Nursing at St Audrys – an oral history of a Suffolk psychiatric hospital

 

image001(3)
Images from the St Audrys project

Originally a workhouse known as the House of Industry for Looes and Wilford Incorporated Hundreds established in 1765, St Audry’s became the Suffolk County Lunatic Asylum in 1827 and went on to be renamed St Audry’s Hospital for Mental Diseases from around 1917 although the name ‘Suffolk District Asylum’ was also retained until the early nineteen thirties . Finally closing as a psychiatric hospital in 1993, the building was converted into private residencies although parts of the main structure were listed in 1985 and preserved.  St Audry’s became home for many generations of Suffolk people with mental illness and they left behind their stories, some of which are recorded although, sadly, the majority have been lost. The history of stigma and fear associated with mental health services means that patients historically have been voiceless both politically and culturally and the public remain largely ignorant about the subject too. In addition, data protection and privacy laws means that a hundred years must pass from the death of the last patient before any personal details can be released into the public realm, thus (rightfully) hindering historians from accessing the archives.

In 2012, a project was set up by the Museum of East Anglian Life to explore the hidden history of St Audry’s. The Museum, alongside Felixstowe Museum and the Suffolk Record Office, were recipients of the hospital museum collection and archive when it closed.  ‘Telling it like is: the story of a psychiatric hospital in Suffolk’ collaborated with mental health service users to create work to accompany a permanent display in Abbot’s Hall, part of the Museum. The project also explored and recorded people’s emotional connections with the St Audry’s site.

We spent an afternoon visiting Abbots Hall and the very moving (and at times troubling) exhibition, telling the story of St Audrys and the people who worked and were hospitalised there. Inspired by this, I recently interviewed a Registered Mental health Nurse from Suffolk who trained at the St Audry’s School of Nursing and was subsequently employed as a staff and then charge nurse at the hospital. Trained at a time when the introduction of new Antipsychotic medication meant patients experienced far less sedating effects and fewer side effects alongside the development of Nursing as a profession meant they saw some exciting cultural changes within mental health. Add to this the closure of the old style psychiatric hospitals due to the inception of Care in the Community and the Care Programme Approach and we see how many changes staff were privy to.

Here is this nurses oral history as told to me. Parts of their account include references to self harm, suicide and methods of restraint. 

“One of the back doors to one of the hospital blocks. I think it might be have been Rendlesham Ward. (the wards were named after local villages) – the rear door, when you looked at it from the outside, you could see the outline of a white nurses uniform and hat. And it wasn’t a reflection, apparently from anything else around, and the glass had been changed. This is the myth. They’d put fresh glass in but still this white nurses effigy remained as an imprint into the glass.

“When you looked at it you could see a white apron and triangle of the hat. It was most definitely there. Spooky. And I don’t even believe in ghosts or anything like that!”

“I started there Oct 16th 1978. It was still St Audrys school of nursing and the Ipswich student cohort came out there. In my final year, they developed the school of nursing and we decanted it to Ipswich General hospital. The hospital, by and large had a very friendly, family atmosphere. Many of the patients had been there decades, many months at least and they knew each other.

“Long stay patients went to different therapies…making garden furniture, paving slabs- breeze blocks I think they made. The staff sports and social club was actually built from bricks made in the grounds. and the paving slabs certainly were. They’d got rid of the farm when I was there. No more waste food could be given to animals from domestic or other food supplies- the new Health & Safety laws. We had a big food prep area that made industrial prepared potatoes/vegetables for other institutions such as schools and hospitals and our patients worked preparing the meals. Institutions were expensive but high value, for example with St Audry’s, about 5-10 yrs prior to its close, the boiler needed replacing. Amazingly enough it was more cost effective to install a new boiler than it was to run down the old inefficient one in the last ten years of its life.

“Supervision wise, they were supervised as workers, rather then psychiatric patients and this was an important part of developing and keeping their skills and dignity as working people. Nursing staff could be called in should a disturbance arise but we didn’t stand over them. We did have responsibility to ensure they were at work and we shared information- if a patient had an off day, supervision could be provided by OT, technical instructor (a non professionally qualified member of the Occupational Therapy team) or nursing staff. If somebody wasn’t performing at work, we had direct feedback that they might be relapsing. It helped contribute to the twenty four hour picture we built up of our patients and how they managed in the various environments they lived, socialised and worked in.

“Some of the OT staff and TI staff were hugely professional and engaged- they wanted to improve the social and economic functioning of their patients. NOT to make them ‘earn their keep’ but instead to improve the quality of their life and the value they held it in. Caring. At this time, we were in a relatively early stage in the development of the OT psychiatric knowledge base and the recent breakthroughs in drug therapy allowed therapy to become more modern. Occupational therapy took off because patients were better able to focus and engage and give feedback on how they felt they were doing and what they might like to do. Care became more proactive and nursing became less regimental.

