I once read a visionary novel set in a future England which, having been taken over by the Chinese, had become a gigantic, themed holiday resort. All those cultural quirks deemed (by the Chinese) to be quintessentially English were nurtured so that visitors would get an ‘authentic’ experience. There was even a dispensation which allowed the proscribed English language to be used - in limited situations. I am reminded of this story when I travel around the country and see the road-signs for heritage trails, historic towns, country parks, National Trust sites, English Heritage sites, wildlife parks, industrial museums, steam railways, gardens, nature trails, forest walks and plain, old-fashioned commercial theme parks.
Last weekend I pitched up at a premier English-themed experience – the coastal town of Southwold in Suffolk. It once was a significant port but the build-up of a shingle bar across the harbour entrance put paid to that. For years it slumbered as a small fishing community until it was discovered by well-to-do Londoners sometime after they acquired motor-cars and a penchant for weekend retreats. Nowadays the wily fisher-folk of Southwold (and the surrounding villages) make their living by catering for the nostalgic fantasies of city-folk. They have distilled the essence of seaside resort and bottled it for consumption by customers whose expectations they understand all too well.
The transformation of the town is not a unique phenomenon but the business model is interesting in that the main perpetrator is the local brewer, Adnams, whose beer is excellent and whose grasp of concept branding is masterly. Many towns in England used to have breweries located in their centres but most have sold the land for profit and moved to industrial parks. Among those who remain is Adnams, which owns all the pubs in town and has a very strong grip on the Southwold ‘look’ – all stripped-down interiors in stone-washed pastel colours. Its pubs have been meticulously de-localised and their gastronomic offerings graded from simple and cheap to over-complicated and London-priced.
Impressive as it is, there are one or two flaws in the business model: while Adnams’ employees are all trained to be nice to the tourists, the same cannot be said for some of the other locals. One of them, complaining that I had parked on the road in front of his house, argued that as a local ratepayer he had preference over visitors – by which logic he would have trouble parking outside his own borough (should he ever care to leave his personal Utopia). Another resident advised me not to buy newspapers in the new Tesco shop for fear of destroying the trade of local independents – most of which closed promptly at five o’clock on Saturday and remained closed until Monday morning having learned little from the brewery’s commercial success.
But perhaps curmudgeonly behaviour towards tourists is all part of the charm of the English theme? If so, let’s hope that the Chinese, when they do take over, will appreciate such irony. At the end of 2010, a survey concluded that China had spent £30 billion on creating 2,500 theme parks of its own. Compared with that sort of investment I expect they will be able to acquire Adnamsville for a snip. It’s a tidy asset which comes complete with unique branding, traditional ale, a cast of colourful local ‘characters’ and a loyal customer base. In short, it’s a nice little earner just the way it is.