Southwold: His jewel in the crown

Geoffrey Munn is not one to have his head turned lightly, he being a TV antiques expert and jeweller to royalty. But he's infectiously excited by his new book: about the treasure on his doorstep that is Southwold.

Geoffrey Munn is not one to have his head turned lightly, he being a TV antiques expert and jeweller to royalty. But he's infectiously excited by his new book: about the treasure on his doorstep that is Southwold. STEVEN RUSSELL reports

GEOFFREY Munn, author of a sumptuous new book on Southwold, weighs his answer. “You can call it a mid-life crisis book,” he laughs after a pause, “because I've been in the jewellery trade for 32 years and I've been incredibly spoilt and seen some of the finest things you can ever hope to see.

“Even so, working in the candy store for that length of time is a long time. Actually, my very first love has always been painting and, I suppose, literature - that sounds a bit poncey, but it's the absolute truth - and so here was my chance to say something.”

The phrase “say something” is a somewhat self-deprecating choice, for the Antiques Roadshow expert has committed years of his life to producing Southwold: An Earthly Paradise.

The 53-year-old insists it's not a comprehensive history of the seaside town, “rather a series of essays that are the result of a personal voyage of discovery”.

It's a coffee-table celebration of what makes the place magical and why it has proved such a draw for artists intoxicated by the romance of the coast and writers from Thomas Hardy and Walter de la Mare to George Orwell, PD James and Esther Freud.

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It's even argued that a local donkey provided the inspiration for the physical appearance of Eeyore and some of the woodland in which he lived.

Ernest H Shepard, who went on to illustrate AA Milne's much-loved stories, was in Suffolk in 1901. Florence Chaplin's family had the Red House in Hinton during the summer, and Shepard was invited to stay. Their courtship led to marriage in 1904.

During that summer Ernest and Florence cycled to Southwold but lost their way. The only living thing on the rough common land was a tethered donkey - “evidently the inspiration for Shepard's portrayal of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne, published 25 years later in 1926. It was amongst this group of pines that Pooh, Piglet and Tigger went to visit Eeyore in The House at Pooh Corner in 1928”.

Geoffrey adds: “Shepard's wife had died under anaesthetic in September 1927. Naturally, his thoughts returned to the sunny days of their courtship at Southwold and his memories of the scene were incorporated in the now famous scenes of drawings. The lonely pines on the hill, surrounded by prickly gorse, was a place where the doleful donkey lived, like Shepard, quite alone.”

It's not a saccharine-sweet ride from cover to cover, though: the author doesn't ignore the darker underbelly of life.

“When people see Southwold they think it's a rather mimsy holiday destination on the East Coast - a rather tame place. It's anything but. It's unspoilt but vigorous.

“Its history is very exciting, from the early medieval period onwards. There's pirates and witches and the plague and fire. And in tandem with that it's been a place to which enormous numbers of famous people have come, for one reason or another. That's what the book's all about, really.

“Turner is probably the most famous artist, and Damien Hirst is the most contemporary one. I managed to pull Shakespeare, practically by his hair, into Southwold, too!”

A troupe of itinerant players called The King's Men performed in Dunwich on October 10, 1608, and again two years later. Geoffrey says it is “virtually certain” that Shakespeare was part of the troupe, and that the players probably travelled from London by the quickest route: by ship to Southwold.

The title of his volume echoes William Morris's epic poem The Earthly Paradise. The craftsman, designer, writer and typographer spent the late summer of 1868 at the seaside with wife Jane and their two daughters - but it wasn't a particularly happy holiday.

Jane, a working-class woman with copper hair, pale complexion, and a slow and graceful figure, was widely considered the most beautiful female in the world.

“It wasn't an ideal relationship, because she'd just begun her affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” explains Geoffrey. Rossetti was one of Morris's friends in the the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They were dismayed by the crass industrial churning-out of decorative arts and architecture and argued for hand-craftsmanship to be put back on a pedestal.

The Morrises went on holiday with an antiques dealer called Charles Howell, “who called himself 'the postbox', because Rossetti was writing to Janey in Southwold and Howell was passing them to her on the beach. William Morris had an instinct things were not right and he composed the rather mournful stanzas for October in The Earthly Paradise. The references are quite clearly recognisable as Southwold”.

Geoffrey's own association with Southwold is much happier, thankfully - although he confesses to feeling rather underwhelmed by his first visit.

That was in 1982, when he was invited to stay in the Stradbroke Road home of the Geres, opposite the lighthouse. John was keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum; his wife an art historian and painter.

Their house-guest's verdict on the town? “I frankly found it less than exciting. I suppose I was too young for it!”

But Suffolk had its hooks in him. When he and Caroline started courting, money was scarce and expensive trips abroad were out. “When we went on holiday, it was the only place I could think of, really! And so we went to Southwold and it was the most marvellous holiday.

“We sat and watched this enormous electrical storm finding its way out over the North Sea. From that moment it seemed to work. And it worked more and more because then we were married and had children, and our children loved it.

“Then we managed to get a beach hut . . .”

