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Aldeburgh: voices that will not be drowned

When we were choosing music for our wedding in 2016, I was adamant that I wanted the first of Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from his opera Peter Grimes, entitled On the Beach (Dawn).    Fast forward a year or so, and we are sipping cocktails on the terrace of the Brudenell Hotel, gazing out over that very beach and the North Sea, on my first visit to Aldeburgh.

My partner is descended from fisher folk through three of her four grandparents, and her great-great-great-grandmother, Sarah, was born in Aldeburgh in 1821.  Sarah’s father, Robert, was a merchant seaman and later a fisherman.  Her mother, Thamar, was the daughter of a fisherman.  The family home was in Back Street, which is now known as King Street, and runs one block back from the beach, behind the Brudenell Hotel where we sit with our cocktails.  The shacks selling fresh fish are still on the beach, but otherwise Sarah would find Aldeburgh unrecognisable from her home town of two centuries ago.

Historically, Aldeburgh (from the Old English ald burh, meaning old fortification) was the insignificant little northern sister to Slaughden.  Slaughden was a thriving fishing and boatbuilding village at the mouth of the River Alde, and Sir Francis Drake’s ship Golden Hind was built there.  At its peak in the 17th century, seafaring industries employed 600 people, and even in the late 19th century there were still 100 fishing boats and 20 coasters based at Slaughden.  The village specialised in building smacks for the cod fishery in the treacherous waters off Iceland.  To ensure freshness, the fish were kept alive in the holds of the boats by a system of seawater flushing through the bilges, and they were finally killed when they were landed by being bashed on the head – a practice which gained the fisherman the nickname ‘codbangers’.

But the sea, which was the source of Slaughden’s prosperity, was also its downfall.  Just up the coast, the mighty Saxon capital and medieval cathedral city of Dunwich, which in its heyday in the 13th century had a population of several thousand, was all but destroyed by storms, and coastal erosion has taken most of what the storms left.  Eerily, the remains of this English Atlantis now lie beneath the North Sea.  Slaughden’s demise was less dramatic – the shingle spit which formed along the coast moved the mouth of the Alde ever further away, and it now emerges into the sea at Orford Ness, some 10 miles south-west towards Harwich.  The river silted up, and the fishing boats shifted onto the beach at neighbouring Aldeburgh.  In 1909 Alfred Dutt described Slaughden as a “small, sea-threatened cluster of cottages bordering a primitive quay”, and its days were numbered.  The last boat builders at Slaughden lost their businesses in the catastrophic storm surge of 1953, but even before then, one by one the houses of Slaughden were being washed away by the sea.    

As Slaughden declined, however, Aldeburgh grew, having gained borough status in 1529.  The Moot House which is now home to the Town Council and the rather wonderful Aldeburgh Museum is a Grade 1 listed timber-framed building with Tudor origins, and was the setting for the trial of the so-called Witches of Aldeburgh.  Caught up in the frenzy of witchcraft allegations in the early part of the 17th century, the burgesses of Aldeburgh invited the self-proclaimed ‘Witch Finder General’ Matthew Hopkins (himself a Suffolk man) to the town to ply his trade.  As a result, seven women were executed by hanging in February 1646.

As well as fishing, the town benefitted from the rise in seaside tourism in the 19th century, and most of the quirky, often pastel coloured houses along the seafront date from that era.  Unlike some coastal resorts, Aldeburgh was always quite exclusive, a trend which has continued to this day.  Currently about one third of houses are second homes (the A12 makes the town is easy to get to from London), and a walk around the streets will show dozens of houses sporting the plaques of various self-catering holiday cottage companies.  You won’t find ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats in Aldeburgh, but you will find upmarket ‘coastal’ clothing shops, art galleries and award-winning fish and chips emporia.

