On the beach below the promenade, about 50 yards from the Sailors' Reading Room, a group of travellers, only slightly crusty, is stirring; four adults and two children, stretching and talking quietly next to the embers of their fire. The oldest child, about three, wants to swim. Two boys are flying kites nearby; a man is assembling a windsurfer. The rest of the beach is deserted.
The presence of the travellers is to be discussed by various people all day long in what is arguably Britain's most twee, nay nice, seaside town. They don't know this. They pack up and leave, tidying up their mess, two hours later.
But they have been noticed by a tiny population becoming increasingly sensitive to visitors, even though visitors of one type or another have been their stock in trade for hundreds of years. There is something now that grates among a section of the community that did not grate before.
Southwold, a once-busy fishing harbour lying on the east coast between Lowestoft to the north and Aldeburgh to the south, has been well and truly discovered. Tourists - about 5,000 of them at any one time in the summer - are wending their way noisily, coughing their cars along its quiet streets, parking unceremoniously, enjoying themselves with neither guilt nor apology; eating, drinking, and all so joyously. So sickeningly wholesomely.
Mild resentment is present in the most unlikely of places.
'For God's sake, no. No more, please,' the woman in the tourism office said when told the Independent was on its way to study the Southwold phenomenon. 'Just stay away. Come back in the autumn. It's nice then. Nice and quiet; you'll like it. Why do you chaps keep writing about us? I don't know who keeps sending you; probably Adnams. If they are, they're killing the goose that laid the golden egg.'
Adnams is Adnams brewery, the town's largest employer, brewer of fine ales, wine merchant of the year. The golden goose is the town itself, population 1,700, a historic settlement, the nearest port to Amsterdam, a place peopled by hardy, friendly, resourceful men and women with a sense of history and sufficient a grasp on the present to know they are lucky to live where they do.
Most also know they are captured in a time warp. No noisy clubs here; no candyfloss; no big dippers, corkscrews, sick-making machinery; precious few technogames or hungry fruit machines. Instead, holidays like your mother used to make.
You can make them now, for your children. And it doesn't really matter whether they enjoy them, because you know you will. You will satiate your appetite for the simplicity of the past and you will tell yourself your children never had it so good. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but this is.
So, would the tourist office please fax some information to the Independent? Laughter. The official holds the phone away from her mouth. 'Did you hear that? He wants to know if we can fax something.
'Just what is a fax machine? Well, we haven't got one. We haven't got any paper or envelopes. But if I really put my mind to it, I might be able to find a pen. Now, hang on a minute . . .'
TO understand Southwold and the identity crisis it faces, you need first to understand something of its roller-coaster ride to prosperity.
Records show that a small community was fishing from the town as early as 1020. Until recently, fishing was its staple industry, despite raids by pirates, Henry VIII's break with Rome (prompting a reduction in fast days and a cut in fish consumption), and the constant silting of the River Blyth.
But it has also known war. In 1672 the Duke of York, later to become James II, chose Southwold for his headquarters in preparation for the Battle of Sole Bay, in which 156 English and French vessels fought off 138 Dutch ships and ended the threat of an invasion.
And it came face to face with disaster when, in 1659, a fire destroyed the town hall, the market-place, Market House, the prison, granaries, shops, warehouses, and 238 houses and businesses. Three hundred families were rendered homeless, prompting the government to declare the town a disaster area, the first in history.
During both world wars, the resort was targeted by the Germans as a fortress town because of the presence of a few redundant canon perched on Gun Hill, aiming impotently out to sea. In the Second World War 77 buildings were destroyed by bombs.
The prevailing feeling now is why, after all this, should the townsfolk be bothered by a few thousand tourists?
ELEVEN am and, in the Sailors' Reading Room, one of the travellers is concentrating on the exhibits in the front section of the building. The room, a haven for the retired men of the town, was built in 1869 by a Mrs Rayley after the death of her husband, a master mariner.
