Southwold

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Southwold is a small town on the North Sea coast, in the Waveney district of the English county of Suffolk. It is located on the North Sea coast at the mouth of the River Blyth within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The town is around 11 miles (18 km) south of Lowestoft and 29 miles (47 km) north-east of Ipswich. It is within the parliamentary constituency of Suffolk Coastal.

Southwold was mentioned in the Domesday Book as an important fishing port, and it received its town charter from Henry VII in 1489. Over the following centuries a shingle bar built up across the harbour mouth, preventing the town from becoming a major port.

Southwold was the home of a number of Puritan emigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early seventeenth century. Richard Ibrook, born in Southwold and a former bailiff of the town, emigrated to Hingham, Massachusetts, along with Rev. Peter Hobart, son of Edmund Hobart of Hingham, Norfolk. Rev. Hobart was formerly an assistant vicar of Southwold’s St. Edmunds Church after his graduation from Magdalene College, Cambridge. (Hobart married as his second wife in America Rebecca Ibrook, daughter of his fellow Puritan Richard Ibrook.) The immigrants to Hingham were led by Robert Peck, vicar of St. Andrews’ Church in Hingham and a native of Beccles.

In 1659 a fire devastated most of the town and damaged St Edmunds Church, whose original structure dated from the 12th century. The fire created a number of open spaces within the town which were never rebuilt. Today these greens, and the restriction of expansion because of the surrounding marshes, have preserved its genteel appearance.

On the green just above the beach, descriptively named Gun Hill, the six eighteen-pounder cannon commemorate the Battle of Sole Bay, fought in 1672 between English and French fleets on one side and the Dutch (under Michiel de Ruyter) on the other. The battle was bloody but indecisive and many bodies were washed ashore. Southwold Museum has a collection of mementos of the event. It has occasionally been held that the cannons were actually captured from the Scots at Culloden and given to the town by the Duke of Cumberland but they are much larger than those used in that campaign. During World War 1, the Cannons on Gun Hill were widely regarded as one reason that this part of the coast was bombarded by the German Fleet as a ‘fortified coast’. In World War 2 the cannon were prudently removed, reputedly buried for safety, and returned to their former position after hostilities.

Southwold’s economy is based on services, particularly tourism, and primary industries such as fishing and farming. The town itself is an important commercial centre for the area with many independent shops and numerous weekly markets. Adnams has its main brewery located in Southwold, the complex was recently voted Brewery of the Year 2011. Southwold Harbour is one of the main fishing ports on the Suffolk coastline and the surrounding arable land produces sugar beet, potatoes and cereals.

The narrow-gauge Southwold Railway connected to Halesworth and ran from the 24 September 1879 to April 1929. In 2007 the Southwold Railway Society submitted plans to build a new line running between the parish of Easton Bavents and Henham Park, with the intention of creating a link from the town to the nearest mainline service at Halesworth. However, these plans were criticised for having no relation to the original route of the railway and, amongst other reasons, environmental concerns. In July 2007 the plans were rejected by both Waveney and Suffolk Coastal District Councils.

In December 2008 the Railway Society introduced a new proposal for a Railway Park, including railway track and a museum, on a site at present occupied by a car-breaker’s yard, adjacent to the local sewage works.

Southwold lighthouse was constructed in 1887 by Trinity House. It stands as a landmark in the centre of the town. It replaced three local lighthouses that were under serious threat from coastal erosion. It began operation in 1890 and was electrified and de-manned in 1938. The lighthouse is unusual in that the light itself is switched on and off in sequence (four flashes every 20 seconds), rather than using lenses to create a rotating beam. Trinity House organises visits during the summer.

In 1890, the Adnams Sole Bay brewery was re-built on a site occupied by a brewery since 1660. Since then it has been modernised and expanded, receiving the Brewery of the Year Award in 2011.

The town’s pubs and hotels are the Sole Bay Inn, Lord Nelson, Harbour Inn, Kings Head, Red Lion, The Swan, The Crown, and the Blyth (formerly Pier Avenue) Hotel. Public houses lost in the town since 1952 were The Marquis of Lorne, The Brickmakers Arms, The Queen Victoria (now a restaurant but once notable for being the only non-Adnams pub in the town), The Royal and The Southwold Arms. Among Southwold’s hotels, the Marlborough was destroyed by enemy action in the Second World War, the Grand was demolished in the 1950s and housing built on the site, and the Craighurst on North Parade was converted to flats in recent years.

