Written by Misc

Southwold

Back in 1979, we went on a family holiday to the little Suffolk village of Walberswick. This was only our second holiday away. Until then we’d only visited our grandparents in Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast. Since Walberswick was only a little further down the coast from our usual summer haunt it should have felt very similar, but because we were staying in an unfamiliar holiday cottage, it was much more exciting. All the more so, because that summer saw an epidemic of greenflies, and the air was so thick with them as we arrived that the windscreen wipers were on as we drove up in our Renault 12.
Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, the sometimes juvenile B3TA had an interview with Tim Hunkin. Hunkin, as you may or may not know, was the writer and illustrator of The Rudiments of Wisdom that used to appear in the back of The Observer magazine. Sometimes I read it, and often I didn’t, being slightly too esoteric for a child my age. He went on to make a couple of great series for Channel 4 – The Secret Life of Machines. He and his colleague, who’s name I forget, would explain how stuff worked. Do you know how a telephone actually works? Well he’d explain it. I still vividly remember his semaphore system for sending a fax.
So Hunkin is an interesting character. In the B3TA interview he talked about these things and others. In particular, he mentioned the machines he builds now, and how many are on show Under the Pier in Southwold. So I resolved that a trip to Southwold was in order.
It’s important to know that I don’t own a car. If I did things would have been a little simpler. So I consulted Traveline to help me plan my trip. Awkwardly, Southwold doesn’t have a station, so it was a question of a train from Liverpool Street to Halesworth from where I’d need to catch a bus.
To give myself a decent amount of time in Southwold I needed to start early. So on Saturday morning I dragged myself out of bed early, and headed off out at 6am to get to my “other” local station – that is to say, a mile away from me, from where it was a quick trip into London, arriving there at 7.00am.
The train onwards towards Lowestoft was a surprisingly small three carriage affair. But then this is an unusual route. Unfortunately by the time we reached Witham it was obvious that there was a problem, and we were stuck for around half an hour. As I was in no rush to get anywhere and indeed had been banking on some quality “reading time” I wasn’t unduly annoyed, although I was aware that the bus on to Southwold was a connecting service, and any serious delay was likely to jeopardise that connection.
But the delay did allow me to eavesdrop on some of my fellow travellers. In particular, a young woman had boarded at the previous station and now she was making a call on her mobile in quite a nasal voice.
“Hello. It’s Kimberley. Unfortunately I’m going to be a little late into Ipswich. Sorry. See you later. Bye.”
Then when the delay was prolonged she made a further call, again apologising to a certain degree.
She also made a call to the national enquiries helpline asking about services out of Ipswich later that afternoon and on to a different part of Essex.
Between these calls, she was spending a considerable amount of time topping off her makeup.
Now it’s difficult to explain why my mind raced to one inevitable conclusion about what her profession might be. She obviously wasn’t calling friends, this was a work call. She might have been a temp, and surely that would have been the natural conclusion of a call made at the start and end of work hours, but this wasn’t the thought that went through my mind. I was picturing a working girl who travelled around Essex and Suffolk on trains, unusually servicing her clients during the day.
I never found out, obviously. But I was soon arriving in the small town of Halesworth where, significantly, there was no waiting bus. I was only five minutes after the time the bus should have been there, but a further twenty minutes brought no sign of it. And the next bus wouldn’t be along for two hours, along with the next train. What to do?
I didn’t have a map, but using my innate natural sense of direction, and thinking that Southwold could be no more than a few miles away, I started walking down the main road out of Halesworth. I’d reached a mini-roundabout that notably had no signs indicating Southwold, when I saw a bus heading to Norwich. Not the direction I wanted then… So much for that “natural” sense of direction.
I tried surfing to Streetmap and Multimap on my hi-tech mobile phone, but with a rapidly failing battery, this was proving to be a lost cause. I trudged back to the station and decided to explore the town centre for another hour until the next bus arrived. Halesworth is quite a nice bustling Suffolk town with few chainstores, but suspiciously did have an Organic Coffeeshop which began to make me suspect that I wasn’t “in the country” to the same extent that I thought I was. A quick look in the estate agents’ windows confirmed this view.
But it was time for the bus to Southwold, and, being certain to arrive at the bus-stop a good fifteen minutes early, I was soon in Southwold. It turned out to be eight miles away, so if I’d managed to set off in the right direction, and had been wearing appropriate footwear, I’d have got to Southwold in exactly the same time – but knackered.
It was quite a nice day, although not as sunny as I’d hoped, and as it had been in London the day before. But I was soon walking along the promenade, with its brightly coloured beach huts (did I really hear someone talking about them costing £50,000 to buy one?).
The pier is small and not nearly as twee as it could be. The Under the Pier Show, it must be explained, is not actually under the pier. It’s about half way down. But the machines are great. The Rent-A-Dog allows you to go on a typical dog walk through Southwold. The Doctor wrote me a prescription, and the Instant Weightloss machine appealed. I also managed to pick up a copy of Hunkin’s Experiments, via a vending machine, needless to say. All in all, it’s well worth a visit.
Southwold overall is not the cheapest place to live. Aside from tourism, there’s a working harbour. And it’s also home to Adnams. There’s a suspiciously high number of Antiques shops, and the restaurants look slightly better than you find in the average seaside town, with the corollary that there are fewer fish and chips shops. But I did find a real remainder bookshop with actual books that you think have been remaindered rather than printed specifically for that purpose. Needless to say I bought a stackful.
I did head off out to the harbour area where real boat building was taking place, and fisherman probably actually work. I was thrilled to see that the main feature I remember of my holiday was still there – the ferry across to Walberswick. That is to say, a rowing boat that takes tourists and others across about 50 metres of water for 50p if I read the sign right. The incredible thing is that I think it cost 50p when I was last there! The place where inflation stands still? Er, probably not, considering the sort of people who live there now.
My trip back was smoother than my outward journey. Well, aside from the half hour delay on the train. And then there was the unfortunate toilet incident. As I mentioned before, the train was a three-carriage affair, but of recent design, and consequently full allowance had been made for disabled travellers. Indeed by occupying a special seat for disabled people, I got lots of extra legroom. I should hasten to add that had someone boarded the train who actually needed the seat I would have leapt up to offer it.
The onboard toilet had full access, and had a door that slides open in a semicircle so that a mother and pram could get in, or a wheelchair. When I got to it, a mother with a pram and her father were outside it, but they were just sitting in an unfortunate place. I pressed the button to make the door open Star Trek-style, when I realised that there was a woman already in there. I quickly pressed the button again to close the sliding door and looked aghast at the father next to me who was now wearing a toothless grin.
“They should have a lock on these doors,” I said.
Fortunately, curbing my embarrassment, the woman inside had been washing her hands. I offered profuse apologies and went in. Inside I realised that you have to press one button to close the door, but crucially, you must press a second button to lock it. Not my fault then. And overall it was less embarrassing than the time I came hurtling along a bridle path in some woods adjacent to a golf course, and rounded a corner to find a female golfer squatting on the path in front of me. Some skilful wheel skills and some fast peddling along with a shouted “sorry” limited any further embarrassment that time.