Suffolk jinks

Southwold Pier © C A Lovegrove

As coronavirus restrictions on travel began to be lifted across the UK nations we were able to grab a holiday in self-catering accommodation in Suffolk for a special anniversary. That this would involve driving a few hundred miles there and back was a penance worth suffering, and the weather, even if not perfect, was at least tolerable.

We stayed near the pretty town of Southwold which meant walks on the beach and in the vicinity as well as chances to see relatives within driving distance, but a big if unexpected bonus for me was to discover local literary connections. The first real indication of these was a mural of George Orwell on Southwold pier by street artist Charlie Uzzel-Edwards, aka Pure Evil.

Tempting though it was to title this post The Road to Southwold Pier (I settled for a covert allusion to a popular colour for house façades) a little bit of digging revealed a few more literary figures of note, which I’d now like to share with you if you’d be kind enough to bear with me.

Pure Evil’s George Orwell mural © C A Lovegrove

A certain Eric Blair spent a few years at his parents’ home, Montague House on Southwold’s High Street, going for walks in the neighbourhood and sailing on the River Orwell which debouches onto the North Sea by Ipswich. While in Southwold he published — under a pseudonym — A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), an early novel which ‘George Orwell’ later disavowed but one which I hope to read sometime: it has some autobiographical aspects, especially in the portrayal of a girlfriend of the time as the title character and of his own time as a labourer and vagrant. Now I read 1984 and Animal Farm many years ago but I’ve yet to read his other work, and this — for all his disparagements — sounds interesting.

Another part-time Southwold resident was the late P D James, who owned a holiday house on the High Street near the town hall. As well as the curious Austen-inspired Death Comes to Pemberley (2011) I’ve read her co-authored The Maul and the Pear Tree (1971), and also her dystopian Children of Men (1992) which happens to reach its conclusion at Southwold. A few of her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, including Death in Holy Orders and Unnatural Causes, are set near here or elsewhere in East Anglia, none of which I’ve read; but I have a collection of four Dalgliesh short stories, one of which — The Twelve Clues of Christmas — is set in the area, so I’m looking forward to that.

Ferry across the River Blyth © C A Lovegrove

After a walk to nearby Walberswick, which included a short ferry trip back on a rowing-boat over the river Blyth, I then discovered that Esther Freud lives there in a cottage which had formerly been the Anchor Inn before it was dismantled and moved elsewhere in the village — in fact we had lunched in the early 20th-century successor to this same inn, also called the Anchor. Freud’s 2014 novel Mr Mac And Me is inspired by the cottage’s history and its links to the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I’ve only read Freud’s autobiographical early novel Hideous Kinky (1992), later filmed with Kate Winslet as the author, but this recent novel sounds intriguing.

Southwold pier © C A Lovegrove

Many are the books I’ve started but not quite finished; never totally abandoned, they await the time when I shall find myself ready to return to them because they’ve become relevant or because I find myself back in the mood for them. Such a work is W G Sebald‘s The Rings of Saturn (1995) which, recommended by a couple of bloggers including Lizzie Ross, I started and then paused when he was discussing the works of the Tudor physician Sir Thomas Browne, whose Urn Burial I then wanted to reread, with The Garden of Cyprus to follow. Sebald’s highly discursive account of a long perambulation through East Anglia includes a stop in Southwold.

Whenever I am in Southwold, the Sailors’ Reading Room is by far my favourite haunt. It is better than anywhere else for reading, writing letters, following one’s thoughts, or in the long winter months simply looking out at the stormy sea as it crashes on the promenade.

W G Sebald, ‘The Rings of Saturn’, Chapter IV
Aldeburgh beach © C A Lovegrove

A little further afield is Aldeburgh, which we’d also visited on an earlier stay in Suffolk. The poet George Crabbe was born here — The Borough, one of his narrative poems, later furnished the inspiration for Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes — but also associated with the seaside town was the late Ruth Rendell, another author whose work I’ve yet to read and, coincidentally, a friend of P D James, even if they were on different sides of the political divide.

Further south, near the town of Woodbridge, is Sutton Hoo, a place I’d always hoped to visit. John Preston’s The Dig (2007) was a highly fictionalised account of how the now famous ship burial with its treasures was uncovered on the eve of war, but I’d often been drawn to accounts of subsequent and still ongoing archaeological investigations revealing the contexts for this significant cemetery; an opportunity of seeing the place for myself was an exciting prospect.

Some Sutton Hoo mounds © C A Lovegrove

And of course there’s the anonymous poem Beowulf which, though not directly connected with Sutton Hoo, was confirmed as a true description of the wealth and magnificence of early medieval regal burials, a picture which had formerly been disputed.