The quiet, unwashed man shuffles from the model of the Steamship Glencona to a five-foot schooner carved in memory of George Parkyns Ellis 'Drowned by the upsetting of the Southwold lifeboat, February 27 1858, aged 18'. He passes by the plate photographs of bygone fishermen like Sloper Hurr, Slummy Ashmanal and Brushy Watson, and walks out into the breaking sunshine.
In the partitioned rear of the room, reserved for members only, Tink Palmer, 83, and Honey Jarvis, 82, retired bricklayers, are playing snooker. They saw the travellers and their fire this morning, but react with none of the rancour fellow citizens will display later today.
'The visitors who come here respect the place,' said Tink, tipping his cap. 'The people on the beach had a fire and they were boiling some water for their tea. It's a hell of a job. Good luck to them.'
Both men regret the loss of a number of grocers and bakers that were sold and turned into holiday homes. They regret also the increasing (though amazingly low) crime rate; the theft, twice, of the contents of the reading room's donations box: 'Once they brought back the empty box and once they took that, too,' says Honey.
But the tourists?
Honey answers: 'If it wasn't for the visitors, this place would close down. We know that. Most of the people who come are no problem.'
So who does resent them?
'The outsiders. The people who come here, buy places and then want to keep it for themselves,' says Honey. 'All along Victoria Street used to be fishermen's cottages. Now they're owned by people who live in London.'
Nothing new here. Most villages in the country will tell you a similar story. But they don't have the added aggravation of thousands of visitors.
LUNCH TIME. The daily inhabitants of Southwold's row of pastel-coloured beach huts (which sell at up to pounds 8,000 each) are brewing up. Toothless retirees in coats and paisley headscarves are sucking potted beef rolls.
Picnic gatherings are dotted along the shoreline between the rows of breakwaters vanishing into the brown sea. Tartan travel rugs, flasks, surprisingly large numbers of white sandwiches in Tupperware boxes. A low flesh: body ratio.
The beach is spacious and quiet. No ghetto blasters, no seaside cafes spewing music. At the southern end of the parade, the front is pebbled, immaculately clean. The farther north you go, the more sandy it becomes. Here, small games of cricket with tiny bats and tiny wickets are under way. Fathers are teaching their sons to play cover drives; girls are building sandcastles. You expect the George Bush campaign team to emerge from the waves and start talking family.
At the northern end of the beach is the pier, abbreviated in the Second World War by the British to stop the Germans using it in the event of an invasion. Here, the Mariners' Bar, Flipper's Family Diner and an amusement arcade represent the only vestige of Nineties entertainment.
Inside the amusements, children are tugging at sleeves, asking for another 20p for the Atari Star Wars, the Sega Zoom 909, the Turbo Outrun. Those who are given only coppers make for Crompton's Double Falls, where mounds of tuppences balance annoyingly, or Derby Day, where tiny bets are placed on a plastic race you know is definitely fixed by a simple programme. If you had a couple of days here, you could log the sequence and make youself an easy pounds 10.
But even here, the influence of electro-noise is limited. The arcade is small and the parents supervise cloyingly. No wild kids fobbed off for the day with a fiver.
One of the parents is Bob Williams, 46, an art teacher from Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire. His children, Luke, nine, and Emily, five, are tugging at his sleeve, too. He first visited Southwold in 1983 and has holidayed there for the past three years.
'But I don't think we will be coming back,' he says. 'The kids will want more excitement soon, and the place is becoming a bit trendy. The locals are very friendly, but I have noticed a tiny bit of resentment this time. In the tourist office the other day, Luke and Emily were told to get off a couple of chairs because they were only for people booking rooms. I've noticed a kind of Benjamin Britten atmosphere. Do you know what I mean?
'There were some hippies camping on the beach this morning and some people didn't seem to like it. I felt a bit like that, too. Then I thought, 'Hang on, we did that in '66.' It's no different, really. Perhaps we're all getting old.'
