Archive for October 2013
In the early 1960s, my mother bought a handsome red-brick terraced house in Southwold. Its name was Avondale, and it overlooked the sea from North Parade. At some stage it had been converted into three flats suitable for holiday letting, and very little had been done to it since.
The previous owner was a Mr Arthur Gordon Brander. He was a jobbing actor, with a stage and screen career that spanned the ’30s to the ’60s. My mother didn’t like him, though I have no idea why.
The flats were managed by Tom Jellicoe and his brother Paul from their quaintly Dickensian premises at No.8 Queen Street. A Southwold holiday would begin with a visit to the Jellicoes to collect the key to whichever flat was available for us, and to exchange the kind of smalltalk that I remember as being virtually monosyllabic.
Men of very few words, the Jellicoe brothers were Southwold institutions. In their quiet way, they were always friendly and welcoming, and although they must have aged slightly over the time we knew them, they never seemed to. Certainly the office – with its rows of labelled keys on hooks – never changed.
The most practical flat at No.18 was on the ground floor. It was easily the biggest. There were nearly always some invited guests, usually school chums of mine, to keep me company. Secretly, I was never really keen on this arrangement, much preferring to spend the day in the sea, or on the beach, or reading a book.
Grown-up guests were carefully chosen, and if they had a car, so much the better. Although I was frequently carsick, and hated being cooped up inside the Austin A40 or whatever it was, a car had distinct advantages in and around Southwold. As nobody in my family could drive, a car meant daytrips to places otherwise unreachable, and a car also meant that we probably wouldn’t have to worry about the bother of getting back to London on the train – even though Mrs Jackson’s taxi service to and from Halesworth was always reliable, and she a very pleasant companion.
The ground floor flat sported a kitchen that seemed enormous, virtually untouched since its Victorian heyday. A solid deal table stood in the middle of the flagstoned floor, and round the walls were shelves with rough drawers below them, drawers that were filled with an odd assortment of ancient cutlery and kitchen implements. A hand-operated mincer was clamped to one of the shelves, and a large mangle stood in the shadows, in what would probably have been the scullery. There was always a sharp warning not to play with it in case fingers should get caught in the rollers.
The kitchen had an intriguing smell of damp, though it was always bone-dry. It was never warm, no matter how hard the ancient Belling cooker had been working to provide breakfast or supper.
In the passageway outside stood a hefty oak settle, carved with grinning faces and lots of leaves. The seat was filled with buckets and spades and all the necessary bits and pieces for the beach. I think it was kept locked when we weren’t there.
I have no idea if I ever went into the back garden. There was no need to, with the beach and the common, and the whole of Southwold to explore. The back garden was merely where the dustbins were kept.
I always hoped that the first floor flat would be available as it was easily my favourite. The front room had a glorious view of Sole Bay, and when the weather was bad the crashing waves of the North Sea salted the windows. It was here that we listened to Cliff Richard just failing to win the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Congratulations’. (My mother worked for the BBC’s publicity department, and Sandie Shaw’s winning ‘Puppet on a String’ the previous year had upset everything as London now had to play host to the Contest. This gave everyone a huge amount of extra work, and my mother sighed with unpatriotic relief when Spain carried off the trophy in the Albert Hall.)
The top flat was the one I liked least, despite its balcony and the superb prospect of just about everything from Sizewell B up to and beyond the pier, with its solidly square pale pink pavilion. From up there the expanse of water could be a little depressing if the weather wasn’t nice, and anyway the flat was the most ‘modern,’ which didn’t appeal to a small child with a liking for nooks and crannies and shadows. The kitchen smelt of plastic and Vim, and there were too many cheerful fabrics everywhere – the kind of things created in the 1950s as an antidote to the horrors of a World War whose after-effects were still visible in too many places.
An unexploded mine, retrieved from the sea, and painted in red and white stripes, stood harmlessly opposite the house. It was a collecting box for – I think – the R.N.L.I. It was a great pleasure to feed it with coppers and an occasional threepenny-bit as a treat. A sixpence was less easily parted with as it was probably being kept for a trip to the pier’s amusement arcade. I was supposed to be ‘lucky’ at the slot-machines, but I certainly wasn’t, any more than anyone else. I think I won a shilling once – and my reputation was founded on that.
My sixpence was kept for ‘The Haunted Graveyard’ – an old-fashioned delight of a mechanical peep-show. Skeletons and ghosts emerged jerkily from behind miniature tombstones, haunting a drunk who lifted a bottle to his lips a few times before sinking back into slumber as the last spooks disappeared. Perhaps the machine is still there – though the tarted-up pier has changed out of all recognition.
In the Summer, part of the beach was taken over by the Children’s Special Service Mission – an evangelical Christian group who built a big stage made entirely of sand, and decorated with pebbles and shells, the letters CSSM picked out in purple clover. They were young and enthusiastic and strummed guitars and sang modern hymns. I think they were quite popular as somewhere to put the children before breakfast on a Sunday morning. I never attended a service, but liked their platform because it reminded me of a stage, and I would clamber up there when nobody else was around, imagining I was in a big theatre.
