Ports ancient and modern at England’s eastern tip
The golden weather-vane of St Margaret’s Church, high above Britain’s easternmost town of Lowestoft, is the first object in Britain to catch the light of the morning sun. Its beaches make Lowestoft a bustling seaside resort, while to the south the old-world charm of Southwold offers a different type of seaside holiday. Oulton Broad, the southernmost of the Broads, makes a delightful introduction to the entire network of inland waterways.
A popular seaside resort and a busy port, Lowestoft is split in half by the narrow strip of water called Lake Lothing. The two halves are linked only by a bascule bridge, whose two halves are raised to admit large merchantmen into the heart of the town.
The town’s prosperity began in the mid-1800s, with the exploitation of the Dogger Bank and other North Sea fishing grounds. The main catch was herring, which were cured in the town and sent to London, the Midlands, and as far afield as Australia. By 1900 the old sailing luggers had been largely superseded by steam-powered drifters, so called because their large nets were allowed to drift with the tide while catching the herring. The height of the herring boom came just before the First World War, when more than 700 drifters worked from Lowestoft.
Overfishing in recent years has led to a decline in the herring, and today 60-70 per cent of the catch is plaice, 20 per cent is cod, and the remainder consists of dab, dogfish, brill and other fish. The fishing fleet today consists of fewer than 50 motor trawlers.
The trawler basin and commercial docks
SHINING LANDMARK SoiltluVOld lighthouse soars above Georgian houses and cottages, its white walls and golden weather-vane making it a landmark by day as well as by night. are north of the bridge, as are the old town (badly damaged by bombs during the Second World War), the lighthouse, and the splendid little Maritime Museum, full of relics of the golden age of the herring fishery. This part of the town has a unique series of parallel lanes, running steeply from the High Street down to foreshore level, known as ‘Scores’, perhaps because they were ‘scoured’ or cut out between the buildings. Lowestoft Ness has the distinction of being Britain’s easternmost point.
South of the bridge and the harbour is the resort half of the town, largely laid out in the 19th century by Sir Samuel Morton Peto, the builder whose firm built Nelson’s Column and the Houses of Parliament in London. His connection with Lowestoft began in the 1840s, when he built a railway so that fish could be delivered fresh from the market to Manchester.
The sandy South Beach, patrolled by lifeguards in summer, lies south of the South Pier of the harbour. Swimming is safe, except near the harbour entrance. Windsurfing is forbidden inside the harbour. There are amusement arcades and fishing on the South Pier and Claremont Pier, and a summer theatre. Guided walking tours of the fishing harbour start from the Tourist Information Centre on the Esplanade. North Beach, below Gunton Cliffs, is another favourite place for swimming.
Lowestoft marks the northern end of the Suffolk Coast Path, which runs south for 50 miles to Pelixstowe.
Powerboats racing on this attractive stretch of water on a fine summer’s evening present an unforgettable sight as they throw up clouds of spray against the setting sun. This inland water, fed by the River Waveney, is a popular centre for sailing and fishing, too. It is connected to Lowestoft by a lock and a lake, Lake Lothing. There is limited parking at the Boulevard, just south of the Broad, which leads into the Nicholas Everitt Park, a ood place for watching the boats or for taking a stroll. The Boulevard is also the starting point for trips on the River Wave-ney, and boats can be hired there.
A southern extension of Lowestoft, Pakefield has a sandy, shingle-scattered beach, below low grassy banks. The church of St Margaret and All Saints dates from the 14th century and was two churches in one until 1748, with two parishes and two rectors. It suffered badly from bomb damage in the Second World War, but has since been rebuilt.
The beach consists of a wide shingle bank, covered in boats, with amusements behind. On the outskirts of the village, just off the A12, is the entrance to the Suffolk Wildlife and Country Park. Open daily in summer, it contains a wide variety of animals and birds in natural surroundings, including wallabies, timber wolves, sacred ibis and black swans.
This shingle headland can be reached only on foot by a 1 ½ mile walk down a road that is closed to cars. It is the second most easterly point in England, after Lowestoft Ness. Swimming can be dangerous, as fast currents sweep round the point.