Gosh; you were lucky. They're horrendously dear, and today you'd stand more chance of finding gold in a stream than buying one.

“Well, it was in the deep, dark, depths of a recession. I made an offer for it which, frankly, I didn't have the money for - and I had to borrow the money to get it. At that particular time I had a gold cross that I'd lent to the British Museum, designed to John Ruskin's order” - Ruskin, widely considered one of the great Victorians, was an artist, art critic, amateur geologist, teacher, writer, social critic, philosopher and religious evangelical. “I actually sold the cross to buy the beach hut. We would stay in bed-and-breakfasts on the other side of the A12 because we so loved it.”

About 15 years ago the family bought a small house there. “It was a long time before got the house - put every penny towards it,” muses Geoffrey.

“Southwold really bit. I think the attraction is that it's full of micro-environments: it's a very pretty Regency town overlooking the sea - and that's a very rare thing - and it's relatively unspoilt. You can go over to the river and the harbour, and that's one environment. You can go over to the marshes on the other side, and that's another environment.

“Then there are the walks to Walberswick. And most impressive of all is Dunwich, which is like Atlantis - a very romantic place. One of the chapters is devoted to Dunwich - In the Shadow of the City.”

Over the years, Geoffrey heard and read vast amounts about Southwold and its past. He learned, for instance, that Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe visited and described the church as teeming with swallows ready to emigrate to Africa.

There was also, of course, the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672, “one of the most violent sea battles to take place in the history of the United Kingdom. All of these things together were really quite punchy”.

As all this knowledge swirled around came a lightbulb moment.

“I don't think I was doing it particularly actively, but I suddenly realised, when I'd read this book and that book, and when I found out this, that and the other, that it was possible to put it together and make it into a book. It's not the first I've written, but the others have all been about jewellery, because that's what I do” - such as Tiaras: Past and Present and The Triumph of Love: Jewelry, 1530-1930.

Geoffrey is managing director of Wartski - “by virtue of the fact I've never done anything else”, he says, self-deprecatingly. The family-owned firm just off New Bond Street in London specialises in fine jewellery, gold boxes and works by Carl Fabergé, former jeweller to the tsars.

It's had a long and close association with the Royal Family. “We made the wedding rings for the Prince of Wales and Mrs Parker Bowles - Welsh gold - and we're very proud of that.”

When it came to the book, his experience in the world of antiques and historic art stood him in good stead. Traditional and modern methods helped piece together his picture of Southwold.

“Where I work, it's our job to find out about things - to indulge in some pretty full-on research - and so there's a funny kind of 'machinery' all set up for that. I had access to some pretty wonderful libraries in London and I know about rate books and I know about censuses - that sort of thing.

“And without the internet it would be far less of a book. Here's a rather olde worlde town on the east coat and its history has come out of the internet. The search engines are absolutely astonishing.

“One of the most dramatic examples of that was the discovery of a series of photographs taken by Dr Peter Henry Emerson” - 1856-1936 - “who's really the father of landscape photography in England. Do a Google search and there's even a mention of it at George Eastman House in New York, where the greatest holding of art images in the world is. With a bit more pursuit I found 13 or 14 photographs by Emerson of Southwold - very evocative and very beautiful - which I would never have found before.

“And I've found some Turner drawings in the Tate which have never been published before. They were only described as scenes on the east coast but they're clearly recognisable as Southwold.”

Chancing upon those works by Joseph Mallord William Turner, the 18th/19th Century romantic landscape artist whose style is often said to have laid the foundations for impressionism, was a big thrill.

“When you discover something, the excitement is completely unequalled. When you go and look, you don't know what you're going to find. You get shown into the Clore wing of the Tate, wash hands - a little lectern, very subdued lighting - and you are given the book from Turner's pocket. And that's very, very exciting.

“When it was revealed to me - page after page after page of Southwold - I could hardly restrain myself from leaping out and telling the librarian.”

The book has been about four years in the preparation.

“I've had the most marvellous strokes of good luck. I've certainly identified the builder of Southwold church. Although people have guessed at it in the past, there was some problem with the chronology. People have said it was probably by Richard Russell. They couldn't put this together with the fact someone had said he died in 1430.

“Richard Russell was a very rich architect living in Dunwich who was also MP for Dunwich; and so I simply wrote to the House of Commons and said 'What's your biography for the member for Dunwich in 1425?' or something like that, and they came back and told me he died quite a lot later on, in the 1450s - which brings him right into the remit of Southwold.

“At the same time I put that together with the masons' marks that are under the foot of the tower arch, which are two very impressive Gothis Rs carved into the stonework. So I think that's one of the first times it's been said with any real conviction.”

The town's imposing church is, of course, dedicated to St Edmund - as are several churches along the coast. Geoffrey wondered why.

“The reason is that he's a sort of symbol for the defence of the realm against invasion. He is a Saxon king who was set upon by the Danes. They put him to death and you think 'Well, that's the end of that.'

