…oh I do like to be beside the sea” as the song goes and so do I…and where better to spend some time at the seaside than at Southwold on “Suffolk’s Sunrise Coast”!
The Sunrise Coast
The picturesque town of Southwold has become something of a favourite destination of mine in recent years and I regularly return drawn by its timeless qualities and charms.
It is a quintessential resort which evokes the heyday of the British seaside holiday before the rise of foreign package holidays and it is a place that is still popular today as a centre for traditional family holidays with its award winning beaches, its pier and its rainbow painted seaside huts amongst it many other attractions.
The beach – a day out for the whole family!
Southwold has attracted holidaymakers for the last 200 years with its picturesque seafront and unique character. In the 1800s bathing machines transported modest Victorian swimmers down to the water’s edge on wheels, in 1900 the first pier was built and the 1920’s saw the introduction of the town’s trademark rows of colourful beach huts.
The famous vibrantly painted Southwold beach huts today…
…come in a myriad of colours!
Map of the town
Today a right turn off the busy A12 brings you across Mights Bridge, the main access into Southwold, but the town was in fact once an island, cut off from the mainland by the River Blyth to its south and west and by a creek to the north east!
Modern town sign at Mights Bridge
Traditional town sign designed by Clifford Russell made to celebrate the Festival of Britain in 1951
Despite its somewhat isolated position, Southwold has had a wealth of thriving industries in the past which have helped to make the town what it is today.
The town has been allowed to hold a market every Thursday since 1220, and on becoming a town corporation granted by a Royal Charter by Henry VII in 1490, was allowed an additional market on a Monday. These markets selling local produce and crafts are still popular today with locals and tourists alike.
Uniquely, Southwold has managed to retain its tasteful and genteel air whilst many other towns have become tacky seaside resorts with their town shops looking like a clone of any other English high street. Today it has a wealth of independent shops and the local Chamber of Trade work hard to retain the individuality of the businesses.
Southwold was recently dubbed “Notting Hill-on-Sea” in the media as many of the houses here are now owned by Londoners attracted by the many restaurants and gastro pubs along with clothing shops, artisan bakeries and delicatessens. House prices in town have risen as a result and even the beach huts have a high price tag these days!
However visit during the week particularly out of season, and you have the place virtually to yourself!
The largest employer today is Adnams Brewery which started out as the brewhouse of the Swan Hotel more than 650 years ago. Originally called the Sole Bay Brewery after the famous sea battle fought off the coast against the Dutch in 1672, the brewery was bought by the Adnams family in 1872. Today it nestles close to the lighthouse and nearby has a large thriving outlet selling beer wines and spirits and other foodie delights .
“Southwold Jack” is Adnams longest standing trademark. Seen here on the wall of the brewery he is also a four foot high wooden figure to be found in St Edmunds Parish Church depicting a young soldier from the 15th Century War of the Roses.
The Adnams brewery dray horses were a familiar sight in town until 2006 when they retired due to the opening of a new distribution centre
To the Lighthouse…
The town is steeped in maritime history and the beacon from its lighthouse, built in 1890 and standing an impressive 101 feet above the town was a factor in the towns success.
Construction of the lighthouse began in 1887 replacing three local lighthouses which were under threat from severe coastal erosion. While the masonry tower was being built a temporary light shone from a wooden structure which was first lit on 19th February 1889.
The present lighthouse entered service on 3rd September 1890. In 1938 it was electrified and demanned and in December 2012 the range of its light was increased to 24 nautical miles in advance of the decommissioning of Orfordness lighthouse. Tours of the lighthouse are often organised by Trinity House.
Not far from the lighthouse is the Southwold Museum. It is well worth a visit and the building itself is very fine with a Dutch gable end. They also have a wealth of information on the towns history on their website from which I have sourced some of the archive picture postcards included in this article.
To the Pier…
The original Southwold Pier was built in 1900 as a landing stage for the Belle steamships that travelled from London Bridge and was 810 feet long.
In 1934, the T-shaped landing stage was swept away in a violent storm and never replaced. Three years later the timber buildings at the shoreward end were replaced by a two-storey pavilion complete with concert hall and amusement arcade. At the outbreak of World War II it was sectioned for fear of the anticipated German invasion. It was also hit by a drifting sea mine in 1941, which destroyed a further section. In 1979, another storm reduced its length to only 60ft.
In 1987, the pier was privately bought and work to rebuild it started in 1999 making new legs with the latest piling techniques. In 2001, the work was completed with the pier reaching its current length of 623 feet. It was named Pier of the Year in 2002 and is Britain’s only 21st Century Pier. Amazingly the paddle steamer Waverley – still operated by Belle Coaches – continues the tradition of calling at Southwold pier during summer months on its way to London’s Tower Bridge!
Enjoying a coffee in the sun!
The pier today
The Great Fire…
Today if you stand outside the Swan hotel you will see a wall plaque commemorating Southwold’s Great Fire of 1659.
