With all that’s happening this year (or, to more accurate, not happening), it was a good job that our holiday ambitions were a good deal more modest than last year’s expedition to New York. Fortunately, before lockdown hit us, we’d made a booking for a week in Southwold, somewhere we’ve been meaning to visit, and we held our nerve long enough for the restrictions on UK travel to lift just in time for us to go. Southwold is, in itself, quite vintage – a Suffolk fishing town that became a bolt hole for artists and well-to-do townies long ago enough for it to have absorbed the change of role. That said, we quickly worked out that the profusion of holiday cottages in the town centre would make being able to get in and out with the car fairly tricky, with parking a bit of a roulette each time one came back which fortunately set us looking at the outskirts where we found a 1930s-build property overlooking the marshes to the north. After the long wait to see if we could go at all, our anticipation was sharpened further by doing an early morning run across the country and getting there in time to spend our first day mooching around the town while we waited for the house to be ‘fogged’ for us, but driving past as the previous week’s occupants were leaving and deciding that, on kerb appeal alone, we’d made a good choice. When we got the chance to explore in detail, we found that the core of the cottage, built for a retired mariner in the 30s, was pretty much intact, with doors and fireplaces still in original form; modernisation had included expanding the scullery and kitchen to create a large airy kitchen/diner and – innovatively – encasing the front of the bungalow in a sun room constructed on the front of the building, leaving the bay windows and even the front door unscathed, but adding an extra room looking out over the marshes, with the ability to open up half the windows in the front to provide open access to a veranda. There was even a piano there. I’m not usually a fan of adding bits on to period properties to make them more marketable, but the preservation of the core of the building (right down to the anaglypta wallpaper and door furniture), and the sense that the extension to the front was a distinct and separate space, made it all work (and was infinitely preferable to the usual approach of knocking down seaside bungalows to be replaced by modern gin palaces or shoebox apartments). With a wireless speaker deployed to fill the space with our own choice of music, we were well set to spend much of our break just reading, enjoying a tipple and taking in the view.
Southwold isn’t a place to go seriously digging for vintage items or records – it’s just too popular and anything you’re likely to find would tend more to the ‘shabby chic’ end of the market. There is a little vintage shop on the market square with a good selection of records, though, and we were lucky enough to arrive on a day when there was a record fair in one of the halls in the centre of town which did provide a couple of hours happy crate digging with some good finds across the price spectrum. From what we could tell, those dealers are regular visitors, and locally based, so it would seem there’s a good chance of finding them in residence if you’re in the area for any length of time. I got lost in a huge collection of LPs at a standard £4 each, pulling out all kinds of weird stuff to add to the collection including an immersive experience based on the Colditz TV series. For all our efforts to track down those elusive 50s and early 60s 45s, I do love wallowing in the world of obscure and slightly kitschy LPs, especially at that kind of price!
At the serious end of the antiques market, we also paid a visit to Southwold’s resident expert at the Dome antiques centre, a former drill hall in the middle of a small industrial estate. It’s a big unit, spread over two floors, and crammed with art nouveau and arts and crafts items in various stages of repair and restoration, including some absolutely stunning pieces of household furniture. Very few items were priced and, fortunately, a combination of limited house and car space tempered our appetite from the beginning as we started to realize that this stuff was just too good for there to be any real bargains in the offing. We tentatively asked for some prices on a few items from the restorer who, as the only one present, was beavering away in the back workshop; when he mentioned that the boss was out on a film set, had an outlet in Chelsea and another in France, we had a sinking feeling that our fears would be realized and, sure enough, when the call came later in the day with the asking prices, it was clear they were a full market rate. Just as well we didn’t enquire about the fully restored arts and crafts hall cabinet – that would have been eye-watering!
