Last weekend, for an all-too-brief time, Allison and I went back to Southwold. We’ve been going there for several years now, originally as a day-trip while staying in a nearby village but more recently staying in the town itself. What with its back alleys, art galleries, occasional antique markets, the pier, the lighthouse located in the middle of the town, the iconic painted beach huts and those old cannons overlooking the sea, it’s rather old-fashioned in some ways with its emphasis, as a holiday destination, purely on the British seaside experience without the mass crowds. It is, let’s face it, a small town and the fact that holiday-makers seem unusually prone to jay-walking is better explained by the narrowness of the pavements than the sheer number of people.
This Suffolk town has a refined, almost genteel air to it not present in some of the larger seaside towns, which has led some to nickname it Hampstead-on-Sea; appropriately, one of its most famous residents was a certain George Orwell, who also lived in Hampstead for a time. Literary connections aside, the fact that Southwold is home to the Adnams Brewery is an added bonus, with many having commented on how the smell of malt from the brewery somehow blends with the sea air. The pubs, needless to say, are excellent.
On the birding front, I was on the look-out for the swallows after what we saw last year; this time, we were a bit early to see the baby swallows all lined up and ready to fly, but we did see them poking their heads out of the nests high in the rafters of the car park roof.
Down on the part-sand, part-single beach it’s clear that there are some aspects of the British seaside experience that never change. Windbreaks, sand getting everywhere, cups of tea, beach cricket, gulls on the lookout for spilled food and loud children are all present and correct. Some folks rent out the beach huts to keep all of their stuff in (I always wonder how many people decide to break the rules and spend the night in these huts in order to save on accommodation costs), while the rest of us lug our things from the car, the hotel or the B&B. Even the relative lack of mobile phone reception on the beach lends the place a timeless air.
But it cannot be denied that Southwold itself has changed in recent years as more holiday-makers discover its rather quaint charms. Tellingly, what was once a rather good second-hand bookshop on Pinkney’s Lane is now a letting agent, while a couple of independent booksellers closed down a few years ago (one cannot help but imagine Orwell turning in his grave at the very thought). In recent years, Tesco and Costa Coffee have both opened up shops in the town – the latter in particular attracting opposition from the residents of a town that already has several places where one can drink coffee – while Waterstone’s has gone down a slightly different route and opened an outlet with no company branding present (it’s simply called Southwold Books).
What hasn’t changed, though, is the inescapable fact that when you leave, you find you’re already missing the place by the time you’ve made it to the A12.