This pretty seaside resort offers all you could want from a traditional British break, but dig a little deeper and you can uncover a rich history that makes it a fascinating town to visit, writes coast editor Alex Fisher
Mentioned in the Domesday Book, Southwold has a complex history which goes beyond that of a traditional seaside resort. Renowned for its picture perfect beach huts, pier and cool cafés serving local fish, it’s one of the most popular destinations on the Suffolk coast. Three hours north of London, summer sees it busy with holiday-makers, buckets and spades in hand, heading for the long stretch of sandy beach. But many of these visitors will be unaware of the turbulent times the town has witnessed, caused by both the natural world and the follies of man.
Back in 1086 when the Domesday Book was compiled, Southwold (known by the Saxons as Sudwolda, meaning south-wood), was a peninsula of land, almost an island, isolated by the wide Blyth Estuary and Buss Creek. An important fishing port, the settlement belonged to Bury St Edmunds Abbey, which demanded an annual 25,000 herring from the parish, such was the abundance of the local catch. Storms and high tides have dramatically changed the landscape, washing away the shingle spits that protected the town, causing loss of life and livelihood right up to the modern day, but back in the 17th century the sheltered estuary provided a wide harbour for the King’s fleet. In 1672 this fleet was devastated by the Dutch at the Battle of Sole Bay, with an estimated 800 casualties, and the people of Southwold were paid a shilling for each washed-up sailor they recovered and buried. This battle, and the changing design of ships leading to a need for harbours with deeper waters, saw the port dwindle in importance.
Today, as you walk through the narrow streets and pretty green spaces (created as fire-breaks after the entire town was all but destroyed by fire in 1659), it’s clear this town hasn’t suffered from the same decline seen in many other seaside resorts. This is partly due to beer. There are records of beer being brewed commercially in Southwold since 1345, but it was the purchase of the town’s brewery by the Adnams brothers in 1872 that helped keep the community prosperous. Still a family-owned business, Adnams brews its world-famous tipple at the same site in the heart of the town, while also supporting many local pubs, restaurants and hotels. And the recent lavish refurbishment of its flagship hotel, The Swan (01502 722186, theswansouthwold.co.uk), next-door to the brewery, now guarantees a stunning stay whatever time of year you visit.
THE STILL ROOM
Having settled into my room at The Swan, with its elegant four-poster bed and complimentary Adnams gin, I go downstairs to the hotel’s main restaurant. Sumptuous, sage leather seating contrasts with the copper lighting, which is influenced in style by the neighbouring distillery. The Still Room offers fine dining based on local produce, and I am treated to gin-cured salmon (there’s a theme here…) followed by poached sea trout. It’s the perfect start to my Suffolk weekend adventure (theswansouthwold.co.uk/food-drink/still-room-restaurant/).
The sun’s shining and I head to the beach. Everything in Southwold is within walking distance, and the colourful beach hut-lined promenade is just a five-minute stroll away. From here I make my way towards the pier. Built in 1900 as a pontoon for steamships, it survived the demise of boat travel and happily remains a thriving attraction today. Family-owned, it offers a truly unique experience; I literally cried with laughter at Tim Hunkin’s collection of hand-built entertainment ‘machines’ in the Under the Pier Show. Absolutely not to be missed (01502 722105, southwoldpier.co.uk).
LIGHTING THE WAY
On the way back from the pier I take a detour to the town’s lighthouse. Guiding ships to safety since 1890, the lighthouse is still an important landmark for passing boats and those heading for the harbour. Tours are available on certain days, check the website for opening times, which vary. Adult admission £4, child £3 (trinityhouse.co.uk/lighthouse-visitor-centres/southwold-lighthouse-visitors-centre).
I continue to the other side of town, where I find The Sail Loft just across the road from the sand dunes. This relaxed bar and restaurant with rooms serves local seafood and great homemade desserts. I start my meal with pan-seared king scallops with chorizo, chilli and crème fraîche, followed by roast seabass on a bed of tarka dahl. This unusual combination works very well, but I don’t have any space left for the buttermilk pannacotta. I stroll back over the beach, admiring the higgledy-piggledy beach huts (01502 725713, sailloftsouthwold.uk).
