The arrival of the first steamboats for more than 70 years marked a return to the glory days for Southwold Pier in the summer of 2002. The pier was originally built in 1899, when Southwold was a flourishing Victorian holiday resort. Mixed bathing had just been introduced on the beach, on condition that men and women were kept at least 20yds (18m) apart and changed in separate 'bathing machines' into costumes which covered their bodies from neck to knees. The Belle steamer brought holiday-makers on its daily voyage from London and the pier was a hive of activity as porters unloaded their cases and carried them to their lodgings.
The T-end, where the boats docked, was swept away in a storm in 1934. During World War Two, the pier was split in two as a precaution against a German invasion. By the time Chris and Helen Iredale bought the pier in 1987, storms and many years of neglect had reduced it to a rotting hulk. Years later, the couple have realised their dream of rebuilding and reopening the pier, so that visitors can once again stroll along the boardwalk with the sea spray in their face's and watch the boats unloading their passengers at a new landing stage.
An exhibition on the pier tells the history of the traditional British seaside holiday, complete with saucy postcards, kitsch teapots, palm readers, endof- the-pier shows, high-diving 'professors' and old-style arcade machines - such as the 'kiss-meter' where you can find out whether you are flirtatious, amorous, frigid or sexy. A separate pavilion contains modern machines by local inventor Tim Hunkin, who also designed the ingenious water clock, with chimes and special effects every half hour. You can eat ice cream or fish and chips, drink a pint of the local beer, play pool in the amusement arcade or watch the fishermen while taking in the sea air. Especially in summer, the pier provides a focus for good old-fashioned fun.
Not so brash
Southwold, situated on an island between the River Blyth and the sea, is one of those genteel, low-key seaside resorts where, in spite of the pier, everything is done in good taste. Make no mistake, this is a popular spot but it has none of the brashness of kiss-me-quick Felixstowe or Lowestoft. The character of Southwold seems to be summed up by the rows of brightly coloured beach huts on the seafront promenade - some of which have been sold for the price of a three-bedroom cottage elsewhere - and the peaceful greens with their Georgian and Edwardian houses. Adnams brewery dominates the town and it is no surprise to discover that the beer is still delivered to pubs on horse-drawn drays. Southwold is that sort of place.
Leave the pier and turn left along the seafront, either following the promenade past the beach huts and climbing some steps or walking along the clifftop path with views over the beach. After passing St James' Green, where a pair of cannon stand either side of a mast, continue along the clifftop path which dips down briefly to the promenade and back up again to Gun Hill, where six more cannon, captured at the Battle of Culloden near Inverness in 1746, can be seen facing out to sea.
From Gun Hill, head inland alongside the large green, then turn left along Queen's Road to the junction with Gardner Road. Cross this road, then look for the Ferry Path footpath, that follows a pleasant stream beside the marshes as it heads towards the river. Alternatively, stay on the clifftop path, and walk across the dunes until you reach the mouth of the River Blyth.
Turn right and walk beside the river, passing the Walberswick ferry, a group of fishing huts where fresh fish is sold, and the Harbour Inn. After about 0.75 miles (1.2km), you reach an iron bridge on the site of the old Southwold-Halesworth railway line.
Keep straight ahead at the bridge, crossing a stile and following the path round to the right alongside Buss Creek to make a complete circuit of the island. There are good views across the common to Southwold, dominated by Southwold’s rare Victorian wind-pumped water tower which once boasted sails to drive its pumps. Horses and cattle can often be seen grazing on the marshes. Keep straight ahead, over a stile then follow the top of the dyke, eventually tackling another stile and going through a gate to cross an embankment. Stay on the raised path to reach a white-painted bridge.
Climb up to the road and cross it, then continue on the path beside Buss Creek with views of beach huts in the distance. The path skirts a boating lake on its way down to the sea. Turn right and walk across the car park to return to the pier.
Riverside paths, seaside promenade, town streets, 2 stiles
Southwold and its surroundings - river, marshes, coast
Most of walk suitable for dogs off lead
OS Explorer 231 Southwold & Bungay
Beach car park (pay-and-display) or free in nearby streets
Beside pier, near beach and car park at Southwold Harbour
Walking in safety
Read our tips to look after yourself and the environment when following this walk.
Also in the area
About the area
Suffolk is Constable country, where the county’s crumbling, time-ravaged coastline spreads itself under wide skies to convey a wonderful sense of remoteness and solitude. Highly evocative and atmospheric, this is where rivers wind lazily to the sea and notorious 18th-century smugglers hid from the excise men. John Constable immortalised these expansive flatlands in his paintings in the 18th century, and his artwork raises the region’s profile to this day.
Walking is one of Suffolk’s most popular recreational activities. It may be flat but the county has much to discover on foot – not least the isolated Heritage Coast, which can be accessed via the Suffolk Coast Path. Southwold, with its distinctive, white-walled lighthouse standing sentinel above the town and its colourful beach huts and attractive pier features on many a promotional brochure. Much of Suffolk’s coastal heathland is protected as a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and shelters several rare creatures including the adder, the heath butterfly and the nightjar. In addition to walking, there is a good choice of cycling routes but for something less demanding, visit some of Suffolk’s charming old towns, with streets of handsome, period buildings and picturesque, timber-framed houses.