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Birds of Southwold

Going to the seaside always provides good bird-spotting opportunities, and earlier this month I am pleased to report that Southwold was no exception.

Gulls tend to come first when talking about seaside birds, mainly (I suspect) due to the fact that they are both ubiquitous and noisy – if anything’s going to wake you up at six in the morning on a seaside holiday, you can bet it’s going to be the gulls.

To me, they can be confusing sometimes. In Britain, the common gull isn’t really that common, while the black-headed gull does not actually have a black head (it’s brown, but only in the summer). Throw in the problems of identifying the juveniles, which all look the same for the most part, and the birdwatcher who sees a lot of gulls can be in for an interesting time. On more than one occasion I have sat in a crowded hide and heard someone ask if a gull expert is present so that some identifications can be made.

The most abundant gulls at Southwold were the two I expected to be the most abundant – those of the black-headed and herring varieties.

The herring gull is, I suspect, what most peoples’ idea of a gull is; a big, powerful-looking beast with grey wings a red tip on its beak. Its ‘kyow’ call is truly one of the sounds of the seaside (they’re the alarm clock ones). These are the ones who will try to take your chips if you should happen to want to eat them while walking along the prom.

The black-headed gulls had, for the most part, already reverted to their winter plumages. They’re among the smallest of British gulls, and are the ones you’re most likely to find inland. They’ll eat practically anything, and as they tend to go around in groups their harsh-sounding ‘kree-aaa’ call is fairly ubiquitous, albeit not as piercing as the call of the afore-mentioned herring gull.

I did get to see one other gull on the beach when I went for a walk shortly before dusk. It was a tidy-looking thing, the size of a black-headed gull but its yellow beak and lack of any dark markings on its head told me this was something different; after consulting my field guide I concluded that it was a common gull.

Elsewhere, I saw a family of swans – partly obscured by reeds it must be said – and a solitary pied wagtail trying not to get blown away by the wind. House martins flew overheard down at the harbour, where crows and magpies could be seen fighting with the gulls over scraps.

But the best sighting of them all occurred just after we arrived in Southwold. We parked the car behind the hotel, and there in the roof of the carpark was a family of swallows – five babies waiting patiently for their parents to arrive with insects that they’d caught. My field guide tells me that a brood of swallows eats around 6,000 insects a day, and these little ones were getting fed by mum and dad every few minutes! The arrival of one of their parents was the cue for much noise as they all tried to get parental attention and the feed that went with it. They must have been almost ready to fly.

The following morning, I went down to look at them again and found just one there, looking rather forlorn it must be said. After breakfast, I went back and found that he’d been rejoined by his brothers and sisters, who’d moved a few rafters down. Later on, they’d all gone out flying.

It is hard to think that, within a month, these little birds will be flying all the way to Africa for the winter.


Spirit of Broadside

One thing I love about going to the Suffolk coast – along with the abundant birdlife, the opportunities for swimming in the sea and the chance to temporarily escape from London in the old-world charm of Southwold – is the chance to sample Adnams beer.

Although occasionally available as a guest beer at certain pubs in London, Adnams comes into its own in its home town of Southwold where the range available in any given pub is fantastic. From the dark, full-flavoured Gunhill to the golden, citrus-tasting Spindrift to the strong Broadside ale (not recommended as a session beer!), every Adnams beer is a winner as far as I am concerned.

Adnams, which somehow managed to escape being taken over by the various brewing conglomerates of the 1960s and 70s, was still using a horse-and-dray to delivery beer to pubs in Southwold less than a decade ago but has in recent years modernised in a big way. Nowadays, they have a state-of-the-art distribution centre a couple of miles inland, and in Southwold itself they have an excellent shop which sells fancy cooking equipment and fine wines in addition to many bottles of their beer. Now that is my kind of shop, and it’s a must-visit every time we go to Southwold.

For the past couple of years, it has been branching out and distilling spirits as well – which is not something most breweries would contemplate doing (they completed work on the Copper House Distillery, located next to the brewery in the heart of Southwold, in 2010). As a result, you can now get Adnams gin and vodka, as well as liqueurs like limoncello. Adnams has already started to pick up awards for its spirits, which shows that they’re taking it seriously and are being taken seriously. There’s a whisky too, although as the rules for whisky production state that it has to be matured in wood for at least three years, it’s not available to buy yet. Give it time, though. Good things do come to those who wait, right?

This merger of brewing and distilling has perhaps reached its apogee, though, with a new drink called Spirit of Broadside. What they’ve done is taken Broadside, distilled it and matured the result in oak casks for a year. People seem to be doing a lot more with beer these days – just look at the increasing number of microbreweries and the rise of the beer cocktail – but I haven’t come across anyone distilling it before (unless of course we want to define the fermented grain mash that gets distilled to make whisky as beer, and as far as I’m aware that is not the done thing). There isn’t even a proper name the resulting product – the three-year rule aside, it can’t be called whisky as there were hops involved in the making of the beer, although Adnams helpfully describes it as eau de vie de biere. Naturally, I couldn’t resist this.

The result is a warm, spicy-but-smooth drink, not really like any whisky, or indeed any liqueur, that I’ve tasted. The best way I can describe it is the result of someone combining a very good beer with a fine whisky, albeit in a much classier way than the whisky chaser.

Spirit of Broadside was introduced into the growing Adnams range last year, and if you are a beer-lover and can get hold of a bottle, it’s worth a try.

Broadside, which gets its name from the simultaneous (or near-simultaneous) firing of all of the canons on one side of an old ship-of-the-line, was first brewed in 1972 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Sole Bay, and Spirit of Broadside in turn commemorates the 40th anniversary of what has become one of their most popular beers.

The Battle of Sole Bay (sometimes written as Solebay) was fought just off the coast of Southwold in 1672. It was part of the Anglo-Dutch Wars – that now-largely-forgotten series of conflicts in the mid-to-late seventeenth century over control of the seas and trade routes. The battle itself was an indecisive affair. The Dutch fleet surprised a joint Anglo-French fleet at anchor in Sole Bay but was unable to press home its advantage when the wind changed. Today the battle is perhaps best known for the fact that one of the English admirals, the Earl of Sandwich, was killed. He was not the inventor of the sandwich – that was a later earl who was also an admiral – but he was the patron and benefactor of one Samuel Pepys; when Pepys refers to ‘my Lord’ in his diary, he’s referring to him.

The battle is commemorated in Southwold in lots of ways – it’s depicted on the town sign, there’s a plaque commemorating the house where the navy’s commander-in-chief (the Duke of York, later James II) stayed, and there are cannons facing out to sea on the town’s various greens. Plus, of course, the name of the battle is the name of the brewery.

It all, apparently, comes back to the beer.