My first stop of the evening is The Lord Nelson, which has been recommended by the friendly concierge at The Swan. Here, I meet a friend and we find a corner in this busy bar and catch up over half-a-pint of Adnams Broadside, which is named to commemorate the Battle of Sole Bay fought in the waters just outside the pub (01502 722079, thelordnelsonsouthwold.co.uk)
Yes, this small town has its own cinema. Seating just 70, The Electric Picture Palace was created by Southwold Film Society, reputedly from some stables and a garage! A charitable organisation, it aims to recapture the experience of visiting a cinema in the mid-20th century. Expect to find usherettes, a royal box and a Tiny Wurlitzer organ mysteriously appearing in the interval! They even play the national anthem when the film finishes. You might not find all the latest movies, but it’s a brilliantly quirky night out (07815 769565, southwoldcinema.co.uk).
What better way to start a Sunday than with a brewery tour? The newly refurbished welcoming centre is just behind The Swan and I pop over to see how Adnams makes its award-winning beer. I’m hugely impressed by the steps the company has taken to make its business more sustainable and environmentally-friendly. Its delivery depot has a grass roof, solar panels and operates a zero landfill policy. After learning that the business survived despite one of the original Adnams brothers being eaten by a crocodile, we eventually end up in the tasting room, where I try the extraordinary range of beers, from Earl Grey lager to limited edition Cucumelon Sour. Tours must be booked in advance and cost £20 (01502 727200, adnams.co.uk).
I hit the High Street for a light lunch and find myself drawn into the lovely Two Magpies Bakery. This great little café offers a mouth-watering range of cakes and breads, from sublime cinnamon swirls to rosemary and sea salt fougasse. I order a feta and spinach frittata, holding back from the cakes as I know I have a treat planned for later in the day (01502 726120, twomagpiesbakery.co.uk).
The circular harbour walk from Southwold town centre and back takes about an hour, so I head off along the coast down to the Blyth Estuary. Here I turn right and follow the water up into a traditional boatyard, where black wooden shacks cook up seafood and fish landed by the remaining fishing boats working from the harbour. Here you can book a boat trip out to sea on the Coastal Voyager (07887 525082, coastalvoyager.co.uk), take a wildlife trip up the river on the Daybreeze with the Walberswick Ferry Company or just catch the ferry across the river and visit Walberswick on the other side. Sounds simple, but what is extraordinary about the crossing is that the wonderful Dani Church rows you in her small boat. Dani’s family have been rowing people across the river for five generations. Dani decided that she wanted to keep the family tradition alive when her father, the previous oarsman, died in 2001. The trip costs £1 and operates from April to October, check her website for dates and times (07387 267837, walberswickferry.com).
Few things are as decadent as a cream tea with a glass of fizz. I forgo any dinner plans, gather the Sunday papers and head to the lounge at The Swan. Here, emerald velvet sofas bring a modern touch to the traditional surroundings. Finger sandwiches are followed by a tower of imaginative cakes, from mini doughnuts and a tiny carrot cake loaf to warm scones with clotted cream and jam. I take a leisurely three hours to read, and eat, and eat a bit more, not wanting to leave a crumb of the homemade delights, savouring not just the food, but the timeless pleasure of the setting.
NEED TO KNOW
coast stayed at The Swan on Market Place, Southwold. Think contemporary luxury accommodation and wonderful service. Prices start from £200 per room per night, based on two sharing an Excellent Room on a B&B basis. For further information or to book a stay, call 01502 722186 or visit theswansouthwold.co.uk.
HOW TO GET THERE
Southwold is a three-hour journey from London or Birmingham by car, taking between four and four-and-a-half hours from Sheffield or Leeds. There is no railway station in Southwold, but buses run from nearby Halesworth, which can be reached from Ipswich station. Greater Anglia trains to Ipswich run from Liverpool Street Station, London (greateranglia.co.uk). For more information on the area visit thesuffolkcoast.co.uk.