Travel Comment

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Jill Worrall: Seaside in Suffolk

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Southwold's beach huts. Photo / Jill Worrall
Southwold's beach huts. Photo / Jill Worrall

Confession time... despite being a dyed in the wool Kiwi who loves deserted beaches and wild crashing surf, I have a weakness for English seaside piers.

I have no idea where this love of coastline kitsch comes from and never even suspected I had a problem until I visited Blackpool some years ago and had to be dragged kicking and screaming from the Kiss Me Quick hats and sticks of Blackpool Rock.

Maybe it was just a one-off aberration I thought, that was until a few weeks ago when I found myself on Britain's Pier of the Year (yes, there is such a thing). Once again, I felt the trappings of antipodean civilization falling away - I craved fish and chips, wanted to blow all my small change in the amusement arcades and, heaven forbid, I even desired to hire a deckchair.

The Pier of the Year is in Southwold, Suffolk... not an English county that features high on most New Zealanders' touring routes but I reckon it should be.

Southwold's Pier is a 21st century reincarnation of an original pier built in 1900. A century of mishaps followed - from storms to drifting sea mines and the pier that was once 810 feet long was by 1979 stretching only a pathetic 60ft into the North Sea.

After coming under private ownership in 1987, work began to restore and extend the pier and today it is now, as the publicity material says with just a hint of tongue in cheek: "623 feet of fun".

And there is fun to be had on Southwold Pier, especially in the Under the Pier Show which is probably the world's quirkiest collection of hand-built slot machines. Feed a few pence into the machines and you can "Whack a Banker" (a machine that in the present economic climate in Britain had a queue of people waiting to try) or My Nuke, where you can load plutonium rods into a nuclear reactor. My particular favourite was the Mobility Masterclass.

Embarrassingly I attracted an audience when I set the dial for expert level and then attempted to manoeuvre a zimmer frame across three lanes of traffic. Even after several tries I was flattened mid-crossing every time. Appropriately I then moved to My Doctor where I applied a stethoscope to my chest and the mannequin in the booth wrote out a suitably illegible prescription for me.

Unfortunately the Quickfit machine was occupied or I would have tried that too. This involved lying on a comfy bed while a Jane Fonda workout video plays and the bed does all the exercises for you. It'll be next time for that one and the auto-frisk machine that offers to "check out those suspicious bulges" by patting you down with a pair of inflated rubber gloves.

The pier has its own water clock too, also made by the same mastermind who created the machines, Tim Hunkin. On the hour the water-powered mechanism features people sitting up in bath and squirting water at each other and two peeing boys who manage to miss the toilet. It's all classic end-of-the-pier stuff. What is rather startling to those of us from nuclear-free New Zealand is that from the actual end of the pier is an excellent view of the Sizewell B nuclear power station.

Southwold is more than a pretty pier and a whiff of radiation however. Stretching along both sides of the beach on either side of the pier are its famous beach huts. There are about 300 of these small gabled-roofed huts. Small they may be, and with no running water, but they are hugely desirable, some changing hands for up to £100,000. And even if you've spent that much on a hut local bylaws forbid you to overnight in it.

Beach huts can be found all around the British coast but Southwold is considered to have the best. Most are immaculately painted and many are fitted out with all the comforts of home from sun-loungers to gas hobs. They are quintessentially British. I walked past the open doors of huts where people sat sipping tea from china cups, feet firmly enclosed in sandals (sadly no sign of socks as well). Many have names: Summer's Lease, Forty Winks, Whoa Stop, Life's a Beach. I wanted one, even for a day.

But the Suffolk coast had more in store for me, so there wasn't even time to visit the town's lighthouse, built in 1887 and which rather incongruously is set in the middle of the historic town centre (the previous lighthouses were destroyed by coastal erosion so clearly the last architect was taking no chances).

By now, having tested my zimmer frame competency and inspected sheds worth almost double my own house I felt prepared for anything more Suffolk had to throw in my direction. I was wrong.

Surreal is an over-worked word but my day out in Suffolk did take on a dreamlike air full of weird juxtapositions on a stretch of coastline that even today swirls with mystery and conspiracy theories.

Shingle Street is a bizarre conglomeration of terrace houses and jerrybuilt holiday homes just metres above a beach of golden gravels, close to Suffolk's border with Essex. The houses sit windswept, lonely and with a tangible sense of neglect facing out to sea. At their backs is featureless flat countryside worthy of Shakespeare's "blasted heath".

With a bleak sky overhead and a brisk wind blowing it was not difficult to conjure up the feeling that there was something rather sinister about Shingle St. And in fact this is not so far-fetched. During World War II, in 1940, bodies of four German airmen were washed up here. This discovery fuelled a wild rumour that they were part of an invasion force of up to 80,000 Germans who had been incinerated by a secret weapon: an impenetrable barrage of flames in the sea.

If that wasn't enough to cement the eerie aura around Shingle St, events of 1943 did so. By now the residents, along with those of many other coastal communities had been evacuated because of the threat of German invasion. Shingle St was thus uninhabited when the Porton Down Chemical Defence Research Establishment was given permission to drop on it an experimental 250lb bomb combining liquid mustard and high explosive.

They made a direct hit on the settlement's only pub, the Lifeboat Inn. It was to be a long time before anyone moved back to Shingle St, as, in a final indignity, the beach had been heavily mined and took years to clear.

If this was reality and even now it's hard to know what is true and what is not, I wanted to retreat into the more benign face of Suffolk's other-worldliness.

I found it soon enough when a house appeared high above the hedgerows seemingly floating metres above the countryside about halfway between Shingle St and Southwold

This was the House in the Clouds, a red house atop a five-storey black weatherboard tower. Today it is holiday home but it was originally built simply to disguise an ugly water tower. The town at its base is, similarly no ordinary one although I didn't realise this at first.

As I walked around Thorpeness past mock Tudor homes, a boating lake dotted with swans and under a pseudo Jacobean archway and even another water tower disguised as a Norman castle I did begin to feel like I was trapped in the pages of a Rupert the Bear annual.

It turned out I was not far wrong - Thorpeness is a fantasy village, the work of one Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a Scottish barrister and playwright. Ogilvie owned nearby Sizewell Hall and, intent on creating a holiday village for family and friends and to help the local community, in 1910 he began to buy up the neighbouring dunes and heathland. He then built a complete village including a pub, a shop, a church, a tennis club, golf course, boating lake and holiday lodgings, all in Ye Olde English Village style. To add to the feeling of unreality the islands in the lake are dotted with depictions of characters from Peter Pan. The author J.M. Barrie was a friend of Ogilvie's.

Thorpeness stayed in the family's hands until the 1970s when Glencairn Ogilvie's grandson and heir died on the golf course and most of the properties had to be sold off to pay death duties. In a perfectly appropriate postscript the Ogilvie family had over the years also amassed the largest collection of mounted bird species in Britain. This is now the pride and joy of the Ipswich Natural History Museum and promoted under the heading "Get Stuffed".

- nzherald.co.nz

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