Press 'play' for the sounds of Southwold

It's not a book, strictly speaking, but it is full of stories, local colour and its own special poetry. Steven Russell listens to the latest Town in Sound - Southwold

Steven Russell

It's not a book, strictly speaking, but it is full of stories, local colour and its own special poetry. Steven Russell listens to the latest Town in Sound - Southwold

NICK Jenkins has managed something of a coup for his latest audio portrait of a Suffolk town: an audience with national treasure Michael Palin. The actor, writer and broadcaster has enjoyed a 50-year love affair with Southwold - one that started when he was a teenager and his father unexpectedly overturned family tradition and begun taking the family to Suffolk for their summer holiday instead of Sheringham in north Norfolk. They'd spend it at a B&B near the pier, where the fearsome landlady would glare at guests if they were late back. And, of course, Southwold was where he met the girl destined to become his wife.

Helen Gibbins was staying in a modern bungalow just across from the Palin family's guesthouse, “and she and her sisters and cousins who were staying there would parade out in the early morning for a swim, usually when we were having our breakfast”, the Monty Python star told Nick.

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“So it would be about quarter to eight. These girls would be led by this towering uncle they had, who was a fine figure of a man, and at the end of this group was this girl who I later discovered was called Helen and seemed to be most unwilling to go through this sort of awful exposure to the cold North Sea first thing in the morning!”

That was in the late 1950s. They got talking, would spend evenings chatting, kissing and cuddling on one of the town's many benches before having to dash back to their respective holiday homes. The couple married in the mid-1960s. Many of those seaside experiences inspired his nostalgic coming-of-age TV film East of Ipswich, shot in Southwold in the 1980s.

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Michael Palin is among more than two dozen people speaking on Nick's 75-minute CD about the town they know and love. The documentary weaves personal stories with local history, and includes eyewitness accounts of the war years and the devastating 1953 floods.

Nowadays, the old fishing town is revered for the things it hasn't got - such as chain stores found in other high streets up and down the land - and has become a taste-of-the-past magnet for those with money and celebrity.

With speech radio highly popular, Nick feels there's a real appetite for professionally-produced audio documentaries about places people know. “And radio has the best pictures. There are 60 million people in the UK and you don't need to address all 60 million in order to do something reasonably successful!”

Born in Suffolk in the mid-1960s, Nick worked in a bookshop before going to live in Hungary in 1993, where he made English-language mini-documentaries for state radio. He returned to Suffolk, with wife Anna, at the start of 2007 and before long had turned his microphone on Framlingham, where they lived.

Nick produced an audio guide. It proved popular - something like 4,000 free downloads were made - and was followed by the first Our Town in Sound CD. His enterprise, Sounding Board Productions, has since put together audio portraits of Diss and Bungay.

The fourth captures the flavour of Southwold, from Good Friday hymns on South Green to anecdotes, sea-shanties and tales from local characters such as John “Dusso” Winter, Frank Upcraft and William Stannard. John Bowe, who runs the only taxi service and is branching out into town tours, says that at the time of the Domesday Book, in the 11th Century, Southwold had only 13 men and their families, one plough, four oxen, one horse, 30 sheep and three pigs. There are views about the legacy of the “great fire” of 1659 and its relevance to the number of greens and open spaces that shape the look of modern Southwold.

There are poignant recollections of the 1953 floods, with a number of people watching a film in the cinema and blissfully unaware that the tide was wreaking havoc. One lady recalls a tearoom from the Walberswick side of the river - lace curtains in the windows and potplants in the window-boxes - floating away on the waters. A man talks of his brother discovering a dead baby and dead horse.

The war years are remembered, too, with anti-aircraft guns by the coast, searchlights in the middle of the town, the beach mined and barbed wire laid to thwart potential invaders. The shockwaves caused when a doodlebug was hit by ack-ack guns blew out many Southwold windows.

There's a lovely anecdote about how children used to comb bomb sites for particular snails that French troops at the Centre Cliff hotel would cook on pokers. In exchange, youngsters would receive tasty lumps of bread and butter, covered with jam.

In hard times, trusting Southwold neighbours helped each other. Folk would hold off sending bills when the fishing was bad, for instance, knowing they'd get their money when catches improved.

There's some discussion about the modern phenomenon of house prices, now so high that many locally-born people cannot afford to live in Southwold itself. The resident population has dropped to about 1,100, while neighbouring Reydon's has grown to 2,500 or so. So many houses are second homes that one can walk about in winter and not see many lights on.

Author Janet Gershlick has written books about the captivating stories behind the personalised inscriptions and plaques on many of Southwold's benches, the pier and beach huts. She thinks the town claims a place in people's hearts during childhood, so “they want to make sure they have a permanent reminder of when they were here”.

Places are always changing, of course, but does Nick's documentary work make him think we are at a significant tipping point and are losing something valuable concerning “localness” and our heritage?

“My gut feeling is yes, but when I talk to people you'd be surprised how tenaciously things hang on. Here in Halesworth” - where he moved in February - “I actually hear a bit more Suffolk dialect from younger people than I expected. Just to give you a pretentious comparison, when Bart�k the Hungarian composer went to Transylvania, collecting folk music in the 1900s, he was absolutely convinced it would be gone in 10 years. A hundred years later it is still going.

“It certain places, like Southwold, clearly the Suffolk character is dying out a bit. But people have often moved somewhere else - to Reydon, or wherever.”

There are likely to be further Towns in Sound - he's eyeing Halesworth and Cromer - but Nick's long-term ambition is to preserve, package and promote recordings of local dialect in easy-to-digest parcels.

“There are quite a lot of people who go round making these kind of recordings, but what tends to happen is they sit in archives. What I think is important is to take your material and use editing and production skills to make an artefact that's actually something you can listen to.” Edited, dressed up and placed in context, in other words, rather than being a long piece of raw audio that, with the best will in the world, can prove a bit dull.

He'd like to produce a kind of “Journey Through the Suffolk Dialect” documentary, for instance, with people talking and “experts” giving a view on the importance and development of vernacular.

“You can go to Waterstones and see these books on dialect - and nothing wrong with that - but it's a bit like having a book on Van Gogh without any pictures! It's such an interesting dialect, but nobody very much is actually doing anything in sound form.”

Southwold - Our Town in Sound is available from Southwold's bookshops, the pier, and via

Information: phone 01986 872088 or email

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