Walk on a world stage at Aldeburgh

By | Category: Travel destinations
scallop catcher beached at Aldeburgh

Aldeburgh scallop catcher

There are two sides to Aldeburgh.   It’s a delightful and relatively unspoilt small seaside town with great character and at the same time it has a significant place among the world’s great classical music venues.

One aspect led to the other in that Benjamin Britten, already a successful composer, moved to live in the area and was inspired to develop a music foundation to help young aspiring musicians and composers.  In 1948 he and Peter Pears, the singer, started the Aldeburgh Music Festival attracting international stars and emerging talent. At first the festival was spread around local churches and halls in Aldeburgh but in 1967 Britten and Pears converted an old malting at Snape five miles down coast. The main building was converted to an 800 seat auditorium and, in subsequent years, other buildings were acquired.

Alina Ibragimova

Alina Ibragimova © Sussie Ahlburg

Today the whole complex, known as Aldeburgh Music, has year-round performances with a festival in June and a programme of Proms throughout August with a number of tickets at £6.50 held back for issue on the day. The mainly classical programme includes some jazz, world music and poetry and, in the Britten tradition of encouraging young new talent, soloists include the violinist Alina Ibragimova who has been receiving excellent reviews.

Aspects of Aldeburgh’s history inspired some of Britten’s own work.  It had a long tradition of boat building.  Two of Francis Drake’s ships the Pelican and Greyhound were built there and the poet George Crabbe was born there in 1754. His long work, The Borough, is the main theme of Britten’s opera Peter Grimes which had a special performance on the beach in 2013 celebrating Britten’s Centenary.

Ten years earlier Britten was also celebrated on the beach with a four metre high scallop made in stainless steel by local artist Maggi Hambling.

maggi Hambling's Britten Scallop

the Britten Scallop by Maggi Hambling

There was controversy about the Scallop spoiling the beach which reached the national press but it’s now become part of the landscape.  Incidentally, down the coast at Snape, the three very large figures entitled the Family of Man by Barbara Hepworth are far less representational but not, it appears, controversial.

Another distinguished Aldeburgh resident came from a completely different world to Crabbe and Britten.  Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was a passionate stalwart of women’s rights who, after years of hard slog, became in 1865 the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon – later commemorated with hospitals in London and Ipswich. In 1910 she did it again and became Britain’s first woman mayor of… Aldeburgh !

the family by Barbara Hepworth

Hepworth’s The Family

Peace, quiet sea and sky are the main ingredients of Aldeburgh.  That is why it attracts writers, artists and photographers – if ever one could take time off to write a book this would be the place.   The high street is charming with friendly unmodernised pubs, three independent wine shops, several bookshops, a very popular fish and chip shop and a 1920’s cinema – where one can sip a cup of tea in one’s seat.  Local fish is sold from beach sheds.

A key aspect of most of the Suffolk coast is to be subsumed into “the lonely sea and the sky” and there are great walks around Aldeburgh.   Otto my companion on this trip loves any walk anywhere- as black Labradors do.  Last year the Sailors’ Path from the town to Snape Maltings was improved and an excellent Explorer map and guide has been produced.  The walk takes in good birding opportunities at Snape Warren Nature Reserve, the Alde river and Snape Marshes.  It’s six miles each way but there is a bus every hour (except on Sundays) and they do let dogs on the bus.

Snape Landings, Aldeburgh

Snape Landings

The Maltings have many Britten manifestations, several shops and some old fishing boats tied up and other outdoor sculpture in addition to Hepworth’s Family.  It’s worth a walk or grabbing the shuttle bus to the Red House where Britten lived and wrote later works including the War Requiem.  This year there are a couple of rooms based on his pacifist works entitled:  “Conscientious Objections”. 

Returning to Aldeburgh dogs are not allowed on the beach between May and September regardless of time or tide. However, dogs are welcome at the Brudenell Hotel for a small additional charge which includes a bag of treats in the room and they have access to the terrace (on a lead).  For many years performers and visitors to the Music Festivals have stayed at the Brudenell who naturally don’t discuss their guest list – but, from a separate source, I learnt that guests have included Julian Bream and Sir John Elliott Gardner.   The other three main Aldeburgh hotels: the Wentworth, White Lion and Thorpeness and their respective chefs work together during the other famous festival, that devoted to food and drink.

I am not sure if one could get too far in an ABC of Aldeburgh because the massive “B” for Britten is so influential in the world of music that it leads Visit Suffolk to sum in all up as: “The greatest classical music festival this side of Vienna.”

Some coming events in 2014

Snape Proms. 1st-31st of August; 30 events over 31 days celebrate music in all its diversity, from events that get you dancing to meditative solo sets.

Chefs in Aldeburgh seem to know each other and they plus others and 80 local producers are involved in the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival weekend;  27th to 28th September. This year, the organisers are extending the associated fringe events until 12th October.   Included are workshops and demonstrations in addition to tastings.

War Requim by Benjamin Britten

Britten’s War Requim- not in Aldeburgh but at the Royal Albert Hall in London

FlipSide Festival, 3-5th October. The focus is again on Brazilian culture. Literature, art, music, food and drink, children’s events, dance, cooking demonstrations, capoeira and football will all be celebrated.

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival: 7th-9th November. the Poetry Trust has over 50 talks and readings about national and international contemporary poetry.

Britten’s War Requiem.  Sunday 9th November Royal Albert Hall. Towards the end of this Great War Centenary year, it’s appropriate to have a Gala Performance of Britten’s war requiem and there is one on Remembrance Sunday 9th November at the Albert Hall with the mighty Bryn Terfel and Russian and German soloists. It was Britten’s wish that there should be soloists from each of the three main protagonists – so Bryn represents Great Britain.

For more about Aldeburgh, click here.

Story and images © Anthony Lydekker


If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
Tags: , ,