Southwold – An Introductory, Historical Guide
Published: Tuesday 12th Mar 2019
Written by: Suffolk Secrets Team
Full of character and interest both to the holidaymaker and the historian, Southwold is one of the most popular resorts on the East coast. But be warned; you won’t find much in the way of candyfloss or ‘kiss me quick’ hats!
Perhaps it is its virtual island status – Southwold is surrounded by creeks, marshes and reed beds and flanked to the south by the Blyth estuary – but to enter Southwold is to enter a seaside resort reminiscent of the 1920s.
The quiet, understated elegance of its Georgian houses, its 100 foot lighthouse towering above the Sole Bay Inn, its pier (the first to be built in Britain since the 1950s) and cliff top promenade above the sandy beach, and of course its brightly coloured beach huts, all work together to create this atmosphere of a bygone age.
Pink washed cottages and elegant town houses are arranged around the series of greens which were left undeveloped to act as firebreaks after much of the town was lost in a disastrous fire in 1659.
Southwold was granted its charter by Henry VII in 1489, when it was a prosperous port with a good herring trade.
It was the herring trade which in part led, in the mid 17th century, to three vicious naval battles; the first in 1653 was off Orfordness, the second in 1664 some 40 miles south-east of Lowestoft, and the third, the most famous, was the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672, the opening battle of the Third Anglo-Dutch War. The Duke of York, Lord High Admiral of England and later James II, took Sutherland House, now a restaurant, as his headquarters and it was from there that his fleet, along with the French, set sail.
William Denny’s Buckenham House in the High Street is one of the most elegant and interesting.
On the outside it appears to be a classic Georgian town house, but venture inside and you will see evidence of its 16th century beginnings. Built by a wealthy Tudor merchant, the cellar is now a really good coffee house, whilst the ground and first floor contain an interesting art gallery. Many of the original moulded cornices remain and the restored sash windows, Tudor brickwork and heavy ceiling timbers make Buckenham House well worth a visit.
Southwold’s maritime past, local archaeology, geology and natural history, as well as the history of the Southwold railway, are all recorded in the museum which is set in a Dutch-style cottage in Victoria Street.
Next to Adnams Brewery you will find the 31 metre tower of Southwold Lighthouse, remarkable particularly for its position, a couple of streets back from Southwold’s parade in the centre of the town amongst Southwold’s many pretty holiday cottages.
An imposing landmark as well as a warning for passing shipping, work began on the construction of Southwold lighthouse in 1887, when Southwold Harbour was still busy with commercial vessels collecting and delivering goods to Halesworth and surrounding towns and villages via the Blyth navigation. Midway between Lowestoft and Orford, the round white tower replaced three local lighthouses, which were under threat from severe coastal erosion at Orford Ness to the South.
The present lighthouse has been in operation since 3rd September 1890. The lighthouse was manned until 1938, when the station was electrified. Two red sectors mark shoals to the north and the Sizewell Bank to the south; the main navigation light is white.
On the western edge of Southwold you will find the church of St Edmund. King and Martyr; it has an imposing flint tower, whilst the screens, the 15th century pulpit, the vast font cover and the richly wrought choir stalls are just some of the glories of this outstanding church.
For beer lovers Southwold is a must; not only is it home to the famous Adnams Brewery (which runs fantastic tours), but it has some really good pubs. One of its most popular, The Lord Nelson, retains traces of a smugglers passageway leading to the cliffs.
Right behind the Lord Nelson you will find Southwold Sailor’s Reading Room, which contains pictures, ship models and other items of sea-faring interest. Founded in the mid nineteenth century in memory of a dead naval officer, the reading room continues to serve the sea faring community today.
Going along the front northwards from the Lord Nelson you will find Southwold Pier, built in 1900 by the Coast Development Company, principally for the use of their fleet of Denny-built “Belle” paddle steamers.
In the years before the First World War it was very fashionable to take excursions up and down the East Coast on these paddle steamers to Lowestoft, Ipswich, Clacton, Walton and London. Sadly, however, by the end of the 1911 season, the Southwold Belle was sold to pay off mounting debts. In May 1915, with World War I in progress and excursion traffic all but vanished, Coast Development went into liquidation.
On Gun Hill, one of the many Southwold greens, there stands a set of six 18-pounder guns, captured in 1746, at the Battle of Culloden. Formerly Southwold ended at Gun Hill, but in the inter-war years a long row of bungalows both on the beach and alongside the road sprung up, continuing to the mouth of the river Blyth at Walberswick Ferry. Many of these buildings are now holiday homes or weekend ‘cottages’.
By reaching the River Blyth and bearing right along the gravel track past the fisherman’s huts and boats and the yachts one will come to The Harbour Inn where there is poignant evidence of this area’s vulnerability to the sea. A high tide mark half way up the wall of the inn reminds us of just how high sea levels can reach! We should remember that Southwold is in fact practically an island surrounded by the sea on the east, on the south-west by the river Blyth, and on the west and north-west by the Buss Creek.
The Lifeboat Museum is now down at the harbour and this contains some fascinating items relating to RNLI rescues, of which there have been many.
Tourist Information Centre: 69-69A High Street, IP18 6DS (t) 01502 724729
Emergency: Southwold Police Station (part time) (t) 01502 722666
Southwold Library: North Green, Southwold, IP18 6AT, (t) 01502 722519
Southwold Pier: North Parade, Southwold, IP18 6BN, (t) 01502 722105
If you just cannot wait to book your holiday to Southwold today, then be sure to look at these wonderful, self-catered holiday lets in and around the Southwold area, including cottages in Walberswick and Dunwich amongst others.