“A lot of males went into psychiatric nursing whereas other areas of nursing  were more female dominated. Many of our original male staff were from national service/services backgrounds that had a heavily regimented and institutional control system and structure and this influenced how patients were looked after. Their background as enforcers of discipline and their physicality was relied upon when medication was very basic and primitive in its therapeutic effects. Patients often became very distressed and sometimes violent and the staff would use methods of restraint and control that nowadays (quite rightly) we have rejected. Patients usually knew where the boundaries were unless they were very unwell (and other patients would help those new to the wards) and the hospital was a microcosm of society: its social boundaries were rigid and hierarchical, it formed its own class system if you like based upon longevity of stay, type of illness, friendships and alliances.

“Even then when it was more commonplace I questioned the use of restraint and saw it as a failure of care. Only rarely could I ever find an absolute justification for it. I did what I could to discourage male C&R (Control and Restrain Teams) on female patients- just imagine what it is like to be pinned down by a man when you are so unwell you have even less capacity to understand why it is happening. As a staff member you have a split second sometimes to react and we didn’t always have enough staff or the wherewithal to use other methods, ones that involved pre-empting trouble, rows and aggression  directed at staff and other patients. I have been in a situation where a patient came at me with a stanley knife that the patient had managed to secrete about his person after spending time in the carpentry room with a technical instructor. I sensed the patient was behind me, whirled round and managed to talk them out of slashing me. Was I traumatised? I don’t know. I just got on with the rest of the night shift and reported it. Risk assessment wasn’t what it is now. Some patients were justifiably angry at being incarcerated and would take every opportunity to show that anger to us. We had to be on our best game, observation wise all the time. But it had to be subtle too.

“When I arrived, there were still charge nurses insisting on precision lined up beds- you could align the pillows all along the room, fold back of the sheets, all aligned. Not to emphasise high standards in care but simply because it was regimented. That was how you did it and all nursing in the seventies and eighties had yet to develop a professional knowledge base which expected you to account for why you were doing what you were doing and what the results of those actions might be. ‘Did it have an evidence base and was this best practice?’ was not a question nurses used to have to ask themselves. I mean, we knew then and know now that tightly tucked in sheets help reduce pressure ulcers because delicate or bony parts of the body laying on a crease or fold in the sheet fabric are more vulnerable to them, but in those days we did it because we were told to do it. The intellectual and scientific underpinning of our decisions and actions was less dominant. Wards had routines, individual matrons and charge nurses had their individual quirks, likes and dislikes that manifested as ward and care habits and practices and most of them were not rooted in objectivity.

“Minsmere House was the acute unit, very modern for its time (80’s)  and took all acute mentally unwell people, both male and female from aged sixteen to sixty four. New patients came into the services and were placed upon a regime of modern medications, O.T and pyschological therapies which encouraged independence and kept their personalities intact. Yet institutions required the enforcement of their rules which inevitably leads to the suppression of individual need to the needs of the group and organisation. Classic Talcott Parsons stuff. (Parsons described illness as ‘deviance’ with health seen as generally necessary for a functional society, thrusting the ill person into the sick role which came with its own ‘rights’ and obligations.)

I saw the sea change and both ends of the spectrum of care quite early on in my career. I saw the beginnings of community nursing through the formation of Community Mental Health Teams (CMHT’s). I saw people going from one type of care to another, we got to know their family backgrounds and saw them in context. I went from the families of inpatients at a relative distance, to us starting to develop the beginnings of community care plans that took into account, the needs of the entire family unit. For many nurses and other professionals, this was a big change and hard to adjust to for some.

A wide range of people were admitted to St Audry’s- people coming in, young in their illness with less of the dramatic symptoms you used to see when patients weren’t treated so swiftly or with effective drugs. They’d get admitted to wards for short term treatment to medium term treatment. Or end up on long stay wards up to thirty years. Also lots of elderly people, some ex workhouse with terrible, terrible experiences documented in their files (being ‘committed’ decades earlier, because they had given birth out of wedlock for example), some newly admitted people with dementia who one year earlier had been fully productive and engaged in their lives. No prior history of mental ill-health at all so a dreadful shock for their families who had looked forward to Grandad or Grandmothers retirement and now had to adjust to a very different future.