Lonely and dramatically sited, Covehithe’s ruined church of St Andrew’s is remarkable for its small thatched church built in 1672 inside the windowless and roofless nave. The original church, built in the 15th century, became too large for the parishioners to maintain, so they built the smaller church using the materials from the old.
The road ends at a gate a short way beyond the church. There is no public access to the beach beyond this point because of the dangerous state of the cliffs; however, a footpath starting just opposite the church leads under trees then across open heath-land to low cliffs with a distant view of the roofs of Southwold to the south. The sand-and-shingle beach stretches in either direction as far as the eye can see, and a reedy lagoon among sand-dunes behind the beach teems with birdlife.
In 1672 a fleet led by the Dutch admiral de Ruyter confronted the combined French and English fleets off Covehithe, at the Battle of Sole Bay. The Dutch withdrew only after a bitter fight.
A strong malty smell pervades the air of Southwold, for this elegant little town is the home of Adnams’ brewery, whose drays, loaded with barrels and pulled by pairs of magnificent percheron horses, are frequently seen in the streets. Southwold’s redbrick and flint cottages and colour-washed houses are built round seven ‘Greens’ -open spaces which came into being after a great fire in 1659, and mark the sites of nouses that were destroyed and never rebuilt. Domesday book records that South-wold was a prosperous fishing port in the 11th century.
At its southern end, the town rises to the grassy slopes of Gun Hill, so called from the six cannons that stand there, pointing out to sea. The first guns were given to the town in the 1630s by Charles I, to protect Southwold ships against the ‘Dunkirkers’ – privateers operating from Dunkirk. The existing guns were given by George II in 1745 after the townspeople had complained that ‘this place is in a very dangerous condition for want of Guns and Ammunition being naked and exposed to the insults of the Common Enemys’. They are 18-pounders, and at the time they were sent to Southwold were already about 150 years old. They were hidden away during the two world wars.
Southwold’s sandy beach, lined with beach huts and protected by groynes, is safe for swimming except round the harbour entrance, half a mile south of Gun Hill. The seaward end of the pier, once popular among fishermen, was destroyed in a storm in 1979, but has been restored. There is an amusement arcade at the shore end.
Southwold is built virtually on an island, as on its north side it is cut off from the hinterland by Buss Creek, named after the herring ‘busses’, or fishing boats that once used the waterway, and on the south by the last mile or so of the River Blyth, lined with boatyards and huts selling fresh fish.
Southwold’s museum in Victoria Street contains relics connected with local history. The parish church of St Edmund is one of the finest in Suffolk, with a glorious painted screen of about 1500 that escaped the attentions of both Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell. It also has ‘Southwold Jack’, the 15th-century oak figure of a man-at-arms, carrying a sword and a battle-axe. When a cord is pulled the axe strikes a bell, to signal the start of services and the entry of the bride at a wedding.
The size and splendour of the church of the Holy Trinity at Blythburgh has earned it the nickname of the ‘Cathedral of the Marshes’. When the church was built in the 15th century, Blythburgh was an important town, with a bustling quayside by the River Blyth, thronged with merchants made rich by the Suffolk wool trade. But ships grew in size, the Blyth silted up, and Blythburgh shrank to the size of the small village it is today.
In Cromwell’s time the church was desecrated. His men used the great winged angels of the ceiling for target practice, and screwed tethering rings for their horses into the pillars. Unusual features of the church are the little priest’s chamber above the south porch and, south of the altar, a ‘Jack-o’-the-Clock’. This painted wooden figure holds a hatchet, which strikes against a bell when a string connected to it is pulled. At the same time his head turns.
North of the village, a layby on the A12 gives wide views over the estuary. After floods during the 1920s the Blyth engulfed the water-meadows on either side.
The B1387 comes to an end past the village green of Walberswick, once a flourishing port at the mouth of the River Blyth. Just across the river lie the boatyards of Southwold; to reach them by road involves a journey of 8 miles.
Walberswick is popular with small-boat sailors. The river foreshore is muddy, with strong currents; but the beach, reached down an unmade road, is sandy and safe for swimming. The tall church of St Andrew outside the village is partly in ruins but the present church has been built inside the crumbling walls. A nature reserve is signposted on the north side of the road west of Walberswick.