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

The Observer Magazine - - CONTENTS - Pho­to­graphs CHRIS TERRY ‘Wal­lace Simp­son laid low here in 1936, wait­ing for her di­vorce’

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

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