It’s generally acknowledged that Southwold is the queen of the Suffolk coast, and it is lovely, but in some ways I prefer Aldeburgh, a cultured and more laidback place – not that Southwold is the least bit Kiss Me Quick, but it is busier and more commercial. Southwold does have a pier, but it’s not what you might think – built in 1900, it was destroyed by storms in 1934 and 1979 (and in the Second World War, to a certain extent), then rebuilt in 1999-2001, and is now a family business. There are the usual cafés and gift shops, but the unmissable attraction is the Under The Pier Show, a beyond quirky arcade of weird slot machines (now expanding into virtual reality).
For some of us, the great attraction in Southwold is Adnam’s brewery, a local success story that stands as a telling contrast to Greene King in Bury St Edmunds, which has set out to become as big a second-tier brewery and pub company as it can, by buying up rivals and closing them down. Adnams, however, prides itself on good community relations and a sustainable approach to its business, exemplified by the beautiful grass-roofed distribution centre opened in 2006 three miles out of town. Unfortunately this brought to an end their tradition of delivering beer around Southwold with a horse-powered dray. The brewery is still in the town (tours are available), and has been totally rebuilt internally – they thought of moving to their Reydon site but in the end they decided to stick to their roots in town and built the distribution centre there instead. They can now produce lots of one-off craft beers and also lager, and have built a great reputation for their balancing act between classic cask standards and trendy innovations. They are keen to cooperate with other brewers, and in 2010 they also started a distillery to produce Suffolk gin, vodka and whisky.
And of course they have pubs – the Sole Bay Inn, the Lord Nelson and the Red Lion are all good, as well as the Swan and Crown hotels. There’s also the Adnams Store and Café just off the High St (they also have stores in Aldeburgh, Woodbridge, Bury St Edmunds, Norwich, Saffron Walden and elsewhere). Their key beers are Southwold Bitter, a 3.7% session beer, Ghost Ship, a 4.5% pale ale with Citra hops (and an alcohol-free version) and Broadside, a 4.7% premium bitter (bottled Broadside is 6.3%). The chestnut-brown Bitter is a fine example of the classic English style, along the lines of Harvey’s Sussex Best (and it’s interesting that Harvey’s is one of the few other breweries still to be brewing in a town centre, Lewes to be precise).
It’s only in the last decade or so that the town has come to terms with the fact that George Orwell wrote his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, here, in his parents’ retirement home, Montague House, on the High Street. It’s now available as a holiday let, and an Orwell mural now faces people leaving the pier.
Speaking of places to stay, the writer WG Sebald was apparently a fan of the Crown Hotel, but ‘the Sailors’ Reading Room is by far my favourite haunt’, as it is for many others – next to the Lord Nelson, it was built in 1864 as an alternative to the town’s pubs for its sailors and fishermen, and still serves that purpose, but has also developed into a sort of museum, with historic pictures of ships and sailors, model ships and glass cabinets of maritime bits and pieces. Another historic relic of sorts is the Electric Picture Palace, created only in 2002 in disused stables on Blackmill Road; as you go in, you’ll pass a uniformed commissionaire, a dinner-jacketed manager and an usherette. There’ll be an interval when a ‘Tiny Wurlitzer’ organ will appear, and at the end you will of course wait for the National Anthem before leaving. They show a lot of classic films as well.
A couple of miles away on the far side of the Blyth river is Walberswick, reached by a foot ferry or the bailey bridge, built to replace the bridge of the narrow-gauge railway that I mentioned here (it’s going to be closed for repairs this summer, which is causing some debate – it’s exactly when most people will be affected, but apparently the tides dictate it). I asked my friends in Walberswick if this rather formless little village felt overwhelmed by lively prosperous Southwold, but they said ‘No! We feel superior’, and what’s more my friends felt superior (in a nice way, I
think) to other people in Walberswick because they’d been coming there since the 1950s, long before the various Freuds (and partners such as Richard Curtis) who have to a certain extent put it on the map. It was in fact known at the end of the nineteenth century, when artistic types such as Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret Macdonald summered here.
Incidentally, there may not be much in Walberswick, but there are two good pubs, the Bell and the Anchor, the second of which has been run since 2006 by Mark Dorber. For about twenty-five years he ran the White Horse on Parson’s Green in London, which had a moment in the mid-80s when it was known as the Sloaney Pony and was at the heart of the Sloane Ranger phenomenon – but he also played a huge rôle in bringing about the revival of the classic IPA style, and in pushing the idea of pairing food with specific beers. I only once went in to the White Horse, where the England Number 8, Dean Richards, was towering over the crowd – he was not in the least sloaney.
The other thing Walberswick is known for is crabbing, indeed the British Championships were held there until they fell victim to their own success – and in an age of social distancing it’s not possible for kids to line up on the Kissing Bridge as they used to. The aim is to catch the largest crab possible (bacon is the bait of choice) and release it, so it’s utterly pointless and just another of the weird ways in which humans torment other animals.
Both Southwold and Walberswick have fine churches – St Edmund in Southwold was built in the 1430s to 1490s, after an earlier church burnt down, and so has an unusually unified style, with a continuous roof over nave and chancel. It’s known for its very fine rood screen with painted figures of saints, and the carved angels looking down from the ceiling. The glass is plain, due to the combined efforts of the Puritans and the Luftwaffe, so it’s even more full of light than other churches built at this time from the profits of the wool trade, such as in Lavenham.