Southwold Pier was built in 1900, and, at 247 metres (about 810 feet) was long enough to accommodate the Belle steamers which carried trippers along the coast. In World War 2, it was weakened by having two breaches blown in it; one by the Royal Engineers, to hinder a possible German invasion and the other by a loose sea-mine. Although the gaps were repaired in 1948, a gale in 1955 destroyed a large part of it; and further damage, caused by weather, occurred over the following decades. By 1987, the pier had been reduced in length to approximately 27 metres (about 90 feet) and what remained was generally in a poor condition. It was entirely rebuilt and restored in 2001 under the auspices of the then-owner, Chris Iredale, and is now approximately 190 metres (about 623 feet) in length. Whilst many English seaside piers are in decline, Southwold Pier is enjoying renewed popularity. There are currently plans to demolish the old pier entrance building and to construct a small hotel, designed in the same style as the newer pier. It includes a collection of modern coin-operated novelty machines made by Tim Hunkin. Once again, pleasure steamers such as the paddle steamer PS Waverley and the MV Balmoral berth at the Pier to embark and disembark trippers. There is a model boat pond just to the North of the pier, where the Southwold Model Yacht Regattas are held during spring and summer months.

The Old Water Tower, which stands proudly in the middle of Southwold Common, was built in 1890. The tank held 40,000 gallons of water and was powered by huge sails. On St. Valentine’s Day 1899 George Neller, a respected local man, died when his coat got caught in its machinery. In 1937 a new, art-deco water tower was built next door that was capable of holding 150,000 gallons. The then Southwold Borough Council bought the Old Water Tower before it went into the hands of successive water companies. It was returned to the Town Council for a nominal fee of £100 in 1987. The Old Water Tower has since been used as the Lifeboat Museum and was later used by Adnams for a number of years.

The Electric Picture Palace cinema was opened in 2002, a pastiche of the original 1912 cinema that stood nearby.

Southwold Museum holds a number of exhibits focussed on the local and natural history of the town. The museum is owned and managed by the Southwold Museum & Historical Society. It is part of the Maritime Heritage East programme which unites 43 maritime museums on the East Coast.

The parish church of Southwold is dedicated to St Edmund. It is considered to be one of Suffolk’s finest. The church lies under one continuous roof. It was built over about 60 years from the 1430s to the 1490s, and replaced a smaller 13th century church that was destroyed by fire. The earlier church dated from the time when Southwold was a small fishing hamlet adjacent to the larger Reydon. By the 15th century Southwold was an important town in its own right, and the church was rebuilt to match its power and wealth.

The church is renowned for its East Anglian flushwork, especially that of the tower. Knapped and unknapped flints are arranged in patterns, textures and designs and create the stone work. The curving letters over the west window are most famous: SCT. EDMUND ORA P. NOBIS (St Edmund pray for us). Each letter is crowned, and set in knapped flints. The church has a copper clad roof with an easily recognisable flèche (or spirelet), above a clerestory of eighteen windows. The flèche was purely for display, and has never contained a bell. The tower has no parapet and is a very fine piece of architecture, with its large bell openings. The roof of the nave is so high that it makes the tower seem shorter than it really is; but it is at least 100 feet high. Southwold does not have any surviving medieval glass, thanks to its destruction by William Dowsing in 1644. In fact, the only windows in the church that have stained glass are the East windows over the altar (1954, by Sir Ninian Comper), and the West window below the grand tower. In World War 2 the church was narrowly missed by a German bomb that destroyed houses in the nearby Hollyhock Square. The bomb did not do much damage to the building itself but did blow out most of the windows – another reason why the church has very little stained glass. The church was tidied very quickly for the funerals, a short while later, of the people killed by the bomb.

In the interior, the Southwold rood screen is considered by many to be the finest in the county. It stretches all the way across the church, and is three separate screens; a rood screen across the chancel arch and parclose screens across the north and south chancel aisles. A 15th Century clock jack stands at the west end. He has an axe and bell which he uses to strike the time, and has a twin at Blythburgh. The Southwold jack is special because it has a name – Southwold Jack – and he is one of the symbols of the Adnams brewery. The font has been badly mutilated but is still very impressive with its large ornate cover. The roof in the chancel is painted and its height gives the church a very open feeling. The present-day church community life is extremely diverse and makes good use of St Edmund’s Hall (also destroyed during the Second World War and rebuilt) to the rear of the church. The Parish of Southwold is part of the Sole Bay Team Ministry, along with the Parishes of Blythburgh, Sotherton, Reydon, South Cove, Uggeshall, Walberswick and Wangford.