“He was a martyr and his relics were taken to Bury St Edmunds. Southwold 'belonged' to Bury St Edmunds at the time and when a charming fellow called Swein Fork Beard” - king of Denmark 986-1014 - “decided to invade England he was going to go to Bury and sack the tomb of St Edmund.

“But he was apparently driven back by the ghost of St Edmund and was literally frightened to death. His body was pickled in salt and sent back to Denmark.” He'd ruled England for just five weeks. “From that moment on Edmund was their patron saint because he was a powerful symbol of the defence of the realm.”

Late in the 11th Century, a Norman knight called Robert de Curzun decided he was going to invade Southwold.

“He arrived in 1087, prepared for violence, but he was seemingly unaware of the danger of tampering with the saint's endowment. During his first advance on the manor, he was repelled not by the poor inhabitants but by a supernatural tempest.”

Improbable as it seems, the de Curzun family failed to learn their lesson. “Nearly a century later, in 1186, William de Curzun, a successor to Robert, renewed the family claim to the manor.”

He set off from London to seize Southwold, but was inexplicably struck down at Chelmsford. “From there,” explains Geoffrey, “he was taken to Colchester Abbey, where the monks received him as a raving maniac. He was bound and bandaged for his own safety and kept under restraint only with the greatest difficulty.”

The Abbot of Bury sent a message to de Curzun, suggesting he withdraw his claim to Southwold - and thus placate the ghostly patron saint. William, of course, wasn't in a fit state to do very much. But Richard, one of his attendants, offered himself as a hostage, in exchange for the saint taking pity.

“That same night, William's madness subsided. De Curzun saw that he was beaten and finally renounced his claim to Southwold.”

While we're on the subject of ghosts, we'd better look at wretched Tobias Gill, whose story is remembered today in the name Toby's Walks - a picnic site just off the A12 at Blythburgh.

The young black drummer was one of the soldiers of the Fourth Dragoons, stationed at Blythburgh in the middle of the 18th Century by Lieutenant General Sir Robert Rich, of Beccles. The troops were there to combat smuggling.

In the summer of 1750 Gill was convicted of the murder of Anne (or Ann) Blakemore, of Walberswick. His hanging took place on September 14.

“The circumstances of the execution are terrible,” says Geoffrey, “because he continually protested his innocence, and when the mail coach came by from London, he pleaded to be allowed to put his head in a halter, attached to the coach, and be allowed to run for his life. He was not a strong and vigorous fellow, so it shows how desperate he was.

“They decided not to do that. As his body dropped to the end of the rope, a Mr Bokenham from Southwold was seated in his saddle to take advantage of the better view; the horse reared, chucked him off and broke his neck and killed him.”

The author points out that widespread remorse followed the hanging, with many people pointing out the lack of convincing evidence and the fact no marks had been found on Anne's body.

“The place is called Toby's Walks because Toby's ghost is said to walk there.”

Gill's body was hung in chains, until it disintegrated. The bones were buried where they fell, and the gibbet stood for 50 years. “Shavings of the gallows were collected as a cure for toothache and eventually the beams rotted and collapsed. The nails that had secured them were gathered as talismans and one of the timbers, carved with Tobias's initials, was incorporated in a barn at nearby Westwood Lodge.”

Writing the book has been a passion. Now it's finished, it's like a child leaving home. However, the Munn family's links with Southwold continue.

“I have had the most fantastic life, and if I were hit by a truck tomorrow I would have been one of the richest people in the world - in a completely unconventional way. Nothing to do with money - it's to do with experience - and Southwold has contributed to that enormously. It's not only been a wonderful release of tension from London, it's thrown up this wonderful thing for me - this wonderful toy which I've now got to put down.

“This sounds a bit twee, but it's a reminder that life is damn short and you have to get on with things. As time rushes by, there's an increased urgency to get things done - and I'm very pleased to have done this.”

Southwold: An Earthly Paradise is published in June by Antique Collectors' Club Ltd at £29.50. ISBN 1851495185.

THE Munns head for East Anglia whenever they can: ideally every week. In fact, he's speaking to the EADT on a Monday after spending the weekend in Suffolk.

Their sons, Alexander and Edward, are now young men of 20 and 18, and have more friends in Southwold than anywhere else, having spent great chunks of their childhood there. “It's always been very nice,” says dad. “There's that slightly dodgy time when you have to let go of them and you can let go of them more easily in Southwold because it's a safer place.”

When the boys have spent their holidays there, Geoffrey has travelled back and forth by train to share at least some of the experience. “I'm a bit of a freak, actually. I can't drive. I got this job when I was 19 and there just never seemed to be time to do it in London. There's the Underground and you never seem to need to drive.”

He recognises some locals don't appreciate weekenders from the capital, but points out it's been happening since 1760. “It's a very prosperous place and its security is certain. If it were a poor place, it would be very less certain; and so visitors are very important to Southwold. But I have also to say that they're not always popular!”

He's been an expert on Antiques Roadshow for about 15 years, filming at seven or eight locations a year. “There's a huge sense of discovery. You never know what's coming. The next person in the line has either got this great treasure by Faberge or they haven't!”

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