220px-St_Audrys_Hospital_Buildings_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1135013
St Audry’s

“Patients were not often confined to the hospital and its grounds unless they were too unwell to go out. I clearly recall one patient going down regularly, weekly. He’d have his weekly wages, buy his fish and chips at the local chip shop then nip to the Horse and Groom for a pint. He was severely socially dysfunctional in that he couldn’t relate to money. He’d hold his hand out with the money and they’d take it, the bar lady or shop assistant. The pub would only let him have his allowance of beer – they just knew what he should have as we went in there and obviously could have a quiet word with the staff alongside the patient so everybody knew where they stood. Everyone knew everyone and nurses would drink with some patients in the pub on our days off. I’d see patients in Woodbridge on market day – they’d walk there or get the bus. There was a certain amount of freedom with staff taking patients out on walks which would often entail a walk to the pub!  I recall taking bored patients out on Saturday which were slower days as occupational therapy was closed (this still happens on wards now) and there was no ward round or routine medical clinics to break up the monotony of the day. I’m not trying to make it into some bucolic ideal but there was a level of acceptance in the local villages and people generally did not take advantage, or tease or ignore.

“Weekends always a great cigarette crisis you see. Everyone ran out including the staff and we’d resort to smoking dog ends out the ashtrays- we called them dog end rollies. If you had papers, you’d remake the ends. Great attacks of nicotine withdrawal all round as in those days loads of psychiatric staff also smoked. You’d find inventive ways of taking up the slack and in the seventies and eighties, shops closed at weekends, there was little public transport and less staff drove so we couldn’t necessarily get to the metropolis of Ipswich nor spare the staff. Plus it was a village. If  the pub closed, there was no sales of cigs. Everyone had spent their weekly allowance, no shops, no money. Everyone went cold turkey. So we’d invent quizzes, put music on for dancing, walks, take them gardening, anything to keep them settled and take their minds off the lack of nicotine! We’d have Christmas parties and lunch with turkey carved by the psychiatrists, ward and hospital dances where male and female patients could mix. Quite a lively social life accompanied everywhere by great clouds of cigarette smoke. We all chuffed away like Thomas the Tank Engine.

“The minibuses- elderly patients used it for trips to local villages. The staff would try to visit where patients were from to help them reminisce and get them talking to each other. We would take people to Felixstowe and book the Red Cross hut out for the day. The Red Cross would provide staff and meals and we’d take wheelchairs, carry them over the sand so the patients could paddle in the sea, buy ice creams and sit along the front, summer and winter eating them. Alcohol wasn’t banned and we had wards where patients could have a drink. Every meds trolley had alcohol. Beer wine whisky rum and brandy could be written up on the charts for night- better than many other medications as drinking a tot was socially normal and social too. Wards still have a bottle of something in the dispensary now. We wanted to offer as many ‘normal’ experiences as we could because with the best will in the world, you couldn’t totally overcome the limitations of your surroundings. I can see that group outings can be as stigmatising as any of the other practices but it was the only way we could manage to engender a social life for so many patients, with the staff and resources we had. And they had friends, people they wanted to socialise with, even intimate relationships and going to the seaside was, truly, something to look forward to- for all of us.

The problem was that the Victorian nightingale wards were open, and you only got a curtain if you were lucky and a locker. So little privacy. The locker was lockable although only the staff member would have a key though. Several long stay patients saved up to buy their own beds, bought their own side tables and decorated their side rooms. Or family would bring in an armchair. Not often but it would be taken on board. No issues about fire retardancy and smoking on wards in those days and we did have ward fires. Although more fires started after they banned smoking in public and inside areas because patients, staff and visitors now hide away when they have a cigarette and then toss it in a place where it smoulders and sets things alight. The amount of small fires always went up when a trust banned smoking!

“There was a token economy of sex going on. Some patients would find ways of having a ‘finger’ for a fag- yes I know this sounds a crude way of putting it but that’s the truth of it and what many of them referred to it as. Sexual feelings don’t stop because you have a mental illness and nor does the need for human closeness, intimacy, comfort and pleasure. Some of the women got their cigs this way. The staff would encourage discretion because sometimes masturbation became addictive behaviour or a form of acting out and obviously sometimes the sexual activity might not be consensual or it was exploitative or the patient was especially vulnerable. We encouraged the use of private space for private activities. I don’t recall patients getting pregnant. Only staff and not only by their husbands! There was a fair amount of relationship problems and break ups among staff because the job could be stressful, there was a lot of staff and…well…live hard, play hard. Upsetting events at work can throw people together. They cling together like puppies in a basket and see their colleagues as understanding in a way that their partner does not. It could be an illusion or it could be the real deal.We had second generation staff- those born to coupled up nurses or nurses/doctors who came back here to work when they grew up!

“Sexual relations were not encouraged but they did go on, however a lot of medication related sexual dysfunction also happened, stopped some of the sexual behaviours and this is still a problem today. Sadly one of the biggest barriers to people remaining on medication that is otherwise beneficial to them in terms of preventing relapse and keeping them well and happy is the fact that it destroys their sex life. I did and do believe that patients have a right to open and honest discussion about sexual side effects and we don’t talk about it enough. We need to be trained to discuss alternative ways of maintaining sexual intimacy in relationships and we need to prepare patients before they start the meds, NOT wait until their orgasm is retarded or simply doesn’t happen.( This is a common side effect of SSRI’s, for example) We need to be able to refer service users for sexual therapy if they require it.

