A Day Out: Southwold

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Phew!  It was a long haul, but my show is finally really open.  This means that I can go back to the indolent café-dwelling I mentioned last week.  And while I did whine a bit about work, the truth is that it was only crazy every other day last week, which left me time to do a bit of exploring while I was out in deepest, darkest Suffolk.  I was based in a small market town called Halesworth, population 4,600.  Halesworth has a nice pedestrianised high street, a few good coffee shops, and a really cracking local hardware store called Cooper's, which is exactly the kind of place you want when you're trying to keep a sort of complicated but low budget show together. ("Right, what I need is ten metres of cheap garden hose, thirty-six M10 nuts, two plastic spring clamps, a handful of carpet tacks, and a package of hacksaw blades..."* God bless you, Cooper's!).  However beguiling as Halesworth might have been (hint: not really at all, despite the best efforts of Cooper's, and a really good chip shop), there were the aforementioned days off, and I had my bicycle, so one day to took myself off to the seaside for a little break from the frenzy of Halesworth.

The beach at Southwold

Southwold is even smaller than Halesworth (with a permanent population of merely 1,500), but it has the advantage of being on the North Sea coast, which makes it a popular spot for summer holidaymakers.  It's got a pier, and a long stretch of beach, and the requisite ration of cafés, pubs, charity shops and twee stores selling postcards and expensive pots of jam. Southwold also has the good fortune to be home to Adnam's Brewery which is the town's largest employer and owner of 74 pubs around East Anglia.

My trip to Southwold ended up being on an exceptionally windy day, meaning that wandering along the seaside, or paddling in the ocean were not really appealing.  Though I did pause long enough to take a photo of some of the beach huts lining the seaside.

Beach huts
A beach hut (also known as a beach cabin or bathing box) is a small, usually wooden and often brightly coloured, box above the high tide mark on popular bathing beaches. They are generally used as a shelter from the sun or wind, changing into and out of swimming costumes and for the safe storing of some personal belongings. Some beach huts incorporate simple facilities for preparing food and hot drinks by either bottled gas or occasionally mains electricity.
The colourful beach huts at Southwold are typical of the species.  The front doors open completely to create a wind break on either side of the large from porch.  I even saw one in use, with a family huddled, in typically English fashion, enjoying a cup of tea.  I'm sure they were utterly convinced they were having a lovely time.  It's a really charming feature of the English psyche that they can sit in a 70 square foot wooden hut in 40 mile an hour winds with a cup of tea and a biscuit and genuinely believe they're having a nice day at the seaside. Beach huts are most common in the UK, but they also exist in France, Australia and South Africa.  They're usually quite basic, and can be rented or bought outright.  More elaborate ones on popular beaches can sell for ridiculous sums.  In 2006 a beach hut in Dorset sold for £216,000.  And I bet that didn't even include the biscuits.

Southwold also has a lovely little building called the Southwold Sailors' Reading Room, which is open to the public, and free.  Being a member of the public, and a cheapskate, I checked it out.
"The Southwold Sailors' Reading Room was built in 1864 as a refuge for fishermen and mariners when not engaged at sea, as an endeavour to keep them out of the pubs and encourage them in Christian ideals. Displays of a seafaring nature line the walls and fill glass cabinets. Pictures and portraits of local fishermen and seascapes, model ships and maritime paraphernalia offer a fascinating history of Southwold's connections with the sea."
It's a small building absolutely rammed with maritime memorabilia, and was a quiet and charming refuge from the gale force winds outside.  I had a short look around, deposited a pound in the donations box (I'm not really a cheapskate) and discovered that Southwold's seafaring history is perhaps not quite as fascinating as the good people at the Southwold Sailors' Reading Room might think.

Reading Room 2
Interior of the Sailor's Reading Room.  I imagine if you'd been out to sea for ages it would be quite a nice place to put your feet up and read a paper. Or, in fact, if you'd not been out to sea and were just looking for a way to get out of the wind.

Being a small town, it doesn't take long to check out most of what's on offer in Southwold.  I did the rounds of the shops.  I had coffee and worked on the crossword.  And I saw the lighthouse (closed on weekdays).

The lighthouse.

