Vast beaches and friendly faces make Radio 4's Winifred Robinson happy to be in Southwold's bucket-and-spade brigade

Instead, we head for the British seaside every August and celebrate Tony's birthday there in the company of my parents. He is five and so a good bucket-and-spade holiday is his idea of heaven. We look for places with a decent range of restaurants and bars so we can have the odd night out while the grandparents baby-sit.

We decided on Southwold last summer because my husband has fallen in love with East Anglia. He had been working in the area and came home waxing lyrical about the strange beauty of the landscape and the courtesy of the people.

I'd only visited the area once, for an outside broadcast for the Today programme. I recall the locals were rather pleased that there was no motorway linking East Anglia with the rest of the UK. Perhaps this relative isolation explains why arriving in Southwold places you in an earlier, gentler time.

For one thing, the residents smile at you a lot. After a few days, you discover you are smiling back. The pace of life is subtly slower, and gradually tensions melt away. I first noticed a man was beaming at me in the queue for a table at the Swan Hotel. This is the swankiest place in town, with a sophisticated menu including lots of locally caught seafood and fish. We'd just arrived. We were hungry and disappointed at having to wait, but my city scowl was met with a friendly grin by a man coming back from the bar with a couple of pints.

The streets are wide, and even in August there is no crush of tourists. When the town had to be rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1659, it was remodelled on a generous scale with a series of greens dotted about to provide fire breaks.

In the high street, apart from two small supermarkets, there are none of the chains that have colonised the rest of England and made the urban landscape so dull and monotonous. Instead, we had our pick of independent butchers and bakers, and browsed in gift shops stuffed full of local crafts. Tony's birthday cake, an organic chocolate sponge made to order and decorated with his name, cost less than £5. For once, every crumb was eaten.

And although Southwold is affluent - it has generations of grain barons to thank for that - it is devoid of the snooty sailing set. Even better, it is free of those people who preen along in seaside resorts kitted out in box-new deck shoes and sweatshirts emblazoned with anchors, but who have never actually set foot on a boat.

It is a short walk from the town to the sea, past fishermen's cottages and elegant Victorian and Georgian houses, many of them washed in pastels. And on the beach are rows and rows of timber beach huts, plus some kiosks selling tea and cakes.

My son spent long days playing in the sand. The beaches are clean and litter-free, and the tide seldom comes up as far as the sea wall. My advice is to arrive early and take a picnic; even better, send one of your party into town for fish and chips and eat them from the paper on the beach. If that doesn't transport you back to childhood, nothing will.

Tony's favourite trip was to Walberswick, a brisk walk along the coast. He joined the crowds of small children crabbing on the wooden bridges near the harbour and soon became enthralled. All you need is a net and some scraps of bacon that you dangle into the water on a line. The crabs cling on to the bait; you catch them in your net, plop them in a bucket and later put them back.

I booked our holiday at the last minute and was lucky to find any accommodation still to let. A trawl of travel agents drew a blank. It was only when I put "Southwold, house, rent" and "August" into our internet search engine that I found two flats in Wangford, a village a few miles inland. The old Post Office there was being developed into luxury holiday flats by Anthony Geering, the "Mr Arts and Crafts" of the antique trade who runs a huge antiques warehouse in Southwold called The Dome.

We rented two massive two-bedroom apartments for just over £500 each for the week, one for us and one for mum and dad. They were kitted out with arts and crafts furniture, all of it beautifully restored and all for sale. Our kitchen had a lustrous plain oak table and chairs with wooden back rests pierced with hearts and raffia woven seats. Best of all, the kitchens were well-equipped enough to cook without too much trouble. So we hardly ate out and didn't even try the menu at the Angel Inn, a good old-fashioned pub, free of piped music, just across the road.

It was the best and by far the cheapest family holiday we have taken. We are planning to go again.



There are trains and coaches from around the country to Lowestoft, where you can catch a First Connect bus (01603 760076; www. firstgroup. com) to Southwold.


Anthony Geering's houses can be rented through The Dome, St Edmunds Road, Southwold, Suffolk (01502 722211; www.a1900 house. Prices start at £95 per night.


Southwold Tourist Information Centre (01502 724729), 69 High Street, Southwold, Suffolk.

East of England Tourist Board (0870 225 4800; www.visit eastof