My favourite town: Southwold

PUBLISHED: 14:56 26 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:45 20 February 2013

By Katie Lunnon

By Katie Lunnon

A coastal haven, a place of subtle change, and a town of redoubtable women. Ian Collins rejoices in a great seaside destination

A coastal haven, a place of subtle change, and a town of redoubtable women. Ian Collins rejoices in a great seaside destination

Sixteen summers ago Ibought a cottage inSouthwold and that luckybreak may well be the bestmove I ever made. Suffolksfirst resort changes far more thanvisitors think, but it remains a haven.

We all have our own Southwold,and that luxury of free choice in sucha small place owes as much to what ismissing as to the pleasures that masshere. The fast, instant and throwawayare moderated by the joys oflingering and savouring.

There is still so much to see and do from the most magnificent churchon the English coast, built by one 15thcentury generation and decorated bythe next, to our fabulously recreatedpier complete with bawdy water clockand surreal amusements by localgenius Tim Hunkin.

Check out our excellent and nowextended free museum in VictoriaStreet, and look in on my club: theSailors Reading Room on theseafront. Be sure to visit our very bestleisure centre (aka The Beach).

Then again, you may have anentirely different agenda. Southwold,both sociable and private, busy andempty, allows you to be yourself.

And yet, a lot of people get thewrong idea about Southwold. A townbuilt around a working brewery andharbour and awash with pubs,clubs, bars, cafes, wine stores, simplehostelries and fine hotels is morelikely to be merry than stuffy.

But there is always space for escapehere and just to day-dream to yieldyourself up to what we call SouthwoldZonk. We blame the ozone but it couldbe the beer.

All honour to our greatest benefactor,William Godyll who, in 1509,bequeathed the common to the town,and ensured our magical setting.

Southwold is almost an island, with borders of sea, river and stream, and aglorious green hinterland back to the distant clamour of the A12. It is a placefor walking and cycling, as well aspaddling, swimming and sailing.

On special days its even a place forclimbing any of several beacon towers though anyone who saw me on theBBC2 Coast programme walking around the cage of the lighthouse light,while talking about 1880s Southwoldand the era of impressionist artistPhilip Wilson Steer, should be warned. Only the engaging presence ofpresenter Alice Roberts made me forgetthat I suffer from vertigo.

I was one of the last people inEngland to be woken by the sound ofworking hooves, as the heavy-horsepullers of Adnams dray carts weremoved from meadow to stable. That keynote of local tradition was lost whenthe brewery opened a new distributioncentre outside the town, freeing up twodevelopment sites inside it.

But in summer I still wake to thegleeful shrieks of swifts and I need walkonly a very short distance to besurrounded by the blissful din ofskylarks.

Ive counted as many as 14goldfinches on my courtyardbirdfeeders in winter and countlessstarlings swarm overhead in autumnmurmurations. Southwold is altogethera bird watchers paradise.

Even with the developmentalonslaughts of recent decades it wouldbe hard to ruin Southwold, though wehave suffered a regrettable rash oftwiddle-twaddle and fiddle-faddle inarchitecture inspired by a gimcrackPortmeirion and ignoring the nobleplainness of the Suffolk coast.

While developers are occasionallyable to get away with desecration Ifought for years to extend my tinyunlisted 1830s harbourmasters cottageupwards by all of five feet and to framea new first floor in a modest mansard roof.

Despite much local support I was blocked by Waveney planners. Finally Iprevailed after huge cost.

Months later a document wascommissioned by the district council to celebrate buildings which are essentialto the character of Southwold. Itincluded a picture ofmy cottage as amended.

Some Southwold friends managewithout a car, piecing together apersonal transport system based onfoot, pedal, bus and train.

The key to this splendid system allthe more vital since we lost our petrolstation (its demolition still blighting theentrance to Southwold though theapproved apartment block would beeven worse than the present blot) isthe ability to find everything you need in the High Street.

We are still blessed with twogreengrocers, butcher, pet shop, post office, banks, building societies,antique shop, newsagents, chemists,electrical supplier, hardware store, fishand chip shop, craft shop and artgallery. And hurrah for Pam and herteam in Bookthrift and Louise and herteam in Nutters health food store, andone more cheer for the tasteful joys ofBlack Olive.

So how has such a varied andthriving town centre managed to do sowell in these days of chain stores andmodern retailing?We have been helped in this as in somuch else by our sterling town council,hugely improving the mid-weekmarkets after wresting control fromwretched Waveney.

The loss of our last wetfish shop hasbeen offset by a market van and fishstalls on Blackshore. With the recentrevival of the Harbour pub, and theongoing survival of an authenticSuffolk boat centre (Southwold havingseen off both a Dutch marina and aboats-of-the-world museum), theharbour thrives while still awaitingmajor structural rescue.

There are endless threats recentlyto the library and the tip, and now froma Healthy Living centre in Reydon(yet another big developmentopportunity), which would close ourdoctors surgery and threaten ourchemists and cottage hospital.

The reckless pursuit of money mustnot wreck everything we value. Whilemany second-home owners aim to movefull time to Southwold as soon as they can, and contribute to the life of thetown in the meantime, those who onlybuy to let undermine the community onwhich they depend.

Southwold has drawn amazinglyinteresting people the rollcall of latelocal greats including rosegrower JackHarkness, bandleader Jack Parnell anddriftwood artist Margaret Mellis (thelast of these the main reason for mymoving here).

We still have PD James (or BaronessJames of Holland Park and Southwold,if you prefer) and a great cast of localchampions. Our town has always reliedon redoubtable women.

May elections for the town councilsaw Sue Doy and Teresa Baggotttopping the poll, both having served usbrilliantly of late as mayor.

Teresa is the landlady of the Red Lion on South Green and Sue is her mum, aformer waitress and pub cleaner. Theyare Southwold to their fingertips and Iraise an (Adnams) toast to them and toall who keep this lovely town afloat.

Ian Collins is the author of MakingWaves: Artists in Southwold. His latestbook is on the painter John Craxton

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