Fortunately, the local area proved more productive for antiques and collectables shopping. Within a few miles we found a nice little outlet in a former railway building at Darsham, and a good multi-trader centre at Yoxford, both of which yielded a couple of acquisitions and lots of temptations. I even managed to acquire a still-in-the-box example of the slot together box frame that graced my bedroom wall throughout the 1960s which should allow me to produce some copies while preserving the original in mint condition. Only slightly further away was Snape Maltings, a multi use cultural centre whose antiques centre, though modest in size, had some very fairly priced items on offer which allowed me to add to my collection of vintage tools, Mrs M to hunt down powder compacts, and for us to stagger out of the door with a beautiful art deco walnut bedside cabinet that was just such a bargain that we couldn’t leave it behind and that would just squeeze into the boot. Bizarrely, it looks just right as a side unit in the front room.
With so much pleasure to be had in just enjoying the cottage and its immediate surroundings, we didn’t bother too much about trying to take in the whole of Norfolk and Suffolk, but there were two exhibitions that we couldn’t miss. The first was on our doorstep on Southwold Pier and had been one of the inspirations for visiting there in the first place. The Under the Pier show is a wonderful collection of surreal and subversive slot machines and automata designed and built by Tim Hunkin. We’ve visited his installation in Holborn many times and loved it every time, so we were eager to make a pilgrimage to the original location, and weren’t disappointed, despite the restrictions imposed to counter ‘that’ virus. Whether steering a zimmer frame across a virtual dual carriageway, walking a robot dog, climbing the actual property ladder or bouncing our way in a race to hijack a luxury yacht, we had a hoot.
Our other preplanned outing was to the University of East Anglia on the outskirts of Norwich for their exhibition of Deco by the Sea. Every so often, I convince myself that I’m tired of deco, having seen so much of it used in contemporary graphics and endlessly reproduced on postcards. Then I go to something like this and fall in love with it all over again: the bold graphics, the sweeping lines of the buildings, the sense of style and pre-war optimism. In the seaside context it’s all the more attractive as, unlike many urban settings, where deco was fine for those with the income to enjoy it but often not accessible to the masses, the English seaside of the 1930s was a much more democratic environment where any shop girl or factor worker could don their bit of finery for their fortnight’s break and promenade against the backdrop of the sinuous curves of cafes, hotels and apartment buildings, even if they couldn’t run to a room in the latter two.
From the UEA, we headed into Norwich city itself and after a disappointing visit to a couple of grossly overpriced antiques centres close to the centre, we headed across the river to Magdalen Street where we found not only a very friendly record shop at Out of Time records (Johnny Cash single and handful of 78s) but also the kind of antiques and collectables centre that we love in the shape of Looses Emporium. It’s the classic big shop now repurposed into lots of individual dealers all specialising in different things, with other areas of furniture and vintage electrical goods loosely (pun intended) grouped into themes. So turn a corner from a collection of mid-century furniture in one aisle and you’re confronted by a stack of radios and record players. I resisted those – just, and only because I really have got too many already – wasted far too much time leafing through a big pile of 50s sheet music which someone must have weeded of anything collectable already, looked longingly at a bookcase full of old paperbacks and dragged myself past a rack of records when we realized that we were running out of time. That didn’t stop us from leaving with a few goodies, though, including a ukelele for Miss M who promptly wove it into the iPhone, facemask combo to produce the new look for the 21st century teen.
Our other outing, en route to visit old friends who’ve relocated to the Norfolk countryside, was to Caister and Hemsby, the venue for many of the rock’n’roll weekenders that formed a big part of our youth (we still do weekenders, of course, just not the Norfolk ones). I couldn’t recognize anything of Caister, and for some reason old holiday camps don’t rate blue plaques (‘this housing estate was once the site of Ladbrokes Holiday Camp’), but then it was 40 years ago and we did used to arrive there by taxi a lot of the time. Hemsby was easier, but only because we arrived just in time to see the original camp being steadily demolished to make way for upmarket seaside apartments. I’d like to think, though, that the new residents will occasionally be troubled by the distant sound of slap bass and guitar breaks, accompanied by a ghostly whiff of cigarette smoke and tequila as the spirits of the Norfolk Bar stagger around looking for their long-gone beds to crash in.
So that was Southwold – lovely place to relax, a brewery in the middle of the town, multiple mouth-watering fish and chip shops (including a wonderful one right on the harbour), lots of cake shops, and good reason to go back because we didn’t get to see the cold war pagodas at Orfordness (surely a must…).