The Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room is a gorgeous bit of Inside. Like any coastal town, Southwold has an awful lot of Outside, which it can throw at you very hard and very fast. So the small redbrick building tucked away near the seafront is both charming and useful.
It was built in 1864, in memory of Captain Charles Rayley. He’d been in the Royal Navy since Trafalgar, fighting pirates in Borneo and privateers in the West Indies, one of whom gave him a sabre cut across the cheek. When Rayley died his widow commissioned the Reading Room as an alternative to Southwold’s pubs, a place where sailors and fishermen could shelter from the elements without jeopardising their liver or their morals.
An original copy of the rules is still on display: ‘That there be no Swearing, no Gambling, no Improper Language, or Bad Behaviour, and that neither Beer nor Spirits be permitted to be brought on to the premises.’ Another rule specifies: ‘That no Newspaper be retained by any Member longer than Ten Minutes after it has been asked for.’
A press report from the time says that the room was opened with great ‘éclat’, and indeed ‘a super abundance of eatables’. It became a fixture of the old salts’ lives. A 1950s photo shows them playing cribbage and reading the papers — as was the way at the time, they all looked the same (mac, black-framed glasses, flat cap, cigarette or pipe), as though Monty Python had done their Alan Whicker sketch about sailors instead. Everyone had nicknames: Peely, Tink, Tilt, Bludgeon. The local postman was Flea.
There’s been the odd modernisation since then, such as lino over the floorboards (members had complained of draughts up the trouser legs). But the room is essentially unchanged. A long wooden table bears the day’s newspapers, and there are comfy armchairs in which to enjoy them. The walls are covered with photos and paintings of sailors and boats, plus old maps, adverts and newspaper articles (one bears the headline ‘Spratting at Southwold’ — great name for a band). No two frames match, which always adds to a place’s character.
There are also barometers, sextants, wooden ships’ wheels, ancient copies of Lloyd’s Register and model ships in glass cases. A small blackboard shows the times of today’s tides. All of which makes me feel slightly guilty that the sea and everything to do with it bores me. I go to the Reading Room for the peace, that very special kind of silence you normally find only in doctors’ waiting rooms and libraries.
Well, the peace and the full-size snooker table in the back room. Here since 1901, the table has recently been refurbished. It has also hosted an all-day tabletop re-enactment (with commentary) of the Battle of Solebay, the 1672 altercation on the waves off Southwold between England and the Dutch Republic.
Overlooking the table is a framed selection of knots, from ‘carrick bend’ through ‘bowline on a bight’ to ‘monkey’s fist’. Admission to this room is for members only (£20 a year), but anyone can visit the main room to shelter from the rain/read the papers/enjoy the one part of Southwold that hasn’t turned into London-by-the-Sea.