“I do recall that one male patient was with another lady in the cricket pavilion and he rushed back in a distressed state. She had collapsed and he mistook a seizure for sexual ecstasy. That curtailed their sex life! It kind of put him off.

“We had staff cricket matches- our social club had team and home matches which were quite well supported and we played matches and games in the grounds which were extensive. Some patients would wander over, others would be taken to watch. The kitchens would celebrate patients special events and birthdays with beautiful home baked birthday cake and other celebrations. They’d make match teas too. Staff related to their patients over a period of time and tried to make value of their lives, tried to make it constructive with events that would stand out in their mind, create memories that were happy and good. There were horrible staff, but not hugely. The kitchen staff tended to get on very well with the patients because they got hugely positive feedback for the food they cooked- it was a highlight of the day, sadly, and so patients would feel very warmly towards the chefs and cooks. They’d try to get in the kitchens and snaffle food too (and staff would be bringing up the rear!).

“With regard to the upsetting side of the profession and life in St Audrys- I recall one elderly patient got to their mid sixties and had been depressed for decades. They’d been in for MECT (modified electro convulsive therapy- what we used to call ECT), lived life for thirty years with depression. Existed really. Decided in their sixth decade that this was it so took themself into the bathroom with a bread knife, was found but took three days to die- They just couldn’t recover. This patient got the knife from the kitchen as the elderly ward was not secure. Even when the kitchen was out of bounds, if you looked at what patients made themselves implement wise- my god that was a cabinet of horrors. We’d be as careful as we could, counting tools and implements in and out, checking everything was secure but sometimes things happened. That death had profound effects upon me and others. The sense that all we’d done was postponed this person’s death for decades and decades because they had been so depressed for so long. The staff were very shaken by that and the patients too. This can trigger spate suicide attempts among them so we promoted a time of high awareness and modified our awareness of risk factors. Grief is not always shown in way you expect by people whether they are deemed mentally well or ill. In fact Freud stated that the times when man (and woman) are unreachable to both therapy and reason is during times of bereavement or when they are falling in love. Freud spoke some sense here.

“We question ourselves also. What could we do better? What was the point of our jobs? Yes- we ask that too when we work so hard to try to keep somebody alive when they themselves do not thank you for it nor wish you to do it. In other branches of medicine patients and relatives say “Thank you for saving him, Doctor and Nurse” and “Thank you for saving me, Doctor or Nurse”. We cannot be assured of that response. Of course now we have all manner of risk assessments and critical incident evaluation and clinical and peer supervision to help us manage ourselves and others when things like this happen. Not then. We went home or to the pub or staff social club. Or we just buried it in our minds and carried on. We developed a dark humour, still have that dark humour and it is psyche saving, it really is but of course we needed to be careful who overheard because not everybody understands that it is not something that truly reflected how we felt about our patients. Our peers and indeed many of the patients themselves got it. I remember the patients with the most immensely acute and sharp sense of humour and sense of the ridiculous. They knew everything that was going on and nothing got past them.

later-graveyard1 (1)

“Patients lived for decades there and died there too. The hospital had its own morgue and graveyard and we buried patients in it if their families had no other plans for them. Or sometimes families chose our graveyard because after all, the hospital may have been their loved ones only or main home and of course their fellow patients grieved for them and had a grave to visit. Sadly now, the graveyard has not been maintained. I find this very insulting to the patients memories, in fact I get really angry whenever I think of it and I used to go and lay flowers there every time I visited the area. I planted loads of Spring bulbs too. I wonder what happened to them. The patients used to love the snowdrops and aconites.

“Staff had to deal with patients’ relatives dying too – breaking the news to them and of course there were marital break ups that we had to support patients through. Their parents start dying and when you’ve had schizophrenia since you were seventeen and you are now fifty, you are very likely to have no friends off the wards and those parents are the only relatives that visit you. Remember that stigma of mental illness was much much worse and families often did not mention their sick relative in the local psychiatric hospital. The patient with schizophrenia now is in NO way comparable to what they were like twenty, thirty, forty years ago. The modern meds arrest the break up of the personality that we used to see with the older drugs such as Chlorpromazine which wasn’t nicknamed ‘Liquid Cosh’ for the hell of it. On these old drugs they became ciphers, empty vessels. A very harrowing thing to see and difficult to work with as we all need that feedback from those we communicate with. Getting little response every day, little emotion showing. Very hard and very sad. And that is just our perspective- imagine what it must have been like for them. Our difficulties pale into comparison. When we saw a spark of the old personality struggle through the haze of drugs, well, it was painful to see. I still feel ashamed of the effects of those drugs- the extrapyramidal side effects as they are known such as the dystonias (abnormal muscle tone resulting in muscular spasm and abnormal posture), dyskinesias (impairment of muscle movement) and akathesias (compulsion to move, inability to be still). Once these had set in, they never went away, becoming entrenched and incredibly disabling. There are some even worse ones too and some, rarely, caused death through something called Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome (NMS). Ironically, I didn’t experience my first patient death to because of NMS until late in the 90’s when a patient had a totally unexpected and devastating reaction to a small stat dose of a antipsychotic medication, a decade and a half after we stopped using Chlorpromazine so freely.

