Words by Sarah Jappy & Photographs by Liz Schaffer
When we arrived in Southwold, it was raining cats and dogs. A while later, it was just raining dogs: a veritable hailstorm of bottom-wiggling, tail-shimmying, four-legged Fidos appeared before our eyes over the following two days. If Southwold were renamed Dogwold, nobody could protest.
Mind you, we were here for birds, not pooches – and one bird, to be precise: The Swan. This handsome historic hotel is perched just a scone’s throw from the sea on arterial Market Place, within grabbing reach of the self-professed ‘Oldest Shop in Town’ (Mills & Sons: the family butchers) and boujee boutique Collen & Clare, stocked with Mulberry bags, WAG-worthy bikinis and other wallet-wrecking sartorial plunder.
But back to The Swan (and its swish new plumage). After racking up more than 100 birthdays, the Adnams-owned grande dame was, understandably, looking somewhat faded. Step in London-based design studio Project Orange, who sprinkled Shoreditch-style fairy dust all over this Southwold stalwart in 2017.
We were bowled over by our bird upon arrival. (It didn’t hurt that bunting was being strung up outside as we hopped out of our taxi; indicating, we assumed, that the locals had been alerted to our arrival.)
A handsome grandfather clock stands guard in The Swan’s welcoming lobby, where two acid-pink throne chairs reign supreme in an orchid-adorned corner. A carpeted staircase drops hints about what awaits above; a sociable salon was abrim with gossiping silver-haired locals, snuggly ensconced on lime-green velvet sofas.
The Swan has irreproachably friendly staff and a team of brilliant butlers. Ours, a genial Brummie called Andrew, swiftly whisked our luggage away while we used our best investigative journalism skills on the front desk team, determinedly deducing the most-adored local cake shop and the quickest way to the beach.
Five minutes later, we were sitting outside Two Magpies Bakery in the company of giant sourdough sandwiches (one stuffed with smoked cheese and sun-dried tomato; one packed with an ocean’s worth of mayo-drenched crayfish), plus ice-cold cans of elderflower fizzy pop and a wodge of stout cake with the appropriate ratio of sponge to buttercream (50:50).
Sufficiently fortified, we waddled across the road to another local treasure: Southwold Books, which is backed by Waterstones but operates as an indie. Time slowed down in the bookshop’s characterful Grade II-listed building, the Olde Bank House; despite our best intentions, we left a while later, weighed down with our very own mini library.
Being smog-ridden city types, our eyeballs were hungry for the wide blue sea. Only one thing could delay us: Wow Vintage. Here, we had no choice but to invest in gem-encrusted cocktail rings and a conker-coloured fur jacket (ideal accessories for a damp British weekend). Dripping in fur and jewels, we perambulated onwards to the beach, admiring Southwold’s pleasingly wonky architecture, cobbled laneways, little lawns, abundant poppies and pastel-coloured cottages en route.
When it comes to coast, Southwold can hold its head high: it’s home to a beautiful stretch of pristine, ice-cream-cone-coloured sand, where elephant-grey waves frothed, churned and crashed with vigour. Bookmarking the pier and the postcard-pretty beach huts for tomorrow, we returned to our boutique basecamp – fur coat somewhat bedraggled – for a well-deserved tea-and-biscuit break.
British-seaside hotels can veer on the stuffy side, but not a single nook or cranny of The Swan could be accused of this crime. Flinging open the door to our room revealed a cosy, colour-pop cocoon with two supremely comfy beds, a patterned rug, a marshmallow-soft throw, filament-bulb lights, a bandbox-neat, white-tiled bathroom and views of Southwold’s terracotta-tiled roofs, the lighthouse and the shimmering sea beyond. A giant TV and a minibar stuffed with chocolates, crisps and Adnams beers hinted at snug nights in.
Additional cues to stay put at The Swan include a double-act of dining propositions. In the handsome Still Room, gilt-framed oil portraits of ye olde lords and ladies (and their dogs, of course) hang on the walls, watching without comment as guests indulge in one too many breakfast pastries or gin-sloshed post-prandials.
On our first night, we rounded off a day’s worth of baked goods and wine with a feast here. Appropriately, for a brewery-owned hotel, the restaurant’s design scheme riffs ravishingly on the small-batch Adnams distillery a few metres away. The jewel in the crown is the gleaming copper-topped bar and its rainbow-bright fleet of spirits and bitters, all emitting a halo-like glow. Striking bottle lighting continues the boozy sartorial seduction.
Honouring our setting, we kicked things off with a lemon-sherbert French 75 and a ruby-red negroni, followed by fish ceviche with mango sorbet, succulent rib-eye with melted onions and bone marrow, charred carrots, triple-cooked chips, peach macaron with passion fruit, and a mini army of East Anglian cheeses.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to roll ourselves far to bed after all this (just up a few stairs). Proximity is one of the feathers in The Swan’s cap: everything you could conceivably wish to do in Southwold is within staggering distance, meaning you can comfortably indulge in multiple pints at The Lord Nelson (former den of smugglers, hurrah) or multiple chocolate-and-raspberry slices at Two Magpies. The Adnams brewery is a few steps from reception – and well worth touring for the chance of encountering rebellious yeast, as we delightedly did.
During our stay, we also ticked off windswept Southwold Pier and its brilliantly bonkers arcade games (courtesy of mad-cap artist-engineer Tim Hunkin), fried golden deliciousness at the Little Fish and Chip Shop and a butler-and-beach picnic courtesy of The Swan, starring a chocolate cake so decadent, my companion suffered a near-fatal cacao coma before being revived by the sea air.
Alas, we failed to make it to the topaz museum, but it’s always good to have reasons to return. The Swan’s ink-dark bar and restaurant, the Tap Room, counts among the latter. We spent our last night here enjoying a bizarre but delicious array of shared plates, from melted Camembert to cockles and other crustaceans. Over-indulgence aside, The Swan is as serene and flawless as its avian namesake. Forget seagulls – every seaside needs a Swan.
To learn more about the hotel - or simply book a room - click here.