I was just starting to despair that I'd be unable to amuse myself for the rest of the afternoon when I stumbled into the brewery district and happened on a door that purported to be the start point for the Adnam's Brewery Tour.  Aha!  A quick Google search indicated that the next tour was due to start in just under half an hour, which seemed like such good luck it would be downright churlish to ignore it.  So I poked my head into a random office door, paid my £12 and nipped off for a quick picnic lunch before presenting myself for the 2pm tour.

There's a long tradition of brewing in Southwold.  And when I say long, I mean England-long, not Canada-long.  The first recorded mention of brewing in the town was in 1345.  So like I said… long.  The Adnam's brothers founded their brewery in 1872 (no nearly so long, but still respectable).  The tour started with a chat about the basic ingredients that go into beer - water, malt, hops and yeast.  We got to taste several of the different grains that go into Adnam's malts, which were actually quite nice on their own.  I would happily munch on a few handfuls of toasted, malted barley alongside my pint.

Tasting stuff

We went through all the parts of the brewery, most of which are just big rooms filled with stainless steel kettles.  Adnam's are actually quite environmentally advanced about their brewing.  In 2006 they built a new eco-distribution centre just outside of Southwold, which has a living roof, lime and hemp walls and rain harvesting facility.  In 2007 they reduced the weight of their 500ml bottles from 455grams to 299 grams, making them the lightest bottles in use.  And in 2008 they converted all their old kettles to new German models that capture the escaping steam and recycle it back into the kettles themselves, which saves about 30% of the energy in the system, but has the unfortunate side effect that Southwold no longer smells like beer all day.  They've also streamlined how much water it takes to make their beer. Conventional brewing takes about 6 pints of water to make one pint of beer, which seems like a pretty good deal to me, but Adnman's have reduced that to 3.2 pints.  All in all, they seem to be doing good work.  The only downside I can see (besides the lack of beer smell) is that they had to retire their dray horses when the eco-distribtion centre opened.  Until that time, they still used horse-drawn carts to deliver beer to the various pubs inside Southwold. Sadly, the new distribution centre is too far for the horses.

Naturally, the tour ended with a beer tasting, where I had to be careful to remain in a fit state to cycle the eight miles back to Halesworth.  However I did have a small taste of four or five different brews, and had my picture taken behind the pumps.

Me behind the pumps, slightly out of focus, which should not be taken as an indication of my level of sobriety, but doesn't exactly reflect well on the photographer, a slight woman who had the temerity to go on a brewery tour despite the fact that she didn't really like beer.

After that there was just enough time for a quick trip to the pier.  I walked the whole length, even though it was so windy that I was in imminent danger of being blow approximately to Rotterdam.  An English seaside pier is a sort of peculiar thing.  Originally built as landing stages for ferries, English piers are long walkways usually supported on wooden posts.

Southwold Pier

The most famous piers in England are in Brighton and Blackpool, where the structures support amusement arcades and restaurants and shops and lots of twinkly lights.  The Southwold pier is more modest, but still has an arcade full of coin-operated video games and claw grabbers, and those ones where you put a coin in to add to a pile of coins that are eventually supposed to spill over a precipice and reward you with… more coins.  But Southwold pier also had a fantastic "Under the Pier" show, which was a misnomer, because it really wasn't under the pier at all.  It was, however, positively excellent.  Normal pier games take your money with the chance of rewarding you with something of nominal value.  The Under the Pier show is a collection of home made machines that are utterly ridiculous.  Take, for instance, the Rent-a-Dog.  Put in your 40p, step onto a treadmill, grab the leash and… walk the dog.  Brilliant.

Rent a dog.  You watch the street pass by on your screen... the dog watches on his!

There was also the Mobility Masterclass - a simulated street crossing complete with aluminium walker.  Or the Instant Eclipse - sit in a dark booth and watch the stars come out.  Or the Autofrisk - a set of rubber gloves that give you a thorough frisk.  In all there were about 20 silly machines.  The Under the Pier show really was excellent, and a fitting end to my day at the seaside.  Once I'd had a thorough look at all the machines, there was nothing to do but hop on my bike and head back to the hustle and bustle of Halesworth, secure in the knowledge that I'd partaken in all that Southwold had to offer, but slightly wistful that my trip home wasn't accompanied by the sweet smell of fermenting malt.

* That's my actual shopping list, over the course of a week.  Cooper's really was a gold mine.  I could also have posted a letter, and bought a slow cooker, or bedding plants, or a set of patio furniture.


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