“There were great minds trapped by psychotic conditions such as Schizophrenia. One person who was forty or close to it, had an ageless trapped face. His psyche was trapped. He used to move chess pieces around the board, take half of them off and it all looked random until you looked more closely and spoke to family. He was a chess champion, with a phenomenal brain, plotting seven or eight moves ahead. I worked in dementia too- these people have experiences they cannot always tell us but they are all great experiences. Remember their personhood. I used to ensure their rooms were plastered with photos, drawings, things that reminded us and them of their lives, their families and I brought in changes that were based upon some research I (and then some other staff) conducted into the effects of colour and other markers to improve mood and orientation. Remember that then, the research base for nursing was meagre and there was no real support in the UK such as grants and continuing professional development (CPD) in a formalised manner. We instigated those changes and they worked well. Twenty years after this Kitwood started his own exploration of dementia care and a lot of the principles he developed were ones that, all those years ago, I explored, although the trust then wasn’t that interested in supporting what we (and I) were doing.

“I recall this one patient, who’d been quite psychotic some 8-10 years. Had this belief that one day men would take a rocket ship into space, fly around, then land that same rocket back on earth. This patient was completely fixated on men flying into space- it absorbed so much of their thinking. Then in the year of the first space shuttle I was on the ward with them and the shuttle was making a final approach to land, all televised. I tried to engage them in discussion about this, tried to explain what was happening. They would NOT engage in the reality of it and then went back into their patter of ‘one day’ .”No mate, it HAS happened!” The actual reality of it was not the point for this patient. Their delusional framework was completely constructed around the future event and not it as reality and there was little success in challenging this. The patient wanted to retain that dream of a great and magical feat of science.

“There was often a lot of tenderness between patient and nurse- they would want to help us, offer to carry sports equipment and  would insist, fighting for the right to carry stuff back and we’d try to discourage this and guard against appearing to have ‘favourites.’. Anything they could do for you, they would want to try. Patients would know about your life. They would care. They knew the ages of our children, they would closely watch our faces and know instantly if we weren’t right, if we’d had a row with our partner before work. They would ask about it and we would have to manage boundaries without being seen to offend their genuine concern although I do think some staff get hung up about ‘boundaries’ and don’t have the skills to understand when, actually, it is appropriate to share, to let patients into your life a little more. When you work in a place for twenty or more years with patients who have been there for maybe double that time….well… There’s not much they don’t know about you, the hospital, the local area. You ended up all talking about the same thing- not because we didn’t see them as people who’d respond, but because we did interact with them. Patients would chip in and add to conversations and the ones appearing least engaged, would often surprise you. Patients would care about others too, taking you aside “keep an eye on….”They might not tell you why, but you knew it was to be taken very seriously. In fact ignore their observations at your peril.

Yes the old style hospitals have had their day and they were terribly institutionalising- patients often had communal clothing and the stories you hear of them sharing dentures in older times were true. That was untenable. BUT we have also lost a lot. No use talking about caring in a community that doesn’t actually care because it absorbs messages about the mentally unwell from the government and society as a whole- that they don’t matter, that they are not worth spending public funds on and should accept the dregs. That they should be housed in prisons and homeless hostels, in substandard housing or left to manage until they deteriorate to critical levels as opposed to being treated proactively so they maintain their lives in between any relapses in a way that is meaningful to them and to us all. People with mental health problems are so often valued according to the Marxist ideas of a person as economic currency which places untenable pressure upon them to manage within a work and social system that is not predicated upon the intrinsic value of people per se. It is the way we work economically that is broken, not the person with a mental health problem.

Our mental health system is broken and at least the old style hospitals gave the mentally unwell a bed, warm clean clothing, three meals and a sense of community. Now they are left to depend upon relatives with sharp elbows, trying to get the best care they can for their loved ones while government ministers pretend that cuts = better care.

“They must think we are all stupid”

To find out more about NSFTCrisis- the campaign for better mental health care in Norfolk and Suffolk visit them here. 

