Southwold and the Great English Seaside: Quintessential quirkiness

History has it that a century or so ago, when ailing English king George V was advised to spend a few days recuperating at the south coast resort of Bognor Regis, he replied gruffly. "Bugger Bognor".

Tall tale or true, ever since then pundits have been predicting the death of the Great English Seaside, pointing by way of explanation to wetter summers, cheaper "sunseeker" airfares and a reputation for Fawlty Towers-style service.

In fact, its death – like that of the American author Mark Twain, who was shocked to read his obituary in the newspaper – has been greatly exaggerated. Cashing in on period-piece charms, coastal resorts are enjoying a revival.

For proof, check out Southwold, a small, colourful, altogether charming Suffolk town on the North Sea coast, mentioned in the 11th century Domesday Book, as a flourishing fishing port, famous for its cod, herring and sprats.

Most of the fishing done today is recreational, though working boats still add colour to a seascape spotted by North Sea oil support craft and, far off, the huge, "golf-ball" silhouette of Sizewell nuclear power station.

On the morning we arrive a strong offshore wind is blowing. The sea is surging, churning, sandy-brown from overnight rain; a dramatic, daily reminder of the speed at which the Suffolk coast is disappearing under the North Sea.

Over the years, at least 10 local churches, most of one complete village, that of nearby Dunwich, and in places, as much as a kilometre-deep strip of land, have been claimed by storms and wild tides.

Undeterred by such remote possibilities, by 9am, the "front" is filling with local dog-walkers, joggers, coffee addicts, oldies (me included) and groups of happy, shivering children armed with "seaside" project books.

Southwold is sitting in the fleeting sun, looking as pretty as a picture which might have been painted by one of the many visiting artists, such as Joseph Mallord William Turner.

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For much of its length, the promenade is lined with wonderful multi-colour beach-huts, from the comfort of which occupants may comfortably observe the beach, the sea, the passing parade, the fast-changing weather.

The huts do not come cheap. They have no electricity, no mains gas or water, and are sold leasehold only. Overnight occupation is prohibited. Depending on their location, some have to be moved to calmer, sheltered places in winter.

The record price paid for a waterfront hut, at the "nice" end of the beach, is £70,000, about $A120,000 or more. Cheaper, less jaunty huts can be had for, say, two thirds of the price.

Fortunately, most of the pleasures of Southwold bestows on visitors (pop. 1000), come cheap, or even free. They include:

THE PIER

Promoted as The Greatest Show on Sea, Southwold's pride and joy has had an eventful history since opening in 1900 at a length of about 280m.

A storm in 1934 blew away the landing stage at the end of the pier. Parts of the pier were further removed during World War II, amid invasion fears. In 1979, another storm reduced its length to just 20 metres. It was restored in 1987.

Today, it offers a choice of up-market souvenir shops, a couple of good restaurants and, best of all, a wonderfully quirky take on the traditional seaside "amusement arcades".

Designed by Tim Hunkin, English engineer, cartoonist, writer and artist, the Under the Pier Show offers a crazy mix of genuinely amusing games.

They include a Wacky Walk of Mirrors; "mischievously mental" slot machines and a naughty, watery display that comes to life at "pee time". 

Another attraction is the My Nuke Personal Nuclear booth, where the player can spend an "extra half-life" playing out the role of North Korean madman and bomb-builder Kim Jong-un. Well, it worked for us. 

THE CHURCH

From the ridiculous to the sublime. It is fair to say that in these flat, flat lands, the 35-metre tall tower of the medieval church of St Edmund dominates the skyline from almost every angle.

As Simon Jenkins wrote in his book England's Thousand Churches, it is "the grandest of the galleons that once sailed the length of the Suffolk coast", a church whose interior is a "hymn to light".

Inside and out it invites close examination, which reveals finely carved animals, poppy-headed choir stalls and a sculpture of "Southwold Jack". A clock "smiter", he carries a sword and battle-axe with which to ring the church bells.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Unusually, because of the constant battle to protect buildings from the voracious North Sea, Southwold's is to be found not on an isolated headland but in a back-street, towering above trim Victorian homes.

The adult and child entry fee of just four and three quid, respectively, is worth it simply for the stunning, panoramic views, out to sea, back and across the town from the late-19th-century look-out.

THE MUSEUM

A bulging treasure trove of local history and memorabilia, the small museum includes models of the defunct Southwold Railway, a Viking oar, helmet from the nearby 1652 Battle of Sole Bay, holiday pix from bygone days, and the mysterious remains of a flint arrowhead embedded in a human vertebra.

THE BREWERY

Thirsty visitors, especially, will enjoy a pint, and a pop round the high-tech plant where local company Adnams brews its beer. They have been doing it, on the same site for at least 670 years.

So much to see, so much to do. And, of course, Southwold is a fine place from which to strike off on one of many walking trails. Highly recommended is that out to neighbouring villages such as Westleton, Walberwick and Dunwich. 

Just walk to the northern end of the beach, pay a quid for a ferry across the Blyth River and you're on your way. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

southwold.info

visitsouthwold.co.uk 

GETTING THERE

Southwold is about a three-hour drive from London Heathrow; the nearest station is Halesworth, which offers bus links to the seaside town.

STAYING THERE

The wonderful Wissett Lodge Farm, 20 minutes inland from Southwell, has four self-catering holiday homes set around a courtyard garden, from $310 or three nights. See wissettfarmholidays.co.uk

John Huxley travelled at his own expense.

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