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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?