We’d been wanting to go to Southwold for almost a decade but, when we lived in London, could never quite find the occasion – it was inconvenient for a weekend jaunt, but too close for a full-on holiday. There’s a perverse logic in the fact that we finally made the trip to Suffolk, England’s most easterly county, only after coming to live within ten miles of Land’s End in the far west.
We were prompted to act, first, by my family history: having learned that many of my ancestors in the 19th century spent their lives in and around a handful of towns and villages in the county, I felt a powerful urge to retrace their steps.
And then, of course, there is Adnams. I first came across the Southwold brewery’s beer in the early 00s when I was just developing a taste for real ale, and it was ubiquitous in pubs keen to demonstrate CAMRA credentials. At the same time, I was studying for my accountancy exams, and read about Adnams in not one but two business management text-books. It was used to illustrate the concept of ‘barriers to entry’ as part of competition theory, the gist being that Adnams, remotely situated and with a comprehensive distribution network across its region, had been able to resist the onslaught of the Big Six monopoly brewers in the 1960s and 70s and remain independent.
What follows are some observations and impressions of Southwold and the surrounding area – literally ‘what we did on our holidays’ — and not much more.
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There is no train to Southwold and the nearest station is at Halesworth, a small inland market town of weathered red-brick.
Before catching our connecting bus, we spent an hour wandering in the unseasonably warm late September sunlight, past the old maltings by the railway line, and along the high street – or, rather, the Thoroughfare. It was busy, in a sedate way, populated with butchers, bakers and other family businesses. There were also occasional reminders that this is a part of the world is rich in history, such as the grotesque lions, fox, monkey and other animals carved in naive medieval style over the entrance to an otherwise nondescript café.
We enjoyed our first pints of Adnams’s beer on home turf, more-or-less, at the White Hart. Startlingly different to how it had tasted so many times in lacklustre London pubs, we found Southwold Bitter crisply hoppy, with an almost desiccating bitterness – brown, yes, but certainly not boring. We could not help but wonder with some excitement how much better it might taste in Southwold, under the watchful eye of the brewery.
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Southwold isn’t merely by the sea – it’s at sea, as if it was designed to make naval captains on half pay feel at home while they awaited a new commission.
Gunhill, at the top of town, has a row of cannons pointing out into Sole Bay, and there are white-painted semaphore posts at various points along the seafront.
Most obviously, there is the lighthouse. It is no wave-battered Wolf Rock, being, rather, a block in from the promenade and cosily surrounded by terraced houses. By day, it looks merely picturesque. At night, however, as its beams rotate silently across the sky, projecting far out to sea, it becomes imposing, reassuring, and rather magical.
Photographers seem drawn to another local institution – the pastel-painted beach huts which line the sea wall. They’re certainly photogenic but also hint at something unnerving about Southwold – it is a town mugging for Instagram, permanently made-up and presenting its prettiest profile.
The town centre has more than its fair share of businesses selling an aspirational vision of the country-coastal lifestyle – designer hunting jackets, red trousers, polka-spotted Wellington boots, and striped sailor shirts that wouldn’t last ten minutes in a gale eight at German Bight.
We heard hardly any Suffolk accents. The ripest belonged to a farmer selling apples on the market square, although he was so square-jawed and stereotypically rugged that we weren’t entirely convinced it wasn’t Rupert Everett preparing for a role.
While we were buying apples, a London cab sailed by, but it wasn’t black – it was purple, and covered in slogans in yellow type. It was the campaign vehicle for the right-wing populist political party UKIP, no less, and we later saw it parked in a driveway on the edge of town.
What saves Southwold from feeling completely twee is the presence of a thumping great working brewery. People in boiler suits shared the streets with well-to-do second-homers up from London; the smell of mashing malt and steeping hops was always on the air; and whenever the scene began to resemble too closely an episode of the Vicar of Dibley, a fork-lift truck would come skidding out of the brewery gates, heading for one of the many ancillary workshops or warehouses.
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For a small town (its population is officially only 800), Southwold has plenty of pubs, most, if not all, owned by Adnams.
The Lord Nelson is the most immediately eye-catching. Only a few steps from the sea, its hanging sign constantly creaks in the breeze, and frosted windows break the warm light inside into gleaming, flickering spots. We visited on Friday night and found it busy but not quite crowded. There was a group of young people drinking the seasonal dark Old Ale from dimpled mugs and a tableful of white-haired locals on lager, bitter, whisky and wine. The walls are covered in nautical memorabilia and legal documents relating to the pub’s ownership in years gone by. It is the kind of Olde Inn tourists look for, but is by no means insincere.
The Red Lion is similarly cosy, but the service was more business-like on our visit, with two professional barmen despatching drinks with efficiency, and as much banter as necessary, but not a word more. A man at the bar who had over-indulged on Broadside was lecturing them about something or other, obnoxiously and only semi-coherently, but they took it in turns to listen to and humour him.
