The tiny East Anglian enclave of Southwold is used to the seasonal ebb and flow of summer visitors. But now a new hotel is attracting a fresh wave of interest from those who come to browse its independent shops, stroll its sandy shores and drink in its award-winning pubs. Join them: if only for the weekend…
You could say the Swan at Southwold has been around a bit. She’s been standing at the heart of town since 1345 and has burnt down, been rebuilt and hosted Winston Churchill over the years. In 2017, she finally shut her doors once more, as local brewer Adnams set about giving her a makeover with the help of in-demand Shoreditch design studio, Project Orange. Revealed with fresh plumage, the Swan now shows off signature pink-dipped beds and subtle nautical accents of marine blues, striped cushions and ship models scattered like driftwood throughout its downstairs lounges. The wooden booths of the Tap Room bar nod to the coaching inns of old and the menu at the neon-lit Still Room restaurant urges you to pause along the road.
You’re assured a good drink – or two – in Southwold. Beer has been brewed on the same site as the Swan, at adjoining Adnams, for more than 650 years and every morning the smell of hops wafts across town as it continues to perfect its craft. You can tour the Victorian-era brewery to discover how it’s become one of the most modern brewers in the UK – including a newer spirit-making Copper House distillery – and even don a lab coat to make your own gin, with views of the seagull-swooped lighthouse and coast. Come evening, the hotel lays on cocktail classes if you want to master espresso martinis and raspberry caprioskas. Pick up supplies to make them back home at the Adnams Southwold Store.
Hands down the best place to catch the sunset is the Harbour Inn which looks across to the sailboat-studded River Blyth. Inside, it’s all warm fires and wood-panelled cosiness, while dogs sleep off long walks on outdoor terraces and locals nurse beers with wedge-thick sandwiches. The fish and chips are legendary, too. But make sure you earn them first by looping along the river towpath to the adjoining hamlet of Walberswick, where noted residents include a certain Love Actually director and one of the film’s most acclaimed stars. On Friday night, the Sole Bay Inn is also a great place to ease into the weekend with locals.
Despite Southwold’s small size, independent shops are abundant, thanks to a council initiative to discourage big-name brands. In summer, bean-to-bar gelato makers Harris & James serve up scoops inside an antique-style shop on the corner of East Street, with Italian chocolates and cakes to tempt year round. Following the artisanal theme are Two Magpies Bakery and Black Olive Deli if you’re looking for picnic supplies, while the Little Fish and Chip Shop is regularly voted among Suffolk’s best. Don’t let the old-style frontage fool you: inside it hides a champagne-and-oyster bar, with less-usual servings of skate and homemade tartar sauce on the side.
No trip to Southwold would be complete without the beach. Walk along the broad sandy shore to gaze out across the North Sea – wild and stormy one minute, millpond-calm the next – counting the pastel-painted beach huts as you go. Loop it together as a walk heading out from the Swan, past rugby pitches where matches take place on weekends and rows of VW campervans, to the beach and finally the pier. You can follow this route as part of the annual Southwold 10km run, too, if you’re feeling brave in November – with pints your reward for passing the finishing line. Or perhaps the local gin?
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