Happy harbour Falling for Felixstowe’s Edwardian charms. Plus, seaside gems
Novelist Hayley Long always thought her home town was a bit of a joke, but now she’s proud of its gentle charm
On my bookshelf I have a 1914 Ward Lock travel guide to Felixstowe. I’ve had it for years and it introduces the town I grew up in with words that make me smile each time I read them. “There is in Felixstowe and its surroundings, a combination of grace, prettiness and interest which lingers pleasantly in the memory when the visitor returns to regions less captivating.” It’s the most gorgeously alluring description of my home town that I’ve ever encountered and, while my smile may once have been followed by a hoot of incredulous laughter, these days I take the words at face value and respect them.
I’m not the first person who has ever been guilty of questioning Felixstowe’s charms. When I tell people where I’m from, the conversation usually shifts quickly to Southwold or Aldeburgh. And I do understand why. As a teenager, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw shipping containers. It’s only as a visitor that I’ve come to appreciate Felixstowe for the vibrant and very diverse place that it is and, finally, I recognise the grace and prettiness which was right under my teenage nose all along.
OK, so it isn’t the most fashionable town on the Suffolk coast and I’m not about to argue that it’s the prettiest either, but it’s infinitely more attractive than might be expected of the UK’s biggest container port. The pier is the new gem on the seafront, but there is plenty more that sparkles. Just opposite, the Alex has been a favourite spot to dine and look at the sea for decades. Not so far back, it was a formal tea room from a forgotten age, but today it’s a friendly modern café and brasserie with a menu to make anyone happy. Downstairs, you’ll find delicious all-day breakfasts made with locally sourced ingredients while upstairs offers a broader choice. The seafood medley and chips is every bit as good as it should be and the salt-baked beetroot, tomato and feta tarte tatin comes with my personal recommendation. There are cocktails, too, including a delicious espresso martini, or you can enjoy a pint of Adnams Southwold if that’s more your tipple.
Further down the promenade, Grade II-listed gardens rise in terraces up the cliffs and, at the top, Edwardian mansions stand proud and provide a reminder of the grandeur of Felixstowe in its heyday. Of these, the most impressive is the enormous Harvest House, which stands above the Spa Pavilion. Today, Harvest House is a retirement complex, but its exterior is surely no less impressive than when it opened in 1903 as the Felix Hotel. The hotel’s best-known guest arrived in 1936. Wallis Simpson laid low here as she waited for the divorce that would leave her free to marry Edward VIII and shift the course of British history.
Stories are everywhere in Felixstowe. A short walk from Harvest House will bring you to a luxury apartment block on Bath Hill. This is all that remains of the Bath Hotel which closed in April 1914 after being almost entirely burned to the ground by suffragettes. In an ironic twist, there is now a plaque commemorating the fire-starters, Evalina Burkitt and the fabulously named Florence Tunks. Fortunately, Burkitt and Tunks didn’t do any permanent damage to Felixstowe’s hotel trade. There are plenty of places for today’s visitors to stay. A good option is the Fludyers Hotel. Edwardian on the outside and modern on the inside, it has a welcoming bar and restaurant, and best of all a heated terrace looking out to sea. There are many guesthouses, too, but you may feel like you’re staying at your nana’s. In truth, the price of rooms here is refreshingly reasonable wherever you choose to stay.
But Felixstowe is much more than famous lost hotels and historic links to determined women. Positioned between two estuaries, the town offers some startling and varied landscapes. To the north is the picturepostcard area known as Felixstowe Ferry. Stilted beach houses stand next to the River Deben at the point where it joins the North Sea. Wooden kiosks sell freshly caught seafood, sailing dinghies zigzag through the water and everything smells powerfully of fish. An actual passenger ferry – picture a rowing boat with an outboard engine – carries customers across the choppy estuary to Bawdsey. And for those who would rather stick to dry land, the Ferry Café unsurprisingly has a great reputation for its fish and chips. But the top destination in this corner of Felixstowe is probably the Ferry Boat Inn. Fish is big on the menu here, too – and more Adnams ale – all enjoyed in impeccable 15th-century comfort.
To the south is the Orwell estuary and the Landguard Peninsula. Much of this is a nature reserve, but at its tip is Landguard Fort, a sprawling world of cement and stone which looks like a stage set for Game of Thrones. It’s a fascinating place to visit and, even on a sunny day, it can feel incredibly desolate. A short walk away is the View Point, where people sip tea in parked cars or in the View Point Café and watch the constant comings and goings of a busy port. There’s a ferry here, too, taking foot passengers across to Harwich – if their stomachs can stand it. And, of course, there are cranes. A row of them disappears around the headland. And anyone who thinks this sounds ugly should sit