First night in Southwold I went up to Gunhill and thought about WG Sebald coming up here on his first night in the town when passing through on his walks in The Rings of Saturn. “Footsore and weary as I was after my long walk from Lowestoft, I sat down on a bench on the green called Gunhill and looked out on the tranquil sea, from the depths of which the shadows were now rising.”
Last year when I was here I followed Sebald’s footsteps to Walberswick, this year I followed my nose past the water tower and over the Common towards St Felix.
St Felix seems to be an area populated by Hobbits as the banks were pock-marked with these peculiar front doors. I considered knocking and seeing if I could blag a legendary Hobbit second breakfast but didn’t fancy my chances.
A sequence of fieldpaths brought me to the door of St Margaret of Antioch church, Reydon wearing a wreath presumably to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One.
After allowing myself a childish snigger I realised that this was the birthplace of the radical country and western singer Hank Wangford who I’ve seen play live in Leytonstone on a couple of occasions. It should be renamed ‘country and eastern’ music in his honour.
Leaving London can feel strange sometimes, my wanderings around and within the city occasionally breaking the borders into Essex or Middlesex feel transformative enough, so coursing through the open countryside on a Virgin train is like traveling to another country, leaving the City State for that mythical isle – ENGLAND.
After navigating a few of the city centre hills and valleys I followed the sounds of music into Victoria Square where devotees of Krishna were celebrating Rathayatra. Hindus always seem to look so happy – they clearly have something going on. I bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and chatted to the lady on the stall. I told her that I wanted a copy because I have an audio book by David Lynch where he keeps mentioning it, talking about meditation in that David Lynch voice of his but then digressing into an anecdote about Blue Velvet or Eraserhead. The lady on the stall looked slightly nonplussed.
I had about 2 hours for a wander and just followed my nose, through China Town then the Gay district. I have a pretty awful sense of direction at the best of times but Birmingham seemed to completely fry my navigational circuits sending me in large loops around rubble strewn car parks and wholesale markets. Andy from Magic Cinema said this was the effect of the city’s ‘concrete collar’, the asphalt noose formed by a series of ring roads.
The wide open roads and vacant lots put me in mind of the edge of Downtown Los Angeles. In fact it was Digbeth. I was told later that the area is full of artists’ studios and hidden galleries. It was here on Floodgate Street that I should have picked up the River Rea and followed it to Calthorpe Park, but somehow I missed it. Later at the screening I saw a film about a raft race on the Rea in the Digbeth Olympics, I now vow to go back and complete this walk.
I got sucked into The Custard Factory, and they mean ‘THE’ custard factory – Birds Custard, the only custard that matters unless you’re one of those ponces who does the Jamie Oliver recipe. Typhoo Tea was also round here, the essential tastes of England within a single block.
Birmingham is a Ruin Porn Paradise of which I only caught a glimpse. With every corner of London being magicked into luxury buy-to-leave apartments for offshore oligarchs to dump their ill-gotten gains, it was uplifting to see large parts of a city seemingly left to its own devices. Birmingham offers hope, for now at least, although god knows what effect HS2 will have.
The screening was in a fantastic space – Ort Cafe which had the vibe of the kind of place you imagine you’d find in San Francisco and reminded me of Glebe in Sydney. They made a cracking veggie burger which I complimented with a bottle of local Pale Ale. Ort is next door to the old Moseley School of Art, opened in 1900, closed in 1976 doing an Edwardian glamour contest with the public baths opposite.
While I waited for the No.50 back to New Street Station, Dennis gave me many of the snippets of local knowledge I’ve briefly (mis)remembered here. He told me about the Tolkien link, how Birmingham is Middle Earth, Two Towers, Mordor and all. There’s even a Middle Earth Festival.
The No.50 in the opposite direction terminates at Druids Heath.
Best to watch this with the ‘HD’ turned on up to 1080
Have a look at this video by Andy Howlett searching for the River Rea and giving you some interesting info about Birmingham’s past
When I picked up The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald to take on holiday to Southwold I was only aware that it was based on a walk around East Anglia – suspecting that it was set further along the coast in Norfolk.
But on the second day I turned to page 75 where there was a photo in the book just as the one above – the house we were staying in was in this row of terraced cottages beneath the lighthouse.
In the book Sebald recounts sitting on Gunhill footsore from his long walk from Lowestoft. He tells the story of the great naval battle that took place off the coast of Southwold on 28th May 1672 when the Dutch navy attacked the British fleet anchored in Sole Bay.
He also visits the Sailors Reading Room which, he writes, is by far his favourite haunt in Southwold.
I decide to follow Sebald’s footsteps on part of the next stage of his East Anglian odyssey – from Southwold to Dunwich.
He mentions this 1930’s water tower that dominates the views around the town.
A local council sign warns that there are adders on Southwold Common
I pick up the footpath that hugs the bank of Buss Creek, it’s a boiling hot day and I start to think about plunging into the sea at the end of the walk
Chapter V in The Rings of Saturn opens with an old photo of this Bailey Bridge across the River Blyth. Sebald repeats the local myth that the narrow gauge train that had run on this line linking Southwold to Halesworth had originally been commissioned for the Emperor of China in the mid-1890s.
I also attempted to match the next photo in the book which he somehow managed to take from the reverse angle looking downriver towards the bridge but I’m not prepared to sabotage the entire walk wading across the marshes to replicate somebody else’s photo. So this will have to do.
He writes of how he was thinking about the Dowager Chinese Empress who had most likely commissioned the train as he walked along this stretch of the disused railway line – bound as he was for Dunwich.
Sebald cut across the marshes to Walberswick but I became seduced by this bridleway.
The sheds in Walberswick are more humble than the brightly painted beach huts that sell for over 60 grand across the Blyth in Southwold.
This is where I left the Sebald trail – he schlepped onwards to the lost city of Dunwich while I took the ferry back to Southwold. The lady rowing the ferry told me she was a 5th generation ferrymaster, a role passed down in her family from the 1850’s.
Back across the Blyth I consider buying fish fresh from the boat but somehow standing in a queue breaks the magic of walking – I need to keep moving.
I soon arrive back at the civic centre of Southwold – for all its airs and graces you have to admire the modesty of its Council accommodation.
(have a look at my video postcard from Southwold )
Made this yesterday as soon as I got back from a week in Southwold.
Music: El Reloj by Jvenes y Sexys