“Swoul and Dunwich and Walderswick
They all go in at one lousy creek.”
Perhaps it was a northern seaman’s revenge for
“From Hell and Hull and Halifax
Good Lord defend us” remembering the herring girls who may have come to a bad end thereabouts, except they were sprats, but neither Swole nor Southole really fits this genteel but very likeable seaside town today. The bay though is still Sole Bay, as is the pine furniture company past the majestic Blythburgh church nearby as the gull flies. Not that Southwold church isn’t majestic too, but we’ll come to that.
Sole Bay is also famous for the indecisive though destructive battle fought at sea in 1672. The mariners’ reading room on the cliff top recalls not just this but the many shipwrecks and brave rescues by local fishermen then lifeboat crews.
We chose a January Sunday, the ground too wet for countryside walking, to revisit Southwold. Last time had been in summer but there was little difference apart from the light level. Mild even for an uncharacteristic East Coast winter or cool for a typical East Coast summer, you might say.
Despite warnings that parking restrictions still apply on Sunday, suggesting many who spend time here may have come from London or, most certainly, Cambridge, we found somewhere just off the Cliff Road. A view down to the pier was seconds away. No razz-ma-tazz just people walking along with the few amusements and hardly more lights than would decorate a cottage at Christmas. Even the children on the beach were warmly dressed. No one was bathing and the gulls were mostly sedentary.
On the several greens which make Southwold so agreeable for strollers are small guns, presented by landlubber Butcher Cumberland of 1745 infamy. Above all stands the lighthouse, visible from Aldeburgh, fifteen miles south, and constantly rotating its light chamber. Occasional glimpses of the sun were matched by flashes from the light under thick grey cloud.
It isn’t just the beach or its famous huts, worth a Premier League footballer’s weekly wage, but the town back from the cliff that’s also worth visiting. Chain shops, but on a small and fashionable scale, Seasalt, Joules and the like, vie with estate agents, cafes and restaurants, the famous pubs and Adnams store, and the essential banks. The amber shop is a treasure house, and the antique dealers had almost what we were looking for.
There’s an unconscious – or not! – sense of humour in the street sign indicating the Methodist church and Brewery in the same direction. But we were coming to the church. St Edmund’s may not have the bullet holes of Blythburgh’s angels but it has a magnificent and miraculously preserved painted chancel screen. It must have been whitewashed over before the iconoclast Dowsing came, like Wenhaston’s Doom, but probably never had to risk the weather outside. There is also “Jack o’ the Clock” with his probable Yorkist armour to match the emblem on the porch showing how old he is, who strikes the bell when services begin.
Another Southwold Jack is mounted outside Adnams’ Brewery, within sight of the church and opposite the Methodist chapel.
At this point, with twilight gathering fast, it had to be one of the many small taverns, although those with driving to do had to settle for coffee. Perhaps an hour or two in strolling about but we were still no more than five minutes from the car. Just time to catch the growing beam of the lighthouse, the old fashioned lights along the pier and a distant cruise ship out to sea.
Who wouldn’t spend an afternoon – even a day – in Southwold?