Telling it like it is- St Audry’s, the story of an asylum’.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten reasons to …..visit…. Felixstowe

tim marchant felixstowe
The town of Felixstowe curves along the beach

Often neglected in favour of its Suffolk cousins with better PR, Aldeburgh and Southwold, we think Felixstowe is a great place to spend time in, full of interesting family attractions and things to do. Good transport links with its location at the end of the A14, just past Ipswich makes it easy to get to and the safe, clean beaches, both in the town centre and at Old Felixstowe means that there is still fun to be had even if your budget is limited. Bring your bathing suit in the summer or wrap up warm for a colder weather bracing walk along the seafront with its broad buggy friendly promenade and warm your hands up with a tray of hot freshly fried fish and chips. Here’s our round up of the best things to do, some suggested by our followers on Twitter and others chosen by us. Do let us know if we have left your favourites out.

(1) Watching the Ships

By Rodney Harris from Geograph/ Creative Commons
By Rodney Harris from Geograph/ Creative Commons

The Port of Felixstowe Suffolk enjoys a unique position, perched on a peninsula between the rivers Orwell and Deben and is the United Kingdom’s busiest container port, dealing with over 40% of Britain’s containerised trade. The Port’s newer Trinity Terminal has 26 quayside cranes and spans over 2 km. along one of Europe’s longest continuous quays and is able to accommodate the latest generation of large container ships. The Port’s Landguard Terminal came into operation in July 1967 as the first deep-water facility for container ships serving the UK.

But enough of the stats- to a child (and many adults) this means really big ships, lots of clanking noises, wheeling seagulls and an amazing and dramatic floodlit night time light spectacle. The John Bradfield Viewing Area adjoining Landguard Terminal was provided by the Port in 1992 and has become one of the most popular places for local people and visitors alike along the Suffolk Coast. Whether you sit and eat in the View Point Cafe (inside the viewing area) which serves all day breakfasts, fresh fish and chips, cakes, ice creams, and a full selection of teas and coffees or outside, the fantastic close up views of one of the world’s busiest ports are a shipspotter’s heaven. From the John Bradfield Viewing Area you can enjoy mesmerising views across the estuary to the Shotley Peninsula and the towns of Harwich and Dovercourt (both in Essex). If the weather is really clear you can even see the off-shore wind turbines beyond The Naze in Walton. Back inside the viewing area, you will find interactive displays, lots of information, videos and exhibits. Decent bathrooms and babychange facilities are provided too.

FittedResize800600-Felixstowe-Web-Site-SCDC-54
The Ferry Cafe

That’s not all though! Languard Point forms one of Suffolk’s many unique habitats- the vegetated shingle habitat of the Landguard Nature Reserve, with its rare plants, migrating birds and military history. Go bird-watching, take a cycle ride or stroll along the beach and run along the  boardwalk which is also suitable for wheelchair users and buggies.This  offers easier access to the seashore and wildlife, as well as views of the ships at the nearby Port of Felixstowe. Overlooking the Nature Reserve is the Landguard Bird Observatory which rings and records migratory birds as they pass by on their way in and out of Britain. It also identifies and records moths. Many migrating birds are attracted to the area by the lights of the nearby Port of Felixstowe, so bring your binoculars and camera and check out the board outside the observatory for the latest sightings. Don’t forget to record any sightings of your own.

Afterwards, explore the rich military and maritime heritage of Landguard Fort, one of England’s best-preserved coastal defences, with a history spanning almost 450 years. At the neighbouring Felixstowe Museum, the fascinating artefacts and collections which bring alive the military and social history of this seaside town are displayed.

DOWNLOAD the Landguard Peninsula and Felixstowe andTrimley circular walk leaflets. Please note: these documents are in pdf format, and you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view or print.

Park-Logistics-Port-of-felixstowe
Dramatic night views of Felixstowe Port

The Fludyers Hotel provides a cosy bar or an outdoor terrace from which to observe the comings and goings too. They serve Adnams and we can think of no better way to spend an afternoon dreaming of travel on the high seas, far removed from the unromantic forms of modern travel- Ryanair cattle trucks and atmosphere deficient modern cruise liners.

 (2) From big ships to little boats

Want to go back in time to an Enid Byton-esque childhood of fishing boats, clanking moorings and puddles of rusting chains; the smell of fresh fish and cries of sea birds and sandy kneed children huddled around rock pools on deserted beaches? Or do you yearn for Arthur Ransome style meanderings in a small boat, puttering from jetty to jetty, commandered by men and women who make their livelihood from the grey North Sea waters? Felixstowe can provide all this and more and this is why we love it so.