With this mention of a final visit, to an historic site connected by river and literature to the sea, I’ll start bringing this post about an unexpectedly literary Anglian vacation to its close. I’ll just note that my forty year old copy of The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles mentions a few transient associations — Aldeburgh for example was visited by Wilkie Collins and M R James, and Edward Fitzgerald (translator of Omar Khayyám’s Rubaiyyat), Jerome K Jerome and Edward Thomas sojourned at nearby Dunwich — but I’ve concentrated on more permanent residents. And that’s probably enough for now.

Back view of the reconstructed Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

Do you know this area well? Have you read these authors, and are there other writers you’re aware of who are associated with the Suffolk coast?

Carving from original 1924 entrance to Ipswich County Library

56 thoughts on “Suffolk jinks

  1. What lovely images: thank you for sharing your holiday with us! I am jealous that you’ve been to Sutton Hoo – and the film The Dig did annoy me a bit I have to say, but at least it did show the indignities and muck of archaeology … Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying is well worth reading and there’s a nice new edition I’ve got my eye on, as my copy is falling apart.

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    1. Oh yes, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is wonderful. I felt The Dig film was good by showing people how the Sutton Hoo site was discovered, but I recognise some of it could be annoying. However, there’s only so much you can put in a film dramatisation of an event without it turning into a documentary!

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      1. Another plug for Keep the Aspidistra Flying, yay! As for the Netflix film, having now been around the site and visited Mrs Pretty’s real home I can comfortably divorce history from the fiction the novel and the film portrayed while feeling that the fictions conveyed emotional truths.

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    2. Pleased you liked my selection of images, Liz — I had to resist the temptation to put in more — and I agree that purists (I’m usually one) would quibble at details in the Netflix film. However, having read the novel first and understanding what the author was trying to do in telescoping the sequence of events I felt fewer qualms about the dramatisation, and still shed a few tears at the end. It was a lovely film, sentimental but in the right way.

      Really good to know the Aspidistra novel is worth picking up, though I’d also love to know what readers thought of A Clergyman’s Daughter.

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    1. Thanks, Yasmin, living in a different environment as I do — the dramatic hills and valleys of the Brecon Beacons — the softer and flatter landscapes of the Suffolk coast was a wonderful contrast, and I can see why for many such as your family it is a favourite area to visit. Hope your son appreciates it all, retrospectively if not necessarily now!

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      1. My son does enjoy those trips. He’s now studying A-level history and really likes to visit museums. Poor child’s been dragged to enough ones in the past! But I think it’s meant now he can see the links between various ages. As he’s a gamer online, he also likes to do games that have a historical theme. It all fits together!

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        1. An interest in history often just requires a hook of some sort to get it going — for your son (and good for him!) it’s gaming, for me it was my father telling me to get on my bike and explore Bristol’s history, even though that was a ploy to stop me moping around the house when he was trying to work from home!

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          1. He is also doing Computer Science so it all fits! But watching historical films and reading books is also part of his interest in history. And don’t forget the BBC’s Horrible Histories! We all watch those, they’re great.
            I’m hoping to see the Brit Museum’s Nero exhibition (was he as awful as they say?) for my birthday in August and take our son as his birthday is 4 days after mine!

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            1. We recently watched and enjoyed Horrible Histories’ Bill, though I have to confess to not seeing any of the BBC progs. Hope you enjoy the Nero exhibition: we saw some of the remains of Nero’s Domus Aurea in Rome a few years ago, on a memorable holiday by train sans offspring to Rome, Florence and Venice, spending three, two and then one overnight stay in each, respectively! What a trip that was.

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  2. Oh, what a great trip! I would read Sebald….he writes eloquently of travelling to places, the history it evokes, the past people it brings to mind. I was much saddened when he died.

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  3. Some places love to parade their famous connections even when they are tenuous. Southwold has done well to have two fairly strong connections!

    Where is the original of the helmet now located? In the film I think it was said at the end that everything went to the local museum and not to the British Museum?

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    1. The original pieces of the helmet (and the other treasures) are in the BM, where I remember on one visit seeing the remains embedded in a matrix, a mock-up of its shape. Nearby is usually the reconstruction, just like the one currently displayed in the Sutton Hoo exhibition. At the site, however, the finds from excavations done in the intervening eighty years are displayed, including those of a warrior and his horse.

      Incidentally, I wonder if Blythburgh, a mile or two upriver from Southwold, also had a ship burial? It’s an Anglo-Saxon site up an inlet just like Sutton Hoo up the River Deben, and like Snape upriver from Aldeburgh where another ship burial was located (and which inspired Basil Brown’s own investigations). I must check that out…

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        1. With present restrictions you have to book a time slot, and for indoor views you have to queue, but to get a sense of the setting nothing beats an actual visit!

