Cast by Fortune on a Frowning Coast

In which I discover the literature inspired by Suffolk’s remote stretch of coastline…

Travel was rather difficult in the Summer of 2020. With many tourist attractions shut down and others limiting numbers; restaurants limiting the number of tables they could cover and pubs only serving ‘substantial meals’. Even our planned holiday in Scotland was cancelled.

Mrs P and I decided to stay a bit closer to home and rented a flat in the charming little Suffolk town of Framlingham. It had two bedrooms, so we invited Emma and Matt to join us. On arrival in Framlingham, we found our apartment, just off the town square, and went for an explore. There are the most delightful little shops in the Market Square: an amazing looking little deli; a nice looking café; a shop selling trinkets, of the kind Mrs. P seems to enjoy, and a bunch of pleasant looking pubs. The church is an impressive one and has a fine collection of trees, including a giant sequoia, in the churchyard. A short walk from here is a fine castle. It was evening by the time we had wandered up there and the place was closed, but several young people wandered around the grounds, enjoying the sunset over the castle on the hill. It certainly was a magnificent sight.

Framlingham Castle

Apart from popular songster Ed Sheeran, who was brought up in, and frequently sings about, Framlingham, the writer associated with the town in Alathea Lewis. Originally from Cheshire, she moved to Framlingham after the death of her mother, in 1751, to live with her grandfather. She was aquainted with the poet, George Crabbe and was engaged to one of his friends, William Levett. She is not much read today, although some of her novels are available online. They’re Christian morality tales and quite a difficult read; she lacks the ease and fluency of some of her contemporaries.

I had planned to take my guests down the Suffolk coast from Lowestoft, ending at Aldeburgh for the best fish and chips in the world. The stretch of coast between Lowestoft and Felixstowe is bleak, windswept and atmospheric. It has inspired many local writers, who have set stories among the dunes and marshland of Suffok. WG Sebald, Ruth Rendell, PD James have all set novels on this coastland and Daniel Defoe, who toured the Eastern counties in 1722, is rumoured to have written Robinson Crusoe after witnessing a shipwreck along this coast.

An early start was important, as I had an appointment at the Lowestoft Museum and didn’t want to keep them waiting. So we breakfasted on bacon rolls and pastries at a café in the town square and headed out towards Lowestoft. We didn’t venture into the town; the easternmost point of the British Isles, it has to be said, lacks the allure of Land’s End. The museum is outside the town, on the south side of Oulton Broad, one of a number of bodies of water that separates Lowestoft from the rest of Suffolk.

Lowestoft Museum

The museum is in a fine flint and brick building: a fascinating mixture of different styles; the perfect setting for the eclectic collection inside. Arriving mid-morning, I was greeted by Carol, who showed me around the marvellous collection. I love these little local museums that give you an insight into the history and archeology of the area as well as local characters and events. Lowestoft has long been important naval and trading town, so the museum, as you might expect, has a nautical flavour, with displays about the fishing industry and ships of note, as well as the Battle of Lowestoft, part of the Anglo-Dutch war that took place in 1665. They also had a fine selection of Lowestoft porcelain, which was produced in the town in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Pride of place is given to a magnificent Anglo-Saxon amulet

There were also displays about notable local figures, including Benjamin Britten, who was born in Lowestoft in 1913, and Victorian novelist and travel writer, George Borrow. Borrow was born in East Dereham in Norfolk in 1803 but moved across the border after his marriage in 1840 and settled in Lowestoft. There was a modest display about Borrow here, chiefly centred on his house, Oulton Cottage, that once stood on the north side of Oulton Broad. I had a drive around the North shore of the broad, to see if I could find George Borrow’s summerhouse. It is still there, apparently, in the garden of one of the houses that has since been built on the land. After being faced with several gates and notices saying “Private Road; No Entry”, I gave up.

Montague House, Southwold, home of the Blair family

We drove south, down the coast, stopping at places of interest along the way. Our first port of call was to visit George Orwell’s home in Southwold, a lovely seaside town, complete with pier and lighthouse. There are shops selling crafts with a nautical theme and some very nice pubs. This is where the Adnams brewery is situated and its several, disparate buildings occupy various locations throughout the town. The advantage of this is that there is a large and well-stocked Adnams shop and I have spent many happy hours in there, looking at the fantastic array of beers, wines and spirits for sale, wondering how great it would be if I could buy them and buying them.