Southwold tower contains a ring of eight bells hung for change ringing. The tower held five bells in 1553. Over the years these bells have been recast and others added to create the current eight. The current fourth and fifth are probable recasts of the originals, being cast in 1668 by John Darbie of Ipswich. The third dates from 1820 and is by William Dobson of Downham Market. In 1828 one bell was recast and a further two added. The bell that was recast constitutes the present tenor, also by William Dobson. The sixth and seventh were added and are likely to originate from All Saints, South Elmham. Both are medieval bells, the sixth being cast around 1538 by William Barker and the seventh by Brasyers of Norwich in approximately 1513. The two trebles date from 1881 and are by Moore, Holmes & Mackenzie of Redenhall, Norfolk. However, a peal rung on 26 July 1858 of Oxford Treble Bob Major, indicates that the tower possessed a ring of eight prior to 1881. The tenor (the largest) weighs 10 and ¾ hundredweight or 551 kg and the treble (the lightest) about half of that. The bells hang in a timber frame installed in 1897 by George Day & Son of Eye, Suffolk. In 1990 the bells were rehung on new fittings and the frame strengthened by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. There is a large amount of space surrounding the frame allowing ease of access and maintenance. The clock uses the seventh bell to strike the hours. There are no other bells in the tower other than the ringing peal. The bells are rung from a ringing chamber some 52 steps up the tower. The chamber has many ringing mementoes remembering the achievements of previous years. The tower is affiliated to the Suffolk Guild of Ringers. The bells are rung regularly for practice, Sunday services, weddings and other special occasions.

Southwold Harbour lies south of the town on the River Blyth, and vehicular access is by two routes; York and Carnsey Roads to the west, and Ferry Road to the east. It extends from the river mouth to nearly a mile upstream and serves mainly fishing boats, yachts and small pleasure boats. The clubhouse of Southwold Sailing Club is located on the north side of the harbour. The quay and area in front of the Harbour Inn is called “Blackshore”; although this name is often, but incorrectly, used to refer to the whole of the Harbour.

Situated at the seaward end of the harbour are the RNLI Lifeboat Shed, and the Alfred Corry Museum. Housed in the former Cromer lifeboat shed, the latter is home to the former Southwold lifeboat “Alfred Corry”, which was in service from 1893 to 1918. The boat is currently being restored to her original state.

The river can be crossed on foot or bicycle by a public footbridge (partly the old railway bridge) upstream from The Harbour Inn, and giving access to the nearby village of Walberswick. This bridge, known as the Bailey Bridge, is based upon the footings of the original railway bridge. It replaced that bridge, which contained a swinging section to allow the passage of wherries and other shipping, and which was largely demolished at the start of the Second World War as a precaution when German invasion was expected.

Towards the mouth of the River Blyth, a rowing boat ferry service runs between the Walberswick and Southwold banks. The ferry has been operated by the same family since the 1920s, when it was a chain ferry that could take cars. The chain ferry ceased working in 1941, but some small vestiges remain at the Walberswick slipway.

The beach is a combination of sand and shingle. In 2005/6 it was further protected by a coastal management scheme which includes beach nourishment, new groynes on the south side of the pier and riprap to the north.

It is overlooked by brightly painted beach huts.

The fictional Southwold Estate, seat of the equally fictional Earls of Southwold, is the country estate of the family of Lady Marjorie Bellamy in the ITV British drama Upstairs, Downstairs. The town and its vicinity has been used as the setting for numerous films and television programmes, including Iris about the life of Iris Murdoch starring Judi Dench; Drowning by Numbers by Peter Greenaway; Kavanagh QC starring John Thaw; ‘East of Ipswich’ by Michael Palin; Little Britain with Matt Lucas and David Walliams; and a 1969 version of David Copperfield.

The BBC children’s series Grandpa In My Pocket is filmed in Southwold and Aldeburgh.

Julie Myerson set her 2003 novel about a brutal murder of a young woman, Something Might Happen, in Southwold, or as she described it, “a sleepy, slightly self-satisfied seaside town”. The town isn’t named in her book, but Myerson stated that setting a murder in the car park did make her feel as if she “was soiling something really good”. She holidayed in the town as a child and said in an interview that while everything else in her life had changed, only her mother and Southwold had remained the same. She lives in London but owns a second home in the town.

The writer George Orwell (then known as Eric Blair) spent time as a teenager and in his thirties in Southwold, living at his parents’ home. A plaque can be seen next door to what is now the fish and chip shop at the far end of the High Street.

From January to June 1922 he attended a cramming establishment in Southwold to prepare for his Indian Police Service exams and his career in Burma. In 1929 after eighteen months in Paris he returned to the family home at Southwold and spent most of the next five years based at Southwold. He tutored a handicapped child and a family of three boys during this time and wrote reviews and developed Burmese Days. During this period he spent nearly eighteen months teaching in West London until he had a serious bout of pneumonia. His mother then insisted that he stay at home instead of carrying on teaching and he spent the time writing A Clergyman’s Daughter. The novel is partly set in a fictionalised East Anglian town called “Knype Hill”. His final visit to Southwold was in 1939.

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