Coronavirus: Why are Southwold and Lowestoft faring so differently?

By Laurence Cawley
BBC News

Image caption,
Residents of Lowestoft said it was "eerie" to see the streets so empty

Lowestoft and Southwold sit just 14 miles apart on the eastern edge of England. As the coronavirus outbreak takes hold, one is bustling with people, the other has become a “ghost town”. Why?

A cursory scroll of social media feeds yields image after image of deserted high streets, shut shops and empty roads.

Enter Southwold, however, and you’ll struggle to find somewhere to park.

The market is on, the streets are alive with pedestrian footfall and people are strolling along the seafront taking in the view.

“At the weekend it was just amazing how many people were out and about,” says Keith Newland. “Everywhere was very busy and it was totally different to what you would expect it to be.

“There are shops here right on your doorstep and that means we don’t need the car as everything is available.”

But for occasional walks out to the shops or with their dog, Mr Newland and his wife Judy are effectively self-isolating and not going out to cafes or restaurants.

The couple own a second home in Southwold.

Image caption,
Keith and Judy Newland were surprised by how busy Southwold was

And they are far from alone here, where it seems every second person you meet is a second homeowner.

And it is this, some in the town claim, that is responsible for all the people on the streets.

Laura Cliff, who runs the Little Gems grocery store, says her trade this most recent weekend was three times what it would usually be.

Many second-home owners, it seems, have either decamped to Southwold or have stayed on there in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have a lot of second-home owners here who have decided to stay and people are really keen to buy fresh produce to stay healthy,” says Ms Cliff.

Image caption,
Laura Cliff said her grocery store has been busier than normal recently

So far she is managing to keep with demand for food supplies.

“We are sensible, it is a changing thing," she adds.

“The local community have all been in and said they will help out with deliveries. We’ve not had to call on people yet but we may well do because I know they mean it when they say it."

Ms Cliff is being helped in the store by her brother Benjamin, a freelance chef, who last week lost his job at a hotel on the outskirts of Norwich.

“My agency has told me that there is just nothing coming in, everything has been cancelled,” he says. “Our industry is going to take the biggest hit, I think.

“I now have to sign on. I’ve never had to do that before.”

Image caption,
Benjamin Cliff is helping in his sister's shop after losing his job as a chef

But while the level of second home ownership in Southwold has meant a busy period for local traders, not everybody sees that as a positive thing.

On the Friendly Bungay Facebook page, one person wrote: “Really, really cross Southwold alive with second homeowners from London flaunting about and stupid enough to think our beautiful fresh clean air will stop them getting the virus.”

That post was greeted with wide-scale agreement, with one person saying: “I have friends in Southwold, and once again they are flooded with holiday homeowners. No food, nowhere to park”.

Lowestoft stands in stark contrast to the hustle and bustle seen in Southwold.

Off-shore worker Peter Hogg is sitting alone in the East Prom Pavilion sipping a cup of tea.

The 63-year-old was supposed to move home from one part of Lowestoft to another. But earlier he learned the person handling the move had fallen ill and was now self-isolating.

“I was walking down London Road South earlier,” he says, referring to one of the town’s longest roads. “I looked one way and then the other and realised I was the only person walking along the entire road.

"It was eerie.”

Image caption,
Peter Hogg's house move fell through due to coronavirus

Dominic Clarke mans the counter at the fish-and-chip shop at The Galley in Lowestoft.

“Some people are keeping their distance,” he says. “And it is a quiet time of year here and it is always quiet during the week. But people are coming in still.

“The main changes we’ve had to make are taking the cutlery off the tables and we’re cleaning everything down three times a day.

"We’ve had no issues with supplies with anything except getting hand sanitiser - that’s the one thing we’ve struggled with.”

Image caption,
Dominic Clarke says he has struggled to get hand sanitiser for his fish and chip shop

Holly Davis, manager at the East Prom Pavilion, says: “It has been quieter, there’s no doubt about that, and I do know of premises that have decided to shut.

“It is never this quiet normally, and this is the time when we would usually be getting busier with Mother’s Day and Easter coming up.”

As for the second-home owners down in Southwold, Ms Davis says they would be very welcome to pay a visit to Lowestoft.

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