Food, Travel

Baby Biarritz?

After the somewhat underwhelming experience of Nottingham, we were still feeling the urge to be out and about and indulging in a little café life. So, on the spur of the moment, we hit the road last weekend and found it in…. Felixstowe.

Felixstowe is not a place you go to by accident; what’s more, its main reputation as the U.K.’s principal deep-sea container port quite possibly makes it not the kind of place you would expect to go to on purpose either. I had passed quickly through once a number of years ago – but more recently, my hairdresser, who is one of the cooler men I know, had commended it. Coming from a natty dresser who likes a glass of something chilled with his jazz, there had to be a reason why…

And so we discovered Baby Biarritz. Well, perhaps that’s a bit optimistic; Baby Bournemouth more like. I think it was the large villas on the clifftop that put both resorts in mind. It has the same restrained, slightly faded charm of the more tasteful better-known seaside resorts, today infused with a gentle hint of continent.

A little research revealed that Felixstowe indeed had form; it developed as an upmarket Edwardian coastal spa town complete with a steamer service from London – and thus it retains a legacy of rather grand old villas that have mostly withstood the redevelopment pressures of the larger resorts. Biarritz is known as the also-slightly-faded seaside hang-out of deposed European aristocracy: so much more discrete than Saint Tropez… Felixstowe had Wallis Simpson, who lay low here for some months in 1936 in a mansion she considered far too small, awaiting the divorce that would allow her to marry the abdicating Edward VIII. And in 1891, Empress Augusta Viktoria of Germany spent most of the summer here, in between visiting her mother-in-law the Queen in London. I said it had form…

Based on my first visit’s impressions, we had not expected to do more than cruise through on the way somewhere more interesting. But in the event, we felt the urge to park up and look closer. I find myself increasingly attracted to the laid-back atmosphere of the coast; someone once said that it is the only place where the British ever even marginally relax their buttoned-upness. You find slightly less prim, more exotic planting, a greater prevalence of picture windows and balconies than elsewhere – and despite the general coolness of the climate, the coastal light and vistas do lend something to this most understated of countries… But I am still repelled by typical kiss-me-quick bucket-and-spadeness, much preferring the style of French and Italian resorts. We loved Viareggio when we visited – and I have fond memories of Dieppe on the Cote d’Opale – whose northern French climate is not so markedly better than ours. But what they do with their resorts most definitely is…

In Felixstowe’s case, it has the distinct advantage of being the only East Anglian resort to face south. Combined with a sloping cliff that relieves it of the flatness of most of its neighbours, it has a microclimate that the Edwardians exploited to create some appealing coastal gardens, recently restored. On a distinctly cool early August day, it was enough to lend a warmth that could have been somewhere distinctly more balmy…

British seaside resorts have had a rough half-century – ever since the Brits discovered they could go to Spain. But there are signs that some are rising to the challenge, no doubt helped this year by the travel restrictions. While there is not much we can do about the climate except wait for global warming, there are signs that Felixstowe at least is raising its game. Perhaps the very fact that it lies below the radar of the masses helps, as no doubt does the presence a little further up the coast of the much more chichi Suffolk towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold. Unlike those, however, which are very much pebbles, fishing boats and hearty doses of Benjamin Britten with everything, Felixstowe has rather more of that faded Riviera feel; at least enough to make it worth the thirty-five-mile drive, bypassing the distinctly mixed delights of Clacton and Frinton on the way…

The container port at the mouth of the Orwell is dredged to 15 metres, which allows it to accommodate the largest container carriers in the world; it’s the eight busiest port in Europe and nearly half all UK containerised imports pass through it. Facing Rotterdam across the southern North Sea probably helps. As a result, it has excellent transport connections. The southern horizon is dominated by a dozen gantry cranes, which are impressive enough not to be the complete eyesore that one might expect. The coming and going of the huge ships, not to mention the passenger service from nearby Harwich to Hook of Holland, adds interest.

The town itself is a mixed bag of low-end chains but with some more interesting independents sprinkled in; it seems to be making efforts, as I said, to raise its game – the main street is well enough cared for compared with many of its peers. It does have the expected amusement arcades and other trashiness, but the north end of the town is a rather different matter, with the cliff gardens, and the more imposing villas. What’s more, some pleasing eateries have moved in, with more on the way, thus addressing one of the regular downsides of the British seaside experience. That, and a shipload of imported palm trees, made for a pleasing, escapist afternoon, all the more so for being unexpected.

Alba Chiara

The renowned East Anglian brewers Adnams have opened a brasserie on the sea front; another similar venture is due to open soon. But we opted for Alba Chiara, a surprisingly good Italian restaurant, also a new arrival, and set up in an appealing building that had seen a previous life as a chips and burger bar. We got the better deal: anywhere that makes its carbonara with guanciale and pecorino knows what it is doing; nicely seaside-y and without being overly themed, it is a pleasant spot with great sea views. Later, we discovered that the owners are indeed Italian and escapees from one of our favourite restaurants elsewhere in the region. Full marks.

Alba Chiara
Serious espresso at last…

The promenade is worth a stroll; the beach is partly sandy, and a definite rise in the quality of kiosks is visible – several were selling “gelato” from proper scoop-chillers; a big improvement on the traditional lolly-on-a-stick. And then, joy of joys, we found one that was selling Mövenpick ice-cream: quite a rarity anywhere in the U.K., let alone at a lesser-known small resort like this. At the south end of the town, Beach Street Felixstowe is another recent addition: a Camden-style collection of independent traders, all housed in redundant shipping containers. We didn’t get far enough to check this in person, but it looks intriguing.

We rounded the afternoon off with a prowl around some of the cliff-top residential streets: a mix of villa and apartment blocks, several which have been recently renovated and (later research showed) commanding quite steep figures… And a couple of newly built contemporary additions, with some attractive looking balconies.

It’s not unusual to overlook the attractions of one’s near-region. Daily life tends to get in the way of exploring as thoroughly as one should – particularly when prejudice gets in the way. In this case, it was a good decision to take the risk; some of my family roots are in Dorset, and Bournemouth has always been – climatically, topographically and architecturally – my benchmark for the British seaside. But now we know that we at least have Baby Bournemouth, if not Baby Biarritz, much closer at hand…

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