The kingdom by the sea


It looks like something from years ago around here, where I live. Because it is. The first few people I met when I moved to this forgotten part of England alarmed me. It wasn’t just the nonsense they talked about being over-run by black people. To be fair, I did actually see a single black person in the village once. The shop was run by people from Sri Lanka; I’m not sure if they were included or not.

It wasn’t just that the local district nurse told me that in her professional opinion two families in the village at least hadn’t got out of a Saturday night as often as they ought to have done, with long-term consequences.

It wasn’t just the solid Conservative vote, delivered like clockwork, by people who then spent the next four years complaining about their buses being cut,m the railway being a joke, the road being a deathtrap in summer and useless the rest of the year for getting to That Lunnon, not even 100 miles away, in anything less than two and half hours if you were lucky and knew where the cameras were. They didn’t complain about the village being one of the last places in England to get broadband, nor the fact that when we did get broadband it didn’t work very well when it rained.

Why would they want to know about the outside world anyway? This was a place where some people didn’t go to London from one decade to the next, where people said they didn’t see any need to go outside the village now theirĀ National Service was done. National Service ended in 1962. A Southwold barber proudly told me how his daughter had gone to uni and at the end of her first term showed him how to use the Tube. He was surprised how she’d got used to it; she hadn’t been across the bridge till she was 19, he told me. I thought for a second he meant the bridge into Reydon, a couple of hundred yards away. The truth, that it was the Orwell bridge, was hardly any better.

But the most alarming was the man who like many others here, regretted that he wasn’t older. Not five or ten years. Seventy or eighty years older. So he could have been what everyone here still calls The War. It must have been great, he said.

Not much happened in the village from 1939 to 1945, much the same as not much ever happened there. William Joyce called the local American squadron the Yoxford Boys, but they only rarely visited because leave was better spent in London. There was supposed to be a Home Guard Auxiliary weapons dump somewhere that people half-remembered being stocked but nobody really remembered it being de-commissioned, or really, exactly where it was. Cuckfield Hall was bombed, but the single bombĀ only demolished the ugly Victorian wing someone had added to it. A German Heinkel was shot to pieces over nearby Saxmundham and most of the wreckage ended-up smashing into a farm up the hill.

What he wanted to be involved in wasn’t the killing but the excitement. The thousands of Americans pouring into the area, the 3,500 living in a field at Leiston, the many more at the bomber station at Parham. The strangers at High Street, the 360-foot high Chain Home radar towers so secret there was only ever one photograph of it, taken by accident in the 1950s before it was pulled down.

The kingdom by the sea was the title of Paul Theraux’s book, published back in the early 1980s, one of the first books I bought. Later I read Jonathan Raban’s Coasting; the same year they’d both travelled around Britain in different directions, one on foot, one by boat, but where Coasting is mainly about an inner journey, Theroux’s book is about the awful, deluded insularity this place that used to be the heart of an empire still has notwithstanding that Raban’s comment on the unedifying ever-lasting spectacle of MPs clamouring for a war in a place they couldn’t point to on a map half-way around the world and the nonsense of a fleet supposedly sailing for an officially ‘unknown’ destination was like listening to a country talking in its sleep.

It doesn’t change much, except as the picture shows, every year it’s based on less and less. The dragon’s teeth anti-tank defences’s foundations are undermined; they’re slowly, year by year, tumbling down the little cliff into the sea. And across the water where once truly brave Dutch boys paddled canoes to freedom, where once, maybe, at about this very spot a U-boat might have landed a raiding party, or who else burgled the Hall the very evening Churchill’s double was visiting, the enemy has long gone.



Few memorials here now unless you know where to look for them and know what they are. A place abandoned mainly to dog walkers. The way it should be, if it was ever for anything at all.


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