The fire broke out nearby and in the space of four hours, destroyed some 238 houses many of which had reed thatched roofs. Southwold was the first officially declared disaster area in Britain. Money was donated from all over the country to help rebuild the homes and businesses of more than 300 families and with these donations the town was rebuilt. The present day eight “greens” are a famous landmark of the town and they were reputedly left as firebreaks with the ruins of the former buildings buried beneath.
South Green today
The winding back streets of the town always have something of interest to me. As a garden designer I cannot resist the temptation to peer over walls into back gardens and am never disappointed!
The vibrant colours of the houses are only outdone by the colours of the beach huts!
“Suffolk Pink” a classic colour in this part of England! Centuries ago, these pink shades were created by adding natural substances such as elderberries, dried blood, or crumbled red earth to traditional lime whitewash to achieve the colour.
Pargeting on a house wall… a decorative plasterwork
applied to building walls a practice particularly associated with Suffolk
Quirky architecture affording good sea views!
Gun Hill with its cannons given to the town in 1705 to protect the town from enemy threat from the sea
During WW2 these cannons were buried for the duration of the war so as not to appear as a fortified town. Despite two thirds of the towns residents being evacuated during the hostilities, which left a population of just 800, some 77 properties were bombed and totally destroyed with 13 people losing their lives.
Down Ferry Road…
I always stay at a rented former fishing loft on Ferry Road when holidaying in Southwold. The road leads down to the harbour and has stunning sunrise views across the sand dunes to the east, and to the west, perfect sunsets over the marshes.
Living in landlocked Worcestershire some miles from the nearest shop, it is always a novelty to me to be able to stroll into town for provisions and then return along on the sandy beach perhaps having a paddle on the way home!
Ferry Road nestles behind the sand dunes
The road positioned below the sand dunes is naturally prone to the vagaries of the weather. I was surprised to find flood advice warnings in one of our rented holiday homes but given the recent high tides and spells of continuous rain this Winter it is better to be safe than sorry!
A dramatic photo from the BBC this winter
The town in the background and Ferry Road leading to the harbour and river
There have been major flooding incidents here in the past. In 1903 the dunes were breached and Ferry Road and the marshes were under water and shingle.
It was the Great Flood of 1953 which caused severe damage to many coastal parts of East Anglia and brought devastation to Southwold when the sea quickly surrounded the town. Ferry Road was filled level to the beach with sand and shingle with the surge of the sea and five people were drowned.
Ferry Road houses after the 1953 floods
Many of the properties on this road were used by fishermen as lofts for drying and storing nets. Salt was an important commodity for preserving fish and the site of the saltings is commemorated in the name of a house at the town end of Ferry Road.
Fishing has been a big part of Southwold’s economy dating back to before Domesday.
The Manor of Southwold was granted to the monks of Bury St Edmunds in 1042 for which they received an annual tribute of 20,000 herrings!
The town pump decorated with herrings!
Many fishing boats worked off the beach between Gun Hill and the pier in tarred fishermen’s huts called “crabs”, this same stretch today is occupied by the colourful beach huts.
Herrings were the main catch and in the early 1900’s huge numbers of Scottish women relocated to Southwold to gut and pack the herrings into barrels for export to Europe.
Scottish women helping to process and pack the catch c1907
On the corner of Ferry Road where the caravan site stands today was the Fish Market a strange octagonal building known as the “Kipperdrome”.
“The Kipperdrome” in its heyday
Today nearby is the Alfred Corry lifeboat museum appropriately housed within a former lifeboat shed which was amazingly towed from Cromer in Norfolk to its present location in 1998.
The Alfred Corry was Southwold’s first lifeboat from 1893 until 1918 and in its time her crew saved some 47 lives. In later years the boat was refitted as a yacht renamed Alba and latterly became a houseboat the Thorfinn. In the 1970’s she was found by the grandson of her first coxswain and he undertook a restoration programme and sailed her back to Southwold where she can be seen today.
To the Harbour…
Turning the corner of Ferry Road the River Blyth enters the sea. Just past the present day RNLI lifeboat is the ferry to Walberswick. This pretty little village on the other side of the river can be accessed here by ferry or on foot via the Bailey bridge upstream or by car via an 8 mile journey back into town and around the marshes by road!
There has been a rowing boat ferry here since 1236 and over the years it has had a chain pontoon ferry and a steam ferry. Today the crossing is again by open rowing boat and its timetable varies according to the season.
Past the ferry, you arrive at the Blackshore where the town’s fishing industry today is centred.
Whilst this is a working area with boats undergoing restoration, busy fishermen and pleasure sailing, it is also popular with artists. The big skies, ever changing light and the picturesque black fisherman’s huts all provide plenty of inspiration and subject matter for amateur and professional painters.
The road leads to the Harbour Inn before turning back towards the town over the Common.
Note the 1953 flood level sign – and again this winter the pub was flooded!
Stormy skies over the Common
Southwold to me is a perfect retreat from the demands of everyday life. It is a place to relax and unwind, eat ice creams and build sandcastles, a place where you can forget your car and just walk – be it into town, across the marshes, the common or along the beach.
Or a place to just simply “be beside the seaside”… I will be back for my annual fix of Southwold later this year…