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        1. I agree, Karen: I think most history nuts like me have long been aware of Sutton Hoo’s significance but possibly not a proportion of the general public who are apt to get their Romans, Vikings, Ancient Britons, Stonehenge builders and Normans a bit mixed up.

          But each time I’ve been to the BM in recent years there’ve usually been visitors gazing at the reconstructed helmet there — now we shall have to queue up, keeping our social distance!

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  4. Your post makes me want to explore Suffolk more thoroughly, I worked in Gt Yarmouth for a few years, but rarely went south into Suffolk, although I have been to the Sutton Hoo site and was lucky to get a tour and talk by a local expert in the 1990s.

    Another Suffolk novel that come to mind is ‘Wakenhyrst’ by Michelle Paver, inspired by the Wenhaston Doom at St Peter’s Church and the fens at Walberswick.

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    1. We didn’t go into Norfolk on this trip but I know there’s much to explore — the towns, of course, and quite a few National Trust and English Heritage sites. Lucky you to get a personal tour at the Hoo — though the NT guides were very chatty and informative, restrictions (and a chill easterly wind) made it not the most ideal of visits for us, but of course much better than nothing!

      Thanks for the Paver recommendation, I’ve not read her works yet but I have a preview copy of her latest to enjoy at some stage.

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    1. Thanks, Ola, there’s still uncertainty surrounding how things will develop (especially after this government’s shambolic response in allowing the Indian variant to proliferate) but vaccinations continue apace and, being senior citizens, we’re glad we had both jabs by the end of March.

      But contrasted with NZ’s response the UK has no reason to be complacent; and as big league social pariah (because of its current sense of exceptionalism) the achievement of zero points in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, the only country to do so, is poetic justice.

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    1. Soon I hope, Gert! I have a bowdlerised version — in which the exhortation to “pisse not” upon King Arthur’s ashes is replaced by some mimsy circumlocution — along with ‘The Garden of Cyrus’ and its examination of the quincunx. Which then reminds me there’s a novel of Charles Palliser of that name, and that I also want to read some Rose Tremain… So much to read, so little etc.

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  5. jjlothin

    What a fascinating collection of literati the area boasts! Chacun a son gout, but give me Ruth Rendell (or Barbara Vine) over PD James any day of the week.

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    1. I hope to get to some Rendell/Vine in due course — it may help that my politics is more aligned to hers than to James’s! — and I also like the confluence of her married name and that of Rendlesham, the royal centre of East Anglia during the Anglo-Saxon period and close by Sutton Hoo!

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  6. Aah Walberswick beach, how we groaned as children to be taken there because of the pebbles! Thank you for such an interesting post especially the elegant carving on Ipswich County Library. Happy memories, we’ve moved up to Norfolk now!

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    1. Oh dear — at least Southwold has sand as well as pebbles! As for Norfolk I’d only visited Norwich on a previous trip but there was no opportunity this time, though I know the county has a lot else to offer.

      On a quick revisit to Ipswich this time I hoped to visit the museum and art gallery, but the latter was closed and the former had to be booked so I just wondered around taking a few photos (like the book carving). And there was a piano concert in the town’s Christchurch but I arrived as the performer was taking his final bow and … then they shut the building! Not the most fruitful of day trips.

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  7. Sounds like a marvellous visit, and yes I do know the area as I happen to live at the south end of Suffolk! So I’ve visited several of the places you mention and now feel the need to see the sea. I can’t actually be sure if I’ve read Clergyman’s Daughters, but as I love Orwell I really should dig out my copy and see if I remember anything of it…

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    1. I had a glance at the Penguin edition of A Clergyman’s Daughter in Aldeburgh’s indie bookshop, Karen, and it looked intriguing, but I already had acquired a ton of secondhand books to take home so I suppose it’s one for a future time!

      As for the sea, it’s close enough for you but we’d have to travel miles to get to a decent beach from where we are (Weston-super-Mare or the Gpwer, I guess) — perhaps driving 267 miles to Southwold wasn’t an obvious direction to go! Still, we saw the sea…

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  8. I don’t know the area at all, which seems like a real omission on my part! I absolutely love the idea of a Sailors’ Reading Room (in the Sebald quote). I was hoping you were going to tell us it still exists… Thanks for a lovely little vicarious trip – most enjoyable!

