trimmings. There was a bit of giggling and knowing looks from the wives, yet we thought nothing of it. But as soon as the plates were licked clean, they shot out of the door with a barbed “OK boys, see you later...maybe!” and disappeared, leaving us with a mountain of washing up and the kids in need of entertainment.

Many hours later, we tracked them down, ensconced in a beachside pub with the debris of empty wine bottles scattered around them. They were still tittering about their perfectly executed revenge.

We tried to book that apartment the following year, but were told by the frustrated owners that the accommodation was no longer available after some guests had basically trashed the place. You really wonder...

The composer Benjamin Britten is big in those parts. Born in Lowestoft in 1913, Britten has always been closely associated with Suffolk, even though he exiled himself to the USA during World War II as a conscientious objector. His most famous work is the opera Peter Grimes, which I gather was inspired by nineteenth-century Suffolk poet, George Crabbe. In a shocking admission of cultural desertification, I admit to having heard of neither the opera nor the poet. Britten has a fine, if contentious, sculpture on the beach. Created by Maggi Hambling, the creation is an eye-catching giant scallop shell cast in gleaming steel. It was largely paid for through hundreds of private subscriptions. Hambling gave her time for free.

And yet the locals have never taken it to their hearts. At its unveiling in 2003, Hambling hilariously said, “I thought that people might come up and say thank you - more fool me. My own newsagent just said to me, 'Hello, how's the eyesore coming along?’” Built to withstand anything the sea could throw at it, this beautiful monument had been vandalised 13 times in its first 10 years. It has something in common with the Leaky Boot and Diana Memorial Gardens in Cleethorpes.

Britten memorial and small child

South of Aldeburgh, a walk along a thin spit of land takes you past the stout, low profile Martello Tower, now a holiday home in the safe (but expensive) keeping of the Landmark Trust. One day I’ll be rich enough to stay in this place. No telly, no wifi, no garden, basic furniture…but the idea of lodging in a nineteenth century fort designed to repel the French during the Revolutionary Wars makes enormous appeal. I can see myself stood on the roof behind crenelated battlements, binoculars to my eyes, shouting out incomprehensible warnings to passers-by about imminent herring gull attacks. I’ve scoffed ice creams sat on the wall of the bridge to the front door. This is probably as near as I’ll get.

Room with a view: Aldeburgh's Martello Tower

Beyond this magnificent edifice, with the River Alde/River Ore on your right and the North Sea on your left, you arrive at Orford Ness. This is now another coastal nature reserve, but its military history is arguably more fascinating. The area has been strategically important since medieval times. However most of the buildings and structures that currently litter the area date from World War I onwards. There are bombing ranges, ballistics testing facilities, experimental radio beacons and it is home to the birth of radar. Some buildings have been renovated, including World War I accommodation blocks later used by the radar pioneers.

Down the coast, Felixstowe, clustered around the mouth of the River Orwell and eyeing Essex suspiciously over the water, is three towns (at least) in one. I have a soft spot for the place because it resolutely breaks the chain of genteel Suffolk seaside settlements. It is no sniffy Southwold, spooky Dunwich or handsome Aldeburgh. It has a more grounded charm all of its own.

The pebble and sand beach, pier, amusements and waffle bars of the honest, working class seaside part of the town lie between Britain’s busiest container port to its south and the subdued Edwardian elegance and beach hut symmetry of Old Felixstowe to the north. Up here the town appears to end at the golf course, but further exploration sees carefully manicured greens and lush fairways give way to informal boatyard chic at Felixstowe Ferry.

That spur, where the River Deben curls into the sea, wears a ramshackle air with comfortable indifference. Lines of trailered single-person yachts with mast rigging rattling in the breeze mingle with clapperboard seafront bungalows, a low-key boatbuilding business, a terraced riverfront cafe and an excellent pub. If you crave excitement, there’s a rumour that fresh fish is landed here every day or so, and can be bought down by the quay. The ferry itself is a foot and bike service only, from said quay across to Bawdsey. But only if you arrive after Easter and before October.

I used to bring the girls and their friends to Felixstowe, back in the day, whilst Mrs A met up with her business partner near Ipswich. I irresponsibly let them eat burgers and sweet waffles, swig cola and write dubious messages on the beach in trails of pebbles. Then Mrs A would join us and we’d go up to the Ferryboat Inn at Old Felixstowe for some proper fayre.

Suffolk in Summer. Nothing like a dip in the sea

I loved Felixstowe then and still do now. Though it’s hardly lively. As evidence I cite an experience one breezy Summer morning when the girls and I were playing crazy golf on a colourful course down by the seafront. We found a hedgehog in a tunnel connecting two holes. He was all scrunched up and fast asleep, having clearly decided he was at little risk of disturbance in such a fine spot.

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