'They have ruined so much of Felixstowe' - illustrator Helen Oxenbury
PUBLISHED: 17:21 28 October 2018 | UPDATED: 18:04 28 October 2018
Children's book artist also tells of night of deadly 1953 east coast floods
Helen Oxenbury treasures the memories of her Felixstowe childhood, but remains dismayed about some of the changes that have happened since.
In the 1950s, the wooden Pier Pavilion was a delight – and very close to the family home on South Hill.
It hosted dances on Saturday nights. Sometimes she’d go. If not, “I used to lie in bed and listen to the music from the big-bands. I used to wait until I’d heard the national anthem, and then I’d hear people come out to the car park and the slamming of car doors, and that would be it for another Saturday.”
I remind Helen of a letter she wrote to us in 2006 – devastated at the way Felixstowe had (in her eyes) lost the atmosphere of a quiet Edwardian resort and surrendered many distinctive buildings.
The railway station building had essentially gone, and she was horrified permission was given to demolish an art deco house on Cliff Road.
“The concrete block that replaced the pier and the monstrosity in place of the Pier Pavilion [the leisure centre and pool] were the start of the slide downhill. The area is now ugly and tacky,” she wrote.
The expansion of the docks and the growth of homogeneous housing estates had eroded the town’s character. It was all akin to killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
Today, her sense of dismay remains, though with a slightly resigned air.
“I worry about it – well, I’ve stopped worrying, because it’s pointless, really – but they have ruined so much of Felixstowe.” Now, when in Suffolk, Helen rarely visits the main part of the town, because she doesn’t like to see what’s been done. “It’s called progress or something…”
I mention recent improvements such as the restored-to-glory seafront gardens by the (reopened) Spa Pavilion, and Martello Park at the southern end: grass, children’s playground, wildlife areas, nearby homes and more. It does cheer her up a bit – and her son has mentioned how good the revitalised gardens are.
The cruel sea
Talking to Helen Oxenbury about recent changes at Felixstowe’s West End reminds her of an awful night in 1953.
“There was a hotel up there. I can’t remember what it was called, but I was at a dance and my father came to collect me. On the way back we noticed the waves were putting water on the roads. We got home, but it was the night of the terrible floods.”
Forty-one people died in the town during the east coast floods – many caught unawares as such defences as there were were breached.
“The next day – as you do as a kid, go looking – there were these awful dead pigs all over the place. We were up on South Hill, so we were OK, but all the shops below us were flooded.”
Today, the family’s boathouse at Felixstowe Ferry bears a mark showing how high the waters reached 65 years ago. The building, already on stilts, was raised after the floods.