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  9. What a joy of a post. Thank you, Chris for this lovely reminder of happy holidays in the area. I have a photo of Southwold pier that is very similar to yours and although I knew of many of the links you mentioned I’m now eager to return to follow up others. Although Dodie Smith was not a Suffolk author I do remember that the long journey in One Hundred and One Dalmatians took place in Suffolk. And the setting in I Capture the Castle was inspired by a Suffolk landmark, the name of which escapes me now. I’m so pleased you had such a wonderful break.

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    1. Oh curses, I wish I’d twigged that Cassandra’s home was here near Diss, I’d included a picture of Wingfield Castle in my review: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-capture. I have an adult novel by Dodie Smith to read soon, but confess to never having read One Hundred and One Dalmatians! Glad this brought back some fond memories for you, Anne. 🙂

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  10. Oh and I’ve just remembered that James Mayhew, children’s author and illustrator, lives in Bungay. His latest picture book contains some views that I think may be inspired by the Suffolk coast.

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  11. Orwell could be rather vicious in his representations of places like Bath and Cheltenham and Southwold and their people. This is from “Burmese Days”; “Those tomb-like boarding-houses with Anglo-Indians littered about in all stages of decomposition, all talking and talking about what happened in Boggleywalah in ’88!”

    But there’s a great photo of Orwell on the beach with the family dog – Hector – and getting photobombed by the cat!

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    1. From our perspective it’s an appalling comment to make, but then he was a child of his time I suppose. My parents were part of the Anglo-Indian community in India (though they always denied it) and I suppose I should be upset on their behalf, but expats anywhere, and not just in Burma, tend to present differently from their neighbours., don’t they.

      I think I may have seen the photo you mention, your description rings a bell!

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  12. What a great post! I feel like I’ve been on a trip to Suffolk now! 😃 I’ve often thought I’d like to move to East Anglia if the time comes to depart from Cornwall (which is a long way from family and old friends). And an area rich in literary connections always appeals.

    A couple of coincidences too. I only recently mentioned Death Comes to Pemberley in one of my all-too-rare posts myself, so I was noting this as I read on, only to have you arrive at mention of Esther Freud. In the moments before opening your post I had literally just been reading about Mr Mac and Me, having finished reading her latest book (published tomorrow) I’ve read nothing of hers before but very much like the sound of Mr Mac. Her latest – I Couldn’t Love You More – is an excoriating read. Brilliantly written. Though possibly not your subject matter, Chris.

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    1. Always dangerous to say something isn’t my subject matter, Sandra, as I may see it as you throwing down the gauntlet! But I liked what she had to say in her Guardian piece on Mr Mac And Me and I may look that out.

      I do like synchronicities, less a matter of fate than happenstance because one’s mind has been alerted or triggered. Suffolk would be very much a contrast to Cornwall in several ways, more so than when we moved from Pembrokeshire to near the English border. I must say I prefer being more to the west — it may be because of the sense of impending erosion and sea levels rising that I’m happy to visit East Anglia but not to reside there!

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  13. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAIT. Wait wait wait.
    Wait. Wait.
    Wait.
    A Dalgliesh Christmas story?!?!
    I DON’T CARE IT’S SUMMER I MUST READ IT

    Ahem.

    It sounds like every blade of grass, every stone within a wall, were each and every one connected to a story or a writer. You carried me through centuries of storytelling, and I cannot thank you enough for the experience! xxxxxxxxx

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    1. I’m sure it’s the same where you are, Jean, any place where a famous author was born, or resided, or holidayed, or set their stories, is as a magnet for readers and a godsend for tourist agencies. Here in the UK we have Brontë Country, Shakespeare’s Stratford, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall, and so on ad nauseam. And I have to admit to falling into that magical state of imagining I’m walking in their footsteps, seeing what they’ve seen, breathing the same air — it’s all mostly tosh of course but without that imaginative leap where would we be?

      To see, for example, the reduced or reconstructed burial mounds where ancient ships were dragged up from the river to lie and where their owners and goods were interred (as evoked in Beowulf), to hear and feel the chill wind off the North Sea and perambulate the cemetery as the mourners must’ve done a millennium and a half ago is definitely something special.

      Good luck with that Dalgliesh story–I hope myself to be reading it later this month! 🙂

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      1. It really is fantastic! The climate here for celebrating authors is…tough. Laura Ingalls Wilder was one of Wisconsin’s loves, but now we can’t celebrate her because of representation. It’s hard.

        And considering the place of oral storytelling tradition in Native American tribes, one must hunt down the recordings to get to that history….hmmm, maybe that’s the kind of literary pilgrimage I should take in 2021….

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        1. It’s always good to acknowledge indigenous people’s traditions rather than either an invading people’s (mis)representations or a superficial sideshow got up for a group of tourists, I feel.

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