Southwold: quirky fun at the pier
PUBLISHED: 11:29 12 January 2016 | UPDATED: 09:52 19 January 2016
Nick Cottam meets irrepressible Tim Hunkin, creator of the whacky Under the Pier Show. Just the thing to cheer you up on a winter's day. Photos: Tim Curtis
There’s something about stepping on to a pier. You’re still on dry land, but walking on water. You’re not in a boat, but it’s an offshore experience. Look over the side and you can almost make yourself seasick on a stormy day.
Genteel Southwold has its own take on this surreal pier experience. For a start – and a big start in this writer’s view – there’s engineer and machine man Tim Hunkin. Midway along the 632 feet, 940 board pier is the Hunkin water clock, recycling its own fresh water chimes above the salty North Sea. Made from old copper hot water cylinders the clock stands proud as a cheeky monument to the flow of time. Today the Tim Hunkin experience on Southwold Pier includes his take on the traditional ‘end of the pier show’, a collection of fun poking, gently satirical arcade machines that just happen not to be at the end of the pier. Enter Hunkin’s Under the Pier Show and you are in the world of the wonderfully weird – everything from shooting down modern art to learning how to evade Somali pirates. If you weren’t feeling all at sea when you set foot on the pier here’s another chance to cast yourself adrift.
Hunkin, who lives locally, has always been fascinated by machines.
“I still love watching diggers and cranes working,” he says. “Seaside arcades had old working models like The Miser’s Dream and The Drunk in the Graveyard. Today they seem a bit pathetic, but as a child I loved them.”
Art Apocalypse, an art shoot ‘em up and the latest Tim Hunkin contraption to finds its way onto the pier is based on an old Namco game he bought from a friend.
“It’s a bit dull just shooting at bull’s eyes so I thought it would be more satisfying shooting at art, particularly as Southwold is quite an arty place, so jokes about art seem relevant.”
This is par for the course for Hunkin, whose machines can also be played in London at the recently opened Novelty Automation, near Holborn. The Holborn premises are in the tradition of London’s popular entertainment. The print shops where the 18th century cartoonists sold their work were close to Holborn and crowds gathered outside them to see the latest cartoons.
The general idea behind the machines, he says, is to poke fun at institutions that take themselves too seriously and enjoy some of the weird contradictions of the modern world.
This from an engineering science graduate who clearly likes to chuckle at life but has a serious message behind his rather diffident veneer. Last year, for example, he made a money-laundering machine, which lampoons what he sees as a financial services-led economic recovery since 2008. As a result, he suggests, Britain is now effectively a giant tax haven.
Doing the research for each machine is another fun part of the job.
“It’s great to have a reason to investigate odd subjects like Somali pirates,” he explains with reference to the Pirate Practice machine, which dominates one wall of the Under the Pier Show.
“To show the owners that a captured ship was in good condition, the pirates took video which they put on YouTube. A pirate walks slowly around the ship with a hand held camera accompanied by Somali pop music. The music was broadcast on the ship’s tannoy to keep up morale. I watched the videos for hours and hours.” Hunkin’s next machine in the pipeline could well be a comment on Southwold’s inflationary property market.
“I’m making a Beverley Hills Mansion, watching crazy estate agent video tours of the mansions for inspiration. I’m really excited about the machine and am hoping it will be on the pier for the autumn half term, but there’s still a lot to do.”
Something for everyone
Aside from the esoteric Hunkin, Southwold Pier hosts a variety of entertainment, including three eating establishments, two shops and the more traditional, albeit less humorous slot machine arcade, which in this writer’s memory has been around since time immemorial. According to general manager Peter Websdale it’s all good family entertainment, with no prize money above £5 as a deterrent to serious gamblers.
Looking ahead, the pier’s current owners, Gough Hotels, who took over in 2013, plan to create their own version of the existing planning permission for a 30-bedroom hotel. The group, which runs The Angel in Bury St Edmunds and the Salthouse Harbour Hotel on Ipswich Waterfront, is taking its time to create the right concept, but is absolutely committed to going ahead, says marketing director Alex Paul.
“We’re still looking at what we want to achieve and how we use the space,” he says. “We’re committed to creating something very special on the pier.” In the meantime, says Peter Websdale, Southwold Pier is already an iconic destination.
“There is something different happening every day and a constant throughput of visitors – up to 2,500 people daily.” Among the more unusual reasons for a visit, he remembers, was the family last year who were given permission to launch a rocket off the pier containing a deceased relative’s ashes.
Piering into the past
Southwold Pier originally opened in 1900 as a stop for the Belle Steamers that chugged their way between London and the seaside. Passengers arrived by steam ship as a more reliable alternative to the Southwold Railway, some leaving behind the hustle and bustle of the pier to bed down at local hotels, while others continued on an extended day trip, which also took in Clacton, Walton, Felixstowe and Lowestoft before heading back to the smoke.