Southwold Pier: The New Spirit of the British Seaside
Deck chairs, buckets and spades, donkey rides on the beach, and piping hot fish and chips – for many people in the UK, these are images of childhood summers. British seaside holidays have been a tradition for over a century, and many of the most popular resorts are proud owners of a pier.
But as the British weather continues to disappoint and travel to sunny shores abroad becomes more accessible, this practice is dying out. In recent years, the number of Brits choosing to holiday at home has plummeted, leaving these iconic piers emptier than ever before.
This decline calls for shake-up, and Southwold Pier in Suffolk is spearheading the movement.
Southwold is one of Suffolk’s most popular towns, but a treasure for the locals more than anything. As this is one of Britain’s little-visited counties, the pier has yet to reach a million visitors per year, despite hitting record numbers recently.
This is miniscule in comparison to Britain’s busy seaside hotspots: Brighton receives more than three million people annually, and Blackpool welcomes in a staggering 13 million. These two towns might pluck up impressive figures, but the rest of the country’s coastline is suffering. Southwold shows us that a little forward thinking can make all the difference.
Southwold Pier was originally built in 1900, and it was a popular destination for holidaymakers in the 1930s. As with numerous piers in Britain, parts of Southwold Pier have been destroyed by storms several times over the years, but the locals have always worked hard to rebuild it.
Its latest and most drastic revival was completed in 2001, with modern touches thought to be unlike any seen before. As a result, it has been branded as Britain’s only 21st century pier.
What makes Southwold Pier stand out is that it’s reinvented traditional pier attractions. Fifty or more years ago, piers were the place where workers came on holiday to escape the daily grind in the city. To keep the whole family entertained, they were filled with arcade games and funfair-style things to do, like dodgems and Houses of Mirrors.
Seeing the last renovation of Southwold Pier as an opportunity to update these classic ideas, the owners have reimagined what makes a British pier – thanks, in part, to an artist named Tim Hunkin.
The Under the Pier Show is one of Southwold’s wackiest fixtures and the brainchild of arcade fanatic Tim Hunkin, who was commissioned to bring his contraptions to the 2001 pier rebuild.
Ranging from Whack a Banker to Rent-a-Dog, simulations of crossing roads with a zimmer frame, and beds that move your muscles while you watch workout videos, the games at The Under the Pier Show are like something out of a surreal, twisted dream.
Figurines in the machines look like they’re made from paper mache – lumpy and bumpy, with eyes at odd angles. These imperfections add to the bizarre nature of the show; a combination of classic arcade mixed with eerie, bohemian carnivals. Breathing fresh and fun air into the diminishing British pier scene, this is the showstopper of Southwold.
Strolling along the boardwalk, you pass tea rooms, old fashioned sweet stores, and gift shops selling locally-made products. The pier’s radiant white buildings are accented with colourful stripes, reminiscent of sticks of rock, retro windbreakers, and shades of summers gone by.
A water clock, also designed by Tim Hunkin, takes pride of place in the middle of the pier, shooting out streams every thirty minutes to amuse the handful of visitors sat on the surrounding benches. The smell of fresh fish and chips from the pier’s restaurant wafts by every now and then, mixed with the scent of salt from the ocean below.
I walked up and down the quiet pier a few times, absorbing the atmosphere. It was an overcast but bright enough day in the middle of summer, and people were scattered around, tucking into bites to eat and wandering hand-in-hand with partners.
At the T-shaped end of the pier I noticed plaques screwed into the railings, commemorations of happy times in Southwold. One reads ‘Doreen Frost enjoyed her tea sat here by the sea’ – and I imagined Doreen with her hair blown around in the wind, listening to the ocean, being warmed by that cup of tea and feeling content.
From here, I also looked out to the beaches, where Southwold’s famous bright huts are lined up. Gazing at the colourful miniature houses – a classic picture of the British seaside I’d never seen before – I felt nostalgic for a time I’d not been a part of, when everyone went to the coast for their one holiday a year. Most of my vacations growing up were taken in and around Europe, but I can just about remember seaside trips as a small child, down to Cornwall with my grandparents. Southwold reminded me of old photographs they used to show me of holidays they took before my time.
It seems funny that I felt sad to see a decline of something I’d never witnessed in all its glory, when the seaside was packed with crowds in the 1960s or 70s. But I wasn’t despondent at the loss of my own memories, but those of the generations before me who speak with such fondness of their family trips in Britain. I think my feelings prove that the wholesome picture of the seaside is still alive in all of us – in our culture as a nation.
Southwold Pier shows hope that this tradition can evolve while still embracing memories long gone. The pier has turned its back of the stuffy, noisy arcades of the 20th century – row after row of electric machines and flickering lights – and instead chosen to create a small pier with a modern twist.
That simplicity is what drove British seaside culture 100 years ago, and it drives Southwold now – with a few weird and wonderful additions. Don’t come to Southwold Pier expecting bright lights and wild rides, but come instead to experience all the slow-life values of the seaside from years gone by, and a creative flash-forward to what it could be in years to come.
Have you ever experienced British seaside culture?
Where were you and what did you think?