W.G. Sebald’s Southwold

Southwold Beach huts

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.

Southwold lighthouse

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.

Gunhill Southwold

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.

Southwold Sailors Reading Room

He also visits the Sailors Reading Room which, he writes, is by far his favourite haunt in Southwold.

Water towers 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.

Southwold Common

A local council sign warns that there are adders on Southwold Common

footpath near Buss Creek Southwold

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

Bailey Bridge across the River Blyth - Sebald

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.

River Blyth Southwold

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.

disused railway line Walberswick

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.

footpath Walberswick

Sebald cut across the marshes to Walberswick but I became seduced by this bridleway.

sheds in Walberswick

The sheds in Walberswick are more humble than the brightly painted beach huts that sell for over 60 grand across the Blyth in Southwold.

ferry across the river Blyth

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.

fishermen's huts Southwold

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.

Southwold Town Council

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 )

Arcades of Paris (with Walter Benjamin)

On New Year’s Eve we stumbled across these two arcades in Paris (I’d love to say that this came as a shock as we’d been taking a stroll along Leytonstone High Road, but sadly nothing mystical was involved, we traveled on Eurostar).

I thought of Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project, a book I confess I’ve only read snippets of, but is difficult to avoid if you have an interest in the life of cities – it is a grand work dreamt up in these very arcades.

Passage des Panoramas

From what I gather, he saw the arcades as the natural habitat of the urban wanderer, the drifter, the flaneur:
“The Parisians … have made Paris the holy city of the flaneur – ‘the landscape built of sheer life,’ as Hofmannsthal once put it”

Benjamin describes the experience of the urban drift, or what another dweller of Paris, Guy Debord, would recast as the psychogeographic derive (Debord would see the flaneur as a decadent figure rather than a revolutionary or a subversive – I’m not so sure myself)

“That anamnestic intoxication in which the flaneur goes about the city not only feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but can very well possess itself of abstract knowledge – indeed, of dead facts – as something experienced or lived through.”

“The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass.”
Difficult to imagine Westfield Stratford moving someone to produce such prose.

“Architecture as the most important testimony to latent ‘mythology.’ And the most important architecture of the nineteenth century is the arcade.”

Quotes from The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
Reading on the video by Heidi Lapaine