St. Andrew’s in Walberswick is striking because (as in Covehithe), it’s set in the ruins of the previous church. This was built in 1473-93, but just a few years later, after the Reformation, congregation numbers plummeted for some reason and most of the church fell into disuse. Finally, at the end of the seventeenth century, most of it was demolished and a smaller church fashioned out of the south aisle. The tower also had to remain, as an aid to navigation. The pulpit and altar screen also survive from the older church, and there’s an interesting mosaic made of stained glass from its windows.
But the best church in the area (listed Grade I and all that) is at Blythburgh, a few miles inland and reached by a nice walk along the former railway. This also gives access to the reedbeds at the heart of the Suffolk Coast National Nature Reserve, which also includes a lot of sandy heathland – both habitats are very important for birdlife (around 300 species), butterflies and moths (500 species), as well as over 100 species of cranefly (who knew?), otters, natterjack toads and five species of deer.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I cycled on to Aldeburgh, a charming little town that’s quieter and less commercial than Southwold (it has a stoney beach whereas Southwold’s is sandy) – it’s known above all as the home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, who were rather forward-thinking when they founded a music festival in 1948, with performances in many local churches. It was even more forward-thinking to take over the industrial site of Snape Maltings, five miles inland, which now houses not only a beautiful concert hall and the Britten-Pears music school but also a gallery, café, pub, self-catering accommodation and posh shops – I mean, how did BB know that lifestyle shopping was going to be such a big thing? It’s a surprisingly large and attractive complex, with scope for further development.
Aldeburgh itself has suffered from coastal erosion, although it’s less obvious than at Dunwich, Orford and other former ports along this coast; even so, few pre-nineteenth-century buildings remain and the historic Moot Hall (c1529, now housing the town museum) was in the town centre and is now on the promenade. In the nineteenth century Aldeburgh revived as a bathing resort (and the railway arrived in 1860); the delightful shopfronts on the present surprisingly wide High Street date from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and are key to its Conservation Area status with their fanlights, pilasters and decorative ironwork.
Other architectural oddities on the seafront include the two look-out towers, built by two rival pilotage groups to spot ships heading south towards the Thames, the modernist lifeboat station (built in 1994), and a Martello tower (half a mile south), the northernmost of the chain built to defend against a Napoleonic invasion (now available as holiday accommodation). The South Lookout Tower is where Laurens van der Post wrote in his later years, and is now part of an artists’ residence.
Aldeburgh church is a little north of the centre, and has a largely nineteenth-century interior, so it doesn’t get as many visitors as Southwold’s fabulous church; but there’s a fine stained-glass window by John Piper in memory of Britten, with scenes from his church parables, and a memorial to the 1899 lifeboat disaster. The large churchyard contains not only the graves of Britten and Pears, alongside each other, but also nearby those of Imogen Holst (daughter of Gustav), Britten’s assistant and also a composer, musical educator and conductor in her own right, and the soprano Joan Cross, who created rôles such as Ellen Orford and Mrs Grose in Britten’s operas.
Britten and Pears’ home, The Red House, is near the golf course on the way to Snape; I saw a flip remark that the historic Sailor’s Path to Snape (recently refurbished with solid wooden boardwalks) was ‘Britten’s walk to work’, but I don’t believe it for a moment – he always loved travelling by car and bought a Rolls-Royce as soon as he could. Anyway, the Red House is well worth a visit; in addition to the house and lovely gardens, the library and composition studio were built in former barns (where the Roller also lived) and there’s a modern gallery over Britten’s open-air swimming pool (which is still there beneath the floor).
Among more modern musicians, Peter Sinfield (of King Crimson) and Isabella Summers (of Florence and the Machine) both live here – but I was more surprised to learn that Gerry Fiennes (1906–85), author of I Tried to Run a Railway, was mayor of Aldeburgh in 1976 – he has something of a cultish following, having introduced both the Deltic diesel locomotives (for sustained 100mph running on the London-Edinburgh route) and the merry-go-round trains (for moving coal in bulk); but publication of his wickedly humorous book in 1967 led to his being sacked by British Rail. In fact I shouldn’t have been so surprised, as I already knew that his cousin Ralph Fiennes was born in Suffolk, and puts on a very creditable local accent in The Dig (about Sutton Hoo). Another mayor of Aldeburgh (in 1908) was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, whose family owned the Snape maltings; she was not only Britain’s first female doctor, but also its first female mayor, and she also lies in the churchyard.
Food-wise, the emphasis here is totally on fish, and smoking fish is big here and along the coast to Orford and into Essex. Aldeburgh Smokehouse (also known as Ash Smoked Fishes, though I think that should be ash-smoked fish) is a hut on the beach just north of the centre. Aldeburgh Fish & Chip Shop is the most famous chippie on the Suffolk coast, and The Lighthouse on the High Street is also a fine seafood restaurant. Aldeburgh was also famed for Lawson’s Deli (also on the High Street), which became Slate Cheese in 2017 and is still excellent (the best Suffolk cheese is Baron Bigod, the only British raw milk Brie-style cheese). Slate Cheese also has a branch in Southwold, and other trendy outlets such as Two Magpies Bakery, Quba and Joules (for clothing and furnishings) also have branches in each town. It’s also noticeable that there are good bookshops in both towns and in nearby villages too (though these are mostly internet/mail-order operations); the Southwold Bookshop is now owned by Waterstones but that’s not at all obvious.