What we got up to during the long summer days depended largely on which bit of my family was staying at No.18. If I was there with my mother, it was likely that friends would be there too. Certainly our housekeeper in London (yes, we really did have one) would be with us to keep an eye on things. She was very fond of Southwold, having been born and bred in Lowestoft, the daughter of a school inspector. According to the 1911 census, he was also a meteorologist, and recorded local weather conditions. It took me years to realise why Dorothy – or Dolfie (as she was known) could readily tell me the proper names of every cloud in the sky.
My father, who for various reasons preferred mostly to be left behind in London, paid infrequent visits, rarely joining us for a whole holiday. When he did appear, always in great state on the Grey-Green coach which hurtled down the High Street before swinging round to reach its stop, he loved the common and the sea. He also loved a Southwold institution: Sutherland House – a restaurant and tea shop ruled with good-humoured firmness and no frills by the wonderful Mrs Jones, who seemed always to run everywhere with a great sense of urgency.
‘If you’ll take a seat with the others,’ she would say, indicating the queue of waiting hopefuls, ‘I serve everyone who comes.’ And she always did. Excellent meals of honest unfussy food – and plenty of it. It was a testament to her quality that Mr Philpott, the manager of Lloyd’s Bank, ate there virtually every day. And never put on weight.
(David Philpott was one of those remarkable bank managers of the old school who actually understood what made people tick, and how they might benefit from sensible advice. I opened my first ever bank account with him, and still remember the account number. I stayed – as did my mother – until his retirement, and though I must have tried his patience on many occasions he was unfailingly patient and polite, and I shall always be grateful to him. I even received a personal letter of thanks when I managed to clear a persistent overdraft!)
Two other benign presences in the town also remain firmly imprinted on my childhood: St Edmund’s Church, and the Lighthouse.
The first sight of the lighthouse, dazzling white in the sunlight as we neared the town, gave us a feeling of security, of coming home, and of magical days ahead. The unchanging pulse of its beams, year in, year out, made it as familiar as an old friend, and we would often stand on the seafront in the evening, waiting for the cycle to begin as daylight dimmed. We were not the only ones.
The parish church was special mainly because of Southwold Jack, who I adored. I used to visit him whenever I could, staring up at him, wanting to know what his bell sounded like. I don’t think I have ever heard it, and I never dared try it out for myself as I feared it might be unlucky to do so. A bit later on, I discovered the wonders of the choir stalls, and the painted rood screen, and the lovely roof with its angels and stars, and I have enjoyed churches ever since. For me, St Edmund’s seemed always one of the finest, and one of the richest in atmosphere and history.
Apart from Southwold’s delightful museum, now so much more sophisticated than it ever imagined it would become, The Sailors’ Reading Room also fascinated me with its model ships in glass cases, and its glimpses of a way of life completely unknown to me except in books.
The perfect place to escape sudden showers or icy winds, it was filled with pipe and cigarette smoke, elderly fishermen, old newspapers, dominoes and cribbage boards, and I am not sure I liked it as much when I saw it last. It had been tidied up and cleaned up, and some vital ingredient was missing. It seemed to have become rather middle class – a fate that I’m certain was never intended for it; but perhaps that’s why it still exists at all.
At the end of the ‘70s, after much hesitation, we parted company with 18 North Parade, and the regular holidays ended. My mother sold the house to Rex Fisher, who opened Avondale Guest House, giving this lovely building a new lease of life. I stayed there during his first season, and it was very pleasant and welcoming. The huge oak settle, still in its place on the ground floor, was now filled with fresh dining room laundry, and the kitchen had been brought up to date, as was only right and proper for a hotel. The mangle had disappeared, along with the mincing machine, and the family pet – an elderly beagle called Barry – wandered contentedly about, barred from the kitchen and dining room with cries of ‘Out you go!’ from Dolly, the motherly breakfast waitress.
Rather like Proust and his ‘scent of madaleines dipped in tea’ I remember the Southwold smells: the kippers being smoked in their tarred huts, the beer from Adnams Brewery wafting over the town, and the ever-present tang of the North Sea. I also remember a curious incident on one of our last family visits. My mother took our dog for a customary late-night stroll across North Parade to the edge of the cliff. There was nobody around and everything was calm and bright with moonlight. Near the mine-collecting-box the dog stopped dead, growling intently – something that this most complacent of animals had never been heard to do. She was also watching something: something straight in front of her, something certainly not visible to the human eye.
A second later, she gave a yelp and bolted back across the road to the front of the house, scrabbling frantically at the door. She was shaking with fear.
Part of me would love to know what she saw. Another part of me wouldn’t. It’s probably best kept a secret.