AT THE other end of the town, as far as you can go, are the harbour and the River Blyth. Fishing boats and pleasure vessels are tied here at ramshackle moorage along a dirt track called Blackshore. Day-trippers dally here, their children fishing for crabs with lines and weights, using shanks of bass for bait. Couples sit in parked cars eating their sandwiches.
Southwold Sailing Club is at the western end of Blackshore. Its 215 members built the clubhouse after the war but there has been a sailing club of sorts at Southwold since at least 1850. An old flysheet on the wall advertises a regatta with a 15 guinea purse for yachts; 10 sovereigns for yawls; pounds 3 for sailing punts; and, for those without sea legs, a 20- minute duck hunt with a pounds 1 prize.
But they don't like visitors too much. A small gathering agrees with the tourist office. Don't write about us; don't send any more people here.
'They are very inconsiderate,' says Brian Perry, a tanned and lean 64-year- old who has been a member of the club since 1973. He sails a 27ft Swedish Vega. 'They come along here in their cars driving much too fast, whipping up the dust and that settles on your boat. First rain you get and your boat is covered in mud.'
Single parents, he says, bring their children along and allow them to throw stones at the vessels.
You need to cross the River Blyth if you are to visit Walberswick, a rather exclusive extension to Southwold, where, according to one member of the Southwold Lifeboat, all the film stars live. When pressed for star- studded names, he can remember only Robert Dougall, the retired newsreader.
You can be rowed across the Blyth for 20p by Old Bob, the ferryman, but too many visitors are queuing, so you walk farther along Blackshore and cross at the old Bailey bridge.
FOUR pm in Walberswick. The annual church fair is under way. As you arrive, the Blyth River Stompers are closing their jazz version of Sentimental Journey. On the green, children are playing, adults are trying their hand at the tombola.
You take tea - lapsang souchong, Earl Grey, assam or herb - at the Parish Lantern gift shop and cafe, and ask its proprietor, Mary Allen, a former Walberswick parish councillor, just why the parish council turned down the European blue flag clean beach award when it was offered earlier this year.
'They turned it down because they don't want any more visitors,' she says. 'Tourism is practically the only supplier of jobs here, and they try to stop tourists coming. I have accused them of being arrogant, but I got into the doghouse for that. It's selfishness. Particularly on the part of people who retired here and now want to keep everyone else out.'
One of Walberswick's residents, Don Thompson, is doing his bit for the fair. Ten yards from the green, a union flag is draped across his mock-thatch roof; a flag of St George flies from his flagpole. 'When I first came here, I was taken by the nothingness of it,' he says. 'We understand that people want to come here, but we don't have the facilities. We can't cope with any more tourists; but we're not being selfish.'
Another local takes her children and prepares to leave. 'You can see how busy it is,' she says. 'We get too many people here. I've even seen hippies. And you know how much trouble they cause.'
LAST ORDERS is called at the Lord Nelson, one of seven pubs on Southwold's pretty cottage-lined streets. Members of the rugby club are downing their penultimate pints. Among them are Simon Moore, 30, Adrian Hambling, 40, and Dennis Watson, 38. They wonder what the fuss is all about.
'All these outsiders come here and pay pounds 100,000 for a two-up, two-down on Victoria Street; we walk up the road and over the bridge and pay pounds 40,000 for a similar house,' says Simon. 'Why should we worry? All the money they bring here makes a good life for us, and
we know it. The people moaning probably weren't born here.'
The three display a spectacular talent for self-deprecating wit. 'You know, there is so much in-breeding round here that even the dogs have club feet,' says Dennis. And of the peaceful, relatively crime-free life they lead: 'The safe was once pinched from the Crown Hotel so the police came to the rugby club to ask if we'd nicked it as a prank,' says Simon.
Adrian says there is nothing in the town to attract tourists, and that's precisely what attracts them. Simon says they are all very welcome: 'Why should we keep this place to ourselves? It belongs to everyone.'
And, as he downs the dregs of his pint, he winks. 'Just keep the bastards away.'
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