The Sole Bay Inn is a corner pub in what looks like an early Victorian building within sight of the brewery gates. Recently made over in bright-and-breezy beachside style, it felt modern and fresh when busy, but rather sterile when quiet. We saw it in the latter mood on a week night as we sipped Adnams’s own whisky and sloe gin while the manager polished the bar, determined to stay open until closing, despite the end-of-season atmosphere. When it was busy, a large part of the crowd seemed to be brewery staff, which must say something.
The Harbour Inn, on the way out of town towards Walberswick, sits on the edge of the River Blyth and, as publicity for the pub wryly observes, ‘sometimes in it’. It has lots of levels and small rooms and the one in which we found ourselves had a hatch opening on to the floor-level of the upstairs bar through which pints were passed by crouching staff. All the electrical points were mounted around the ceiling, out of reach of the average flood, and the flooring and furniture were all designed to withstand an influx of muddy water.
But Adnams also has the drink-at-home market sewn up with two outlets in town – a small corner shop near the Red Lion, and a vast modern showroom where beer plays a supporting role to wine, spirits (Adnams produces its own vodka, gin and whisky), retro postcards and high-end kitchenware.
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We spent much of each day tramping from one village to another, or around suburbs that had once been villages, searching for family names on headstones and war memorials, and following the folk footpaths they might have used, from churchyard to pub.
Though almost every village we passed through on buses had whitewashed Adnams pubs at their hearts, it became apparent that the brewery does not entirely dominate this part of Suffolk.
Dunwich is famous primarily because the oldest part of it was swallowed up by the sea. It used to have a superior harbour until the sands shifted several hundred years ago, and Southwold gained the upper hand. There is a lingering pride in Dunwich’s historical status – in the vast number of herring it used to pay in taxes each year, for example – and perhaps also, even today, some bitterness. The Ship Inn, a safe distance from the fragile coastline, is all dark wood and corners. It serves Adnams, but also beers from Norfolk. Its large, sloping garden is home to several decrepit fruit trees, and the grass was thick with rotting apples and pears.
In Kessingland, we found more apples, cluttering up bus stops, rolling in gutters, and for sale in plastic bags on trestle tables on driveways and lawns. Another town which is no longer as important as once it was, it lacks Southwold’s prim cuteness, being more the kind of place where pensioners in anoraks huddle under shelters eating sandwiches from Tupperware boxes, and where working people actually live. There is no freshly-painted Adnams house, either. One pub is boarded up, while another looked rather down-at-heel and was closed, and so we killed 30 minutes in Livingstone’s, a ‘fun’ pub on the site of the local wildlife park, ‘Africa Alive!’ Cavernous and dimly lit, it throbbed with dance music playing for the benefit of the bar staff and two young men at the pool table. There was Adnams’s ale but it was served alongside beer from a local microbrewery.
At Carlton Colville, now on the edge of Lowestoft, but once a village in its own right, we enjoyed pints of Elgood’s from Cambridgeshire at the Bell Inn, and helped the publican round-up a gang of dogs which had escaped from the garden and were causing chaos on the main road into town. As we waited for a bus, we noticed that the hedgerow opposite was overrun with wild hops.
In Lowestoft proper, we knew we weren’t in Adnamsland anymore. The town expanded dramatically as a fishing port in the 19th century and again in the 1960s with North Sea oil exploitation, but has since declined considerably along with those industries. Its high street is now too long for the number of businesses in operation and what should be a quaint old town feels run down and rough. Adnams, with its Country Living style, doesn’t seem to ‘do’ decline, and is barely present.
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What is the secret to Adnams’s success, and why is it not held in the same contempt as its near neighbour, Greene King?
For one thing, Adnams’s beer is, on the whole, good. Though none of the pints of bitter we drank in Southwold were as transcendent as our first in Halesworth, they were always satisfying and interesting, with a suggestion of salty shrubbiness which evoked the marshy landscape. Old Ale, really a sort of ‘best mild’, was resolutely old-school – all caramel and brewing sugars. But, as well as satisfying the needs of traditional ale drinkers, it has also dipped its toes into the (not literally) murky waters of ‘craft beer’. The extravagantly perfumed, citrusy Ghost Ship is Adnams’s take on the ‘pale-n-hoppy’ cask-conditioned golden ale, and sits alongside new keg beers such as Dry Hopped Lager and Innovation IPA – the latter more successful than the former, but both better on draught than from bottles.
Adnams has also avoided gaining a reputation for ruthless business practices: if it has been in the habit of taking over other breweries and their brands, either it happened a long time ago, or we haven’t being paying attention.
While we were in town, we learned that the firm has expanded into Holkham in North Norfolk – geographically distant, but culturally similar – which confirmed our feeling that its ambition has been directed not into indiscriminate expansion, but into becoming part of a genteel middle class lifestyle: the brewing equivalent of John Lewis.
UPDATES: the first version of this piece incorrectly stated that Land’s End was Britain’s most westerly point; and that Elgood’s are based in Essex.