Fear of Felixstowe
by Dickon Edwards
For some people, Felixstowe is a frightening place. Tourists seeking a charming resort on the Suffolk coast, in the east of England, are likely to favour the more celebrated towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold. They are frightened, I suspect, of Felixstowe because of its container port, the largest of its kind in Britain, which lies on the estuary where the rivers Stour and Orwell flow into the North Sea.
Felixstowe, my hypothetical tourists assume, must be a place of cranes and lorries and people in overalls called ‘stevedores’ doing butch things with chains. While these activities do indeed go on at the Port of Felixstowe, they are, like the huge Lego-like boxes of goods with which they are concerned, safely and silently contained.
Felixstowe Town is in fact two miles away from the port, along the coast to the north. It is separated from the port by a long, grassy nature reserve where small rabbits caper photogenically about one’s feet. At the town there is a modest pleasure pier with an agreeable bar and a clean, sandy beach which enjoys one of the lowest rainfall rates in the country. Tiered public gardens bloom prettily along the promenade, while the more vampiric can take shelter at the cavernous Treasure Chest bookshop.
Those interested in sustainable travel should favour Felixstowe simply because, unlike Aldeburgh and Southwold, it has a railway station. If only just. From the 1890s to the 1930s Felixstowe was a fashionable health resort with three train stations: one for the town, one for the beach, one for the port. In 1906 one could take a non-stop train there from London.
Today, the town station is the only one remaining, and even that has been whittled down to a small single-platform halt. A traveller from London must change trains at Ipswich, then walk gingerly through a car park to get into the town. Still, according to Allan Jobson’s book The Felixstowe Story, in the 1960s the locals thought the station would be demolished altogether, such was the town’s decline.
A more glamourous option is to arrive via boat from Harwich Town, which is the route I took. I started by boarding a branch line train at Manningtree, which is a station that sports an old-fashioned buffet in the style of Brief Encounter, complete with pub pumps on the counter. Then, after alighting at Harwich, I walked through quiet medieval streets and admired the pretty Electric Palace cinema, with its Edwardian plasterwork. One can spot the original separate entrances for different classes – a ‘poor door’ for sixpenny tickets, and a ‘less poor door’ for a shilling. On my visit the cinema was showing vintage silent films alongside brand new releases like Barbie and Scrapper.
There was time to spare before the fifteen-minute foot ferry from the Ha’Penny Pier, which is advertised with signs saying not ‘To Felixstowe’ but ‘To Suffolk’. I decided to take advantage of the nearby Navyärd bar at the Pier Hotel, which boasts a ‘gin library’. Two of my favourite words, together at last. There were no books, but I discovered it was possible to spend an unconscionable amount of time reading all the descriptions of the different gins.
The ferry turned out to be a little yellow and white boat which provided an entirely smooth journey across the estuary. At Felixstowe Port the boat dropped its ramp onto a small strip of beach, and I stepped onto the shore like a conquistador.
The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher described Felixstowe, where he lived, as a fundamentally eerie place.
In his 2016 book The Weird and the Eerie, he pointed out how the beach near Old Felixstowe and Bawdsey, to the north of the town, inspired M.R. James’s 1904 ghost story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’. A 2013 audio essay that Fisher created with Justin Barton about the area, On Vanishing Land, extended this eeriness to include the container port, calling it a sinister ‘nerve ganglion of capitalism’, which had an ‘unvisited vastness’.
Today, the port is very much visited. When I was there, people in number had come to park their cars at a vantage spot. They sat there to gaze at the estuary, either in their cars or in the seats of the View Point café, whiling away the day with cups of tea in the shadow of the cranes. On the beach below, people sat happily on deck chairs or sunbathed on towels. Two further attractions were here, albeit with limited hours: the unusual eighteenth-century Landguard Fort, site of marine defences since the Tudors, and the Felixstowe Museum. This area felt not so much eerie as idiosyncratic, intriguing, and in transition.
The present highlight of the Felixstowe Museum is an unexpected display of 1980s pop culture. A video of the Live Aid concert plays forever on a TV, as part of a mock-up of an 80s living room. One wall is covered in the glossy and colourful record sleeves of the time. A BBC Micro and a Betamax video recorder, items of my youth, here lurk behind glass as dusty relics. Those old enough can enjoy the uncanny sensation of reawakened memories, while those too young can discover what aspects of the 80s they find exotic or appealing or baffling. I became slightly obsessed with seeing on display the novelisation of Spies Like Us, the favourite film of no one.
One’s only fear is that turning this stuff into a shrine at Felixstowe might risk the summoning of an M.R. James-style ghost. Except that the malign spirit would not be a linen bedsheet, as in the James story, but a disembodied baggy white t-shirt bearing the slogan FRANKIE SAY RELAX, chasing a big-haired synthesizer player along the beach to his doom. Still, it would be a risk worth taking. A touch of fear, like sea air, can make a trip to the seaside all the more invigorating.
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