At the top of the high street (almost opposite the Adnam’s shop, in fact) is a large, double-fronted red brick building, once the property of the Blair family. Their son, Eric, stayed with them here on several occasions. After returning from 2 years in Paris, he got a job as a teacher in a school nearby and moved into the family home for a while. Eric loved Suffolk: he immortalised the people he met – most notably a local clergyman’s daughter named Brenda Salkeld, to whom he was engaged for a time and remained a lifelong friend. He even took his pen-name from the major river of the county, the Orwell. George Orwell’s former family home is now available as a holiday let; it’s quite pricey but it will comfortably accommodate 7 people. Click here for details.

Dunwich High Street, looking East, towards the town square.

Who still remain to hear the ocean roar,
Whose greedy waves devour the lessening shore

George Crabbe, The Village

A short distance down the coast is Dunwich. This was a large and important town in Anglo-Saxon England, with eight churches, an Abbey, a castle and a population of 3,000. A series of great storms, starting in 1287 damaged the harbour and over the next eighty years, the great town shrank to a small village. The sea continued to undermine the cliffs and encroached on the land to such an extent that the buildings that remained were gradually swallowed up by the sea. All Saints’ Church survived and managed to cling on to its congregation until the mid Eighteenth Century, when the locals abandoned the building, the cliff edge getting closer and closer year by year. Only one grave remains in the churchyard, although several pieces of masonry can be seen at low tide.

This remote and eerie place has attracted its fair share of writers over the years: it was quite a tourist attraction in the Victorian era and Jerome K. Jerome, Edward Fitzgerald, Henry James and Algernon Swinburne were all drawn to its bleak beauty. On top of the cliff above the town is a row of coastguard cottages, now cared for by the National Trust. These are certainly worth a visit as it was here that the poet, Edward Thomas stayed in 1908.

Coastguard Cottages, Dunwich Heath

One of these cottages was the home of the Webb family. Their daughter, Hope, was a sensitive and deep girl and Thomas fell in love with her instantly. It sounds like a beautiful love story, until you consider that Edward was married with a young family, and that Hope was seventeen years old. The affair was short-lived, possibly because of Hope’s family’s disapproval.

Moving south along the coast again, you will find the village of Thorpeness, created in 1910 as a model holiday village by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie. At its heart is Thorpeness Meare, a huge boating lake, full of secret inlets and islands, where children can hire a sailing boat and explore. Ogilvie was a friend of JM Barrie and themed the lake around some of the locations in Peter Pan. You will find a Wendy’s House, a Pirate’s Lair and a Peter Pan’s Island, among other literary-themed locations. There was a regatta in full-swing as we arrived, and we watched the boats racing for a while, before finding a tea shop nearby and watching the antics of local wildlife over a cardboard cup of lukewarm brown fluid.

I adore the town of Aldeburgh and have written about it on many occasions. The church has a memorial to George Crabbe, the poet who was born in the town in 1754. His poem, The Borough, was the inspiration behind Benjamin Britten’s great opera, Peter Grimes. Britten was also a Aldeburgh resident and, in the nearby village of Snape, there is an annual festival in his honour. There is a sculpture to commemorate him on the beach. Resembling a broken scallop shell, it was designed by Maggi Hambling and is certainly worth the walk along the shingle to get there. From here, you can walk back into the town past row upon row of fisherman’s sheds selling the catch straight from the boat and I often buy some seafood here to sustain me on the long walk into the town.

I cannot recommend the fish and chip shop in Aldeburgh too highly. It is by far the best fish and chips I have ever tasted and I was looking forward to sampling it again. The downside of having discovered the best fish and chip shop in the world, is that there is always a long queue outside that starts to form from about half an hour before it opens. You are in for a good half hour at least wait before opening time. However, if the weather is good, it needn’t be a chore. As long as there are at least two in your party, post someone on queue duty to hold your place and head for the White Hart next door. Avail yourself of as much ale as you will need to sustain you for your wait (in my case, a pint and a half of Ghost Ship). You can then take your time in the queue, chatting and drinking and the wait doesn’t seem too bad. Finally, we made it to the front and I took back the empties, Emma went inside to make the purchase while the rest of us mimed our requirements to her through the window.

We walked to the beach to eat our beautifully crispy battered cod and golden, perfectly cooked chips, each crunch releasing a billow of steam and no hint of sogginess. We sat watching the waves and fighting off small dogs and large seagulls. Aside from the irritating noises made my seagulls and teenagers, it was really rather peaceful, watching the boats on the wide North Sea.

I have been lucky enough to eat in some pretty fancy restaurants and sampled the menus of some our finest chefs but, in complete honesty, eating fish and chips with friends, on the stones of Aldeburgh beach, on a warm summer evening… there are few places I would rather be.

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