A trip to Southwold is almost like stepping back in time to the Fifties. The genteel Suffolk resort seems as far removed from the hustle and bustle of 21st-century life and brash British seaside staples of kiss-me-quick hats as you can imagine. It's a town rich in history; Southwold gets a mention in the Domesday Book and was the site of the Battle of Sole Bay between the Anglo-French fleet and Dutch that marked the beginning of the third Anglo-Dutch War in 1672. Today, on Gun Hill above the beach, six cannons commemorate the battle, and Sole Bay is better known as the name of the local Adnams brewery.
On a more peaceful note, the town has been a magnet for generations of artists. JMW Turner sketched and painted scenes around Southwold in the 19th-century, while Damien Hirst, inspired by sculptor Margaret Mellis's work, came to the town to work with the artist when he was a student. Indeed the long established link with arty types and high proportion of second homes have led to the manicured town gaining the slightly dubious nickname of "Hampstead-on-sea".
Sutherland House Hotel, itself steeped in history, is the perfect base to explore the town. The medieval building dates back to 1455 and sports a plaque detailing that the Duke of York (the future James II) once bedded down for the night here. He was one of the first celebrities to visit a town that today regularly attracts the great and the good including the likes of Stephen Fry, Juliet Stevenson and Gordon Brown.
The hotel has just three rooms behind its impressive Grade II-listed frontage and takes its name from a former Southwold mayor who was also a retired ship's doctor. Inside the building has been renovated under the sensitive eye of general manager Penny Bishopp – contemporary furniture and Designers Guild fine fabrics blend seamlessly with a raft of original features like wooden panelling and lath and plaster walls.
It's easy to appreciate how the building has been extended over the centuries and anyone who harbours the belief that recycling is a modern day phenomenon should take a careful look around the dining room. A one-time ship's mast has been converted into a crossbeam running the width of the ceiling, while the suitably imposing fireplace uses an ancient cart wheel for its base. Here, the modern British restaurant menu places a high regard on provenance, listing the food miles of dishes that include slow-braised belly of Blythburgh pork, sourced from a farm four miles away, and fillets of lemon sole landed 22 miles along the coast. Vegetables and soft fruits are harvested from the hotel's allotment.
The hotel is smack in the centre of the town on the (far from busy) main road. Guests can gain access to their rooms outside restaurant hours via a private staircase leading up from a delightful walled garden. Leave the garden through the gate, turn left and you're on the High Street, from where it's a short five-minute stroll to the beach with its photogenic pastel-painted bathing huts (some of which have reputedly changed hands for as much as £40,000). En route the seemingly litter-free streets are lined with a selection of stylishly chic boutiques and tea rooms with enticing displays of cakes and pastries. Southwold is on Suffolk's Heritage coastline, part of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the RSPB reserve of Minsmere and pretty village of Walberswick are within easy reach.
The John Sutherland suite takes up the whole top floor of the house. A wooden-framed 6ft bed replete with crisp white sheets and duck down duvet dominates the suite's bedroom, which offers a fine view over the hotel's private walled garden towards the 15th-century St Edmund Church which dominates the town.
The ensuite bathroom has a shower, although the downside of trying to fit modern day amenities into such an ancient building is that tall guests will either have to stoop or opt for a leisurely soak in the bath instead. At the other end of the suite there's a living room with leather sofa, a Le Corbusier chaise longue, 30inch flat screen TV and DVD player with library of films.
There are two slightly less extravagant options: the Earl of Sandwich room that has as its centrepiece an impressive slipper bath, and the Duke of York room with original features including a plasterwork ceiling with a raised fleur de lys pattern.
All rooms feature original sash windows and foot-wide elm floorboards and have been decorated in muted tones of browns and greys that complement the character of the building. Nice touches include L'Occitane bathroom goodies and home-made chocolate chip biscuits on arrival.
Sutherland House, 56 High Street, Southwold (01502 724544; sutherlandhouse.co.uk )
Duke of York and Earl of Sandwich rooms start at £160, with breakfast. The suite starts at £200.
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