19th November 2017
Music and Molluscs in Aldeburgh, Suffolk
It was a glorious autumnal afternoon when I arrived in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. Not wishing to waste a moment of the sunny weather I set off to walk along its extensive pebble beach. It was not long before the aroma of fish and chips began to drift towards me. I noticed that the wall alongside the promenade, Crag Path, was lined with people eating fish and chips. It soon became too much as I had skipped lunch. I left the beach and followed a narrow alleyway up to the High Street where I followed a trail of bulging food bags to Aldeburgh Fish and Chips. It was doing a roaring trade and I joined the queue. I was just in time as they closed the door soon after I shuffled inside the shop. Fish and chips cradled in my hands I hurried back to the beach and sat on the wall to savour my repast. There were signs displayed forbidding the feeding of sea gulls. For once both parties obeyed.
Not long after I resumed my walk along the beach again I came across a small tower with a tiny viewing room on top. And a notice announcing that the tower was only open to visitors on Saturdays. This tower, the South Lookout Tower is used by artists during the week. There is a table outside the tower piled up with pebbles. Visitors are invited to draw a picture or leave a message on a pebble. Maybe later.
Fishing boats are parked at random on the pebbles. There is no harbour here and the boats are taken down to the sea on trailers with huge tractor wheels. A string of small huts along the promenade sell the fresh fish and seafood every day. Notices on the side of these huts compete with each other for adverts of freshness. I liked the proclamation that anything fresher than their fish was still swimming in the sea.
The beach ahead seemed to go on forever. It stretches at least as far as Thorpeness that I could see in the distance. I could also see the Scallop ahead of me. This huge metal sculpture by Maggi Hambling comprising two interlinked stainless steel scallop shells was intended as a dedication to Benjamin Britten. Her idea was that it should be placed on the wild, windswept beach that inspired the famous composer. It has been controversial since it was unveiled in 2003. Locals have signed petitions have been signed for its removal. In 2005 it was the winner of the Marsh Award for the best public sculpture in Britain. A few years later it was listed as one of the “six worst works of public art.” Today it is a magnet for children who enjoy climbing on it and pouring pebbles into its grooves to watch them trickle down onto the beach.
When I turned back I walked along Crag Path towards the centre of town. This path is lined with lovely old buildings, many of them listed buildings. Of particular interest is the beautiful Moot Hall which is home to the Aldeburgh Museum. The Moot Hall is one of the most important timber-framed public buildings in England. It was built in the first half of the sixteenth century when it had six small shops on the ground floor and a meeting room above them. This meeting room is still used by the Town Council today – surrounded by the attractive information boards relating the town’s history.
I left the sea front and walked along the High Street for a while. I soon came across another link with Britten and his partner Peter Pears. The Aldeburgh Cinema dates back to the early twentieth century and after being appointed to its board of directors in 1965 Britten and Pears rescued it from closure and were actively involved in its administration for the next ten years. Today, nearly one hundred years since it was built, the cinema is still showing films in its cosy auditorium.
The High Street is lined with independent enterprises which seems to be a theme in the county of Suffolk. I paused to admire the fresh produce outside the Aldeburgh market This shop is both a delicatessen and a small tea shop that overflowed onto the pavement. This is one of many quaint tea shops in the town and tempting though they are I was more interested in continuing my exploration.
When I reached the end of the High Street I discovered a rather odd building reminiscent of a Heath Robinson creation. I suspected it could have once been a windmill and I was right. The Old Mill House is still being renovated and will make a splendid private residence. I quickened my pace as the sun was about to go down and I had one final objective, the Martello Tower I could see ahead of me. The path to the tower runs between the sea shore and the River Alde. As I walked towards the tower I was passed by a stream of people walking back towards the town and soon I was on my own. The tower itself also appeared to be deserted. A notice on the gate leading onto the bridge that gives access to the building forbade any behaviour that may disturb the residents. I doubted any noise from outside could penetrate the thick walls and slit windows. The tower is now owned by the Landmark Trust and is available as a holiday let.
When I turned back towards the town a new stream of visitors was making its way along the path towards me. I had already noticed the sun beginning to set over the river and realised this was the attraction. I stopped and waited. It was wonderful. As the sun dipped below the horizon the whole landscape took on a golden glow. Then everything turned pink. It was a marvellous moment. As I stood there I was hailed by a lady in her car wishing to express her joy at such a lovely sunset. We chatted for a while. I had discovered that it was not unusual for local people to engage in friendly conversation and I loved it as it was a chance to learn more about the area.
As darkness fell I made my way back to my hotel, the Brudenell Hotel. Later I walked back along the front for dinner at the Sea Spice Restaurant, part of the White Lion Hotel on the sea front. Here, I met some more scallops. This time they were hand-dived and had been turned into a very tasty Indian starter. I enjoyed the ambience of the comfortably full dining room and the excellent food that had memories of my trips to India flooding back.
Then next morning I set off for the Red House to learn more about Aldeburgh’s most famous resident, Benjamin Britten. A network of footpaths around the town meant that I did not have to walk all the way on a tarmac road. En route I passed the Church of St Peter and St Paul, the Parish Church of Aldeburgh were both Britten and his partner Peter Pears were laid to rest.
At the Red House I perused the small museum before taking the guided tour of the house. This tour has to be booked in advance and takes in both floors of the house whereas there is restricted access to visitors not doing the tour. The tour was very interesting and I learnt a lot about Britten and Pears who were very popular in the town. Originally they had lived at Crag House on the sea front. They moved out to the Red House as it was more peaceful there.
The historic Jubilee Hall in the town centre was built by a local businessman in 1887 to celebrate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria. It was intended for concerts and dramatic entertainments. It was used by Britten and Pears as the original venue for their Festival of Music and the Arts. As this annual festival became bigger a new venue had to be found. A concert hall was established at Snape Maltings which is now the main venue for the Aldeburgh Festival although many Festival events are still held at the Jubilee Hall. When I left Aldeburgh my route took me past the turning to where Britten and Pears had founded their new concert hall. I spent a happy hour exploring this, another of Britten’s inspirations.
Where to Stay in Aldeburgh
I cannot imagine a better place to stay in Aldeburgh than the Brudenell Hotel. My room was lovely and looked straight out to sea. It was very relaxing have the sound of the sea around me as I relaxed in my bath or dozed in my bed. The restaurant offers a good quality dinner and breakfast served by friendly staff.
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