large-889621-1005317-497517706995857-709903265-n
Winkles at the Ferry

To the north of the town is the tiny fishing village of Felixstowe Ferry with its few houses, fishing huts built out of salt scoured pitch black boards and ramshackle leaning holiday homes on stilts. The Ferry Inn, a church and the Ferry cafe,cluster together on the land which finally runs out at the jetty. Want to eat before you go to Bawdsey? Winkles at the Ferry is a gorgeously atmospheric eating place overlooking the River Deben offering an outdoor raised terrace directly over the waters as well as indoor seating too. Serving freshly cooked food all day, the ingredients are all sourced locally, then go for a stroll along the pebbled river banks. Have a walk along the sea front, lunch at the cafe or pub and marvel at the Martello Towers that line the sea front and guarded us against sea invasions. A tiny ferry boat will then take you to Bawdsey Island, the secret WWII facility and home to the inventor of the radar. Whilst you await the boat, while away the time crabbing off the jetty. All you need is a crabbing line (crabbing kits are sold in many of the local seafront stores), some pieces of bacon (as smelly as possible) and a bucket of salt water to keep the crabs in safely until it is time to return them to the sea. Walberswick is the place many visitors to Suffolk mention when talking about crabbing but Felixstowe is just as good- the crabs like bacon here too!

Felixstowe-Ferry-01_750
The foot and cycle ferry

The ferry operates between Easter and October, running on demand and according to the weather. Call 01394 282173 or 07709 411511 for more information.  Bawdsey Island Quay  has a good stretch of sandy beach for children to play on, and a lovely Boathouse Cafe to enjoy freshly caught local fish in and you can visit the place where the ground breaking work in radar technology took place. RAF Bawdsey, operational in 1937, was the first of a chain of radar stations to be built around the coast of Britain. During the Battle of Britain with 2,600 Luftwaffe planes to the RAF’s 640, it was the use of radar for detecting aircraft en route to the UK so they could be intercepted that saved the day.

croppedimage355260-P1020022
Felixstowe Ferry with Bawdsey Island across the water

It is also possible to pay a visit to Essex via the Harwich Harbour Foot Ferry– the only foot ferry linking Harwich, Felixstowe and Shotley. This jolly little yellow boat runs from the Ha’penny Pier in Harwich to the John Bradfield Viewing Area at Felixstowe . It also offers trips along the River Stour which forms part of the geographical border between Essex and Suffolk and the river Orwell (from which the author Eric Blair took his pen name – George Orwell) offering stunning scenes of pastures, river banks, estuaries and woodlands- the likes of which have inspired artists and authors for centuries. Booking is not essential, but is advisable during busy periods. Call 07919 911440.

harwich-ferry-2013
The Harwich – Felixstowe Foot Ferry

 (3) Rainy day fun at Felixstowe Leisure Centre

We are in Britain and we need to be realistic that even at the height of Summer, there are going to be days when the sun doesn’t shine, leaving us with a restless armload of kids requiring entertainment. And not of the Minecraft kind either. When we asked folks on Twitter for their suggestions about what’s best in Felixstowe, the leisure centre (and specifically the pool) was mentioned over and over. From bowling, soft play and all manner of classes and special events to the fantastic swimming, this is THE place for indoor and healthy fun that admission fees aside, won’t cause more money to haemorrhage from your wallet. Right on the seafront, it is easy to find and conveniently located for those post swim hunger pangs that tend to require immediate attention unless you’ve bought a packed lunch or can swiftly get them home before they notice the doughnuts, candy floss, burgers and chips sold across the promenade at the pier.

(4) The Pier at Felixstowe

pier
The pier

Completed in 1905, this was once one of the longest piers in the country with its own train running to the end but the vast majority of it was demolished after the second world war There are plans to re-develop it in 2015 yet part of its charm is that quintessential Englishness; slightly ramshackle, gaudy, all fur coat and no knickers. We have youthful memories of chasing boys, coyly hiding as we watched our chosen ones look our way then swagger off with their mates. Listening to ABBA, Baccara and Donna Summer fade in and out as the rides swirled round, staggering off them and trying to remain cool and upright- none of this has changed apart from the music which is now Robin Thicke, JayZ and Rihanna. But there are still billowing and giggling crowds of teenagers roaming back and forth, enjoying the slightly dangerous, reckless air of the fairground and often being far from home too.

The fast rides on the pier are gone now but the fast food and candy kiosks at the entrance are still lit up with illuminations that drawn you in and spit you out into a vivid world of primary coloured pinging brash arcade games, children’s rides and yet more food kiosks. Kids dart everywhere followed by parents trying to keep an eye on them, clutching bulging bags of neon bright candy floss. The relative calm of the fishing platforms and boardwalks at the end of the pier give fabulous views of the container ships and ferries en route to and from the port, calming the most raucous of kids. In Winter, the sunsets are beautiful offering us the best views of those famous, endless Suffolk skies.

(5) Hire out a beach hut

joe bridge
Beach huts- photo by Joe Bridge

We were fortunate enough to have friends who had permanent use of one of these huts but it is possible to hire one by the day. A number of privately owned beach huts plus two Council owned huts are available for hire throughout the season (from Easter until the end of September) at various different locations. A list of these huts and booking forms are available from the Felixstowe Tourist Information Centre on 01394 276770 or by emailing ftic@suffolkcoastal.gov.uk 

During the winter months one of the Council owned beach huts is available for daily hire whilst in its winter location on the promenade at a charge of £20.00 per day. This can be booked by calling 01394 276770 or emailingftic@suffolkcoastal.gov.uk

(6) The garden resort of East Anglia and walking the promenade

Walk south along the pram friendly wide, tarmac of the promenade, interspersed with benches for breastfeeding or other pit stops and notice how the maritime climate encourages the growth of palm trees and healthy, floriferous borders. These are beautifully maintained by the local councils horticultural teams alongside volunteers. The promenade is wide and flat enough for children to scoot along and get a little ahead of their parents whilst remaining within sight. The area between Manor End and Cobbold’s Point is Felixstowe’s main seafront and can be walked along a two mile long promenade. This will take you past a number of the towns most famous landmarks including Manning’s Amusements, originally opened in 1933 by Sir Billy Butlin, and run by the Manning family since 1946.north beach by chris leather

The Seafront Gardens sit on cliffs between the town centre and beach, rising up and following the curve of the road which takes you to the shops. These beautiful landscaped and sumptuously planted gardens were created a hundred years ago in the best Edwardian tradition and stretch for more than a mile alongside the promenade. Take time to wander through them and uncover the many historical features, structures and colourful and unusual planting that make this such a beautiful place to visit.

(7) Trimley Marshes Nature Reserve

Slightly out of town but well worth a visit, these wetland marshes have been created almost entirely from arable land situated within the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are wonderful views of the Orwell estuary from here and a vast array of bird species and other creatures to look out for. The car park is nearly a mile away from the first bird hide though so younger children probably won’t manage to walk all the way and a sling or baby carrier might be advisable. There are picnic facilities and disabled access is provided too.

(8) The Palace Cinema

croppedimage355260-P1120151

Newly restored and refurbished, this classic old school and independent cinema offers two air conditioned screens with luxurious seating with food served to you as you watch the film.Taking children here to get a taste of how cinema could be is top of our list.

(9) Pick your own fruit

Situated just off the A14 at Trimley St Martin (near the Trimley Marshes Nature Reserve), Goslings Farm Shop offers another classic British Summer and Autumn experience- picking your own fruit. Open daily, hungry children can eat in the on site Strawberry Cafe and then wander around the plant centre and nursery afterwards. In our experience, children absolutely love pick your own fruit, enjoy learning about how it is grown and on a sunny day, it is hard to beat for sheer fun.

(10) Eat out and shop

large-4847-download-4
Chilli & Chives Cafe

Recommended by a Mumsnetter, The Alex has an unrivalled location, sited right across from the seafront promenade. From the ground floor cafe bar serving breakfasts and drinks to the first floor brasserie (with lift access), serving seafood, grill and classic brasserie style food plus a set menu, people seeking good food in sophisticated yet relaxing surroundings will be made most welcome. Want somewhere that’ll occupy the kids while you relax with cake and a drink? Crafty Coffee is a bright, fresh arts and crafts cafe by the sea, offering space to unwind whilst the children get busy. Kids and adults can take part in ceramics painting, decoupage and knitting workshops whilst eating cakes too, all baked on the premises. Chilli & Chives is a little tearoom which also has branches in Lavenham and Hintlesham serving cakes, teas and light meals and overlooks the seafront gardens. Mooching west along Undercliff Road in search of more ice cream we came across The Little Ice Cream Company which serves fresh artisanal ice cream made from milk produced by the cows of Adams Farm. Soups, sandwiches and other light snacks are served too although to be honest, a steep walk up the cliff road should be rewarded by ice cream and nothing else in our opinion. Want a trad fish and chips eating experience? The Fish Dish restaurant is a huge place over two floors serving boat fresh fish, masses of mushy peas and platters full of properly thick seaside chips. Black leather banquettes, tiles, Spanish style white painted arches, waitress service and stripped wood staircases and floors make this place hard to define.

img_0396
Fish Dish Restaurant

Seasides mean seaside rock and The Sweet Hut sells plenty of this in case you hit the town and missed the myriad sweet and candy huts lining the area near the amusements. Also located in the heart of the town centre is the Felixstowe Triangle Canopy, a public space with a varied events programme throughout the year from acoustic music to living statues, table top sales and more. On Sundays you’ll find the very popular market held in the grounds of Mannings Amusements. From classic bric a brac and pound an item to lovely plants, food stalls and more, there’s a lot to look at and see. We’re huge fans of the classic design of the amusement building with its twin towers, fountain, arcade and kiosks all in a sea salt faded pink. Had this building been located in Miami, it’d have a national preservation order placed upon it by now.

croppedimage355260-Felixstowe-Web-Site-SCDC-119
A Felixstowe local keeps an eye out to sea