Slaughden’s shipyards and fishing quay may have gone, but other landmarks of the area’s maritime history remain.  The only building left standing in Slaughden, the Martello tower on the shingle spit just south of Aldeburgh itself, is the northernmost such tower in the UK, and uniquely has a quatrefoil or four leaf clover plan.  One of 103 impregnable towers built along the coast of southern England between 1808 and 1812, they formed part of the defence against possible invasion by Napoleon.  More peacefully, the tower at Aldeburgh is now run by the Landmark Trust as holiday apartments.

The South Lookout on Aldeburgh beach has also been repurposed – built around 1830 as a coastal lookout, it was used in the 20th century by author Laurens van der Post as a writing studio, and more recently it was bought in 2010, together with the house opposite, by London art dealer Caroline Wiseman.  The humble shack with its spiral staircase rising to the lookout tower above has been transformed into an international art destination, with visiting artists working and exhibiting there.

Aldeburgh punches above its weight culturally.  The poet George Crabbe is commemorated in a street name, and the town features (sometimes lightly disguised) in works by Wilkie Collins (No Name) and M.R. James (A Warning to the Curious).  Orlando the Marmalade Cat was set here, and its author, Kathleen Hale, at one time lived on a houseboat on the River Alde (the remains of which can still be seen).  The town is proud of Elizabeth Garret Anderson (1836-1917), not only because she was the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain, as well as a number of other firsts, but because in 1908 she became Mayor of Aldeburgh – the first female mayor in Britain.

But undoubtedly the cultural heavyweight most associated with Aldeburgh is the composer Benjamin Britten.  Born just up the coast at Lowestoft in 1913, Britten bought the Old Mill at nearby Snape in 1937 – the same year he met his partner, the tenor Peter Pears.  It was reading George Crabbe’s evocation of Adleburgh in The Borough which brought a homesick Britten back from America in 1942, to write the opera Peter Grimes based on Crabbe’s words.  Telling the tragic story of the eponymous Aldeburgh fisherman, the opera received its premier at Sadler’s Wells Opera House in London in June 1945 with Pears in the title role – and made Britten’s name. 

On moving to Crag House (between Crabbe Street and the foreshore) in 1947, Britten worked with writer Eric Crozier to co-found the Aldeburgh Festival which took place at the nearby Jubilee Hall and other venues in the town. It soon outgrew these premises, and when the brewery at Snape Maltings closed in the 1960s, Britten had the vision of turning the industrial buildings into a concert hall and music venue.  Snape Maltings continues as a centre for music and the arts, and the home of the internationally famous Aldeburgh Festival which takes place each June (although sadly not in 2020 for obvious reasons).

In 1957, as their fame and that of the Festival increased, Britten and Pears moved to the more secluded Red House on the edge of Aldeburgh, where they lived until their deaths in 1976 and 1986 respectively.  It is now open to the public and is looked after by Britten Pears Arts, which also runs Snape Maltings.  Throughout those years, it was Britten’s habit to walk on Aldeburgh beach in the afternoons.

And it is on the beach – the pebbles chiming like a great gamelan as the sea plays over them – that we can be nearest to the particular magic of Britten’s music.  It is no coincidence that hearing Frank Bridge’s symphonic tone poem The Sea was a seminal moment in the teenage Britten’s development as a composer.  The renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin said “if wind and water could write music, it would sound like Ben’s” and if you are lucky enough to be on Aldeburgh beach out of season, and have the place more or less to yourself, it can seem as if Sea Interlude I: On the Beach (Dawn) is playing all around you.  For all Aldeburgh’s quaint appeal to holiday makers, there is nothing sentimental in Britten’s portrayal of the sea – in his music you can hear his appreciation of living on this brutally beautiful coast year round, in winter as well as in summer.

Walk a little way north along the beach and you come to the Scallop, the controversial (and to my mind utterly brilliant) memorial to Benjamin Britten.  Designed by Suffolk-based artist Maggi Hambling and made by Aldeburgh craftsmen Sam and Dennis Pegg, it was installed in 2003.  Giant interlocking steel scallop shells create a sculpture which is both visually arresting – it dominates beach, sea and sky as you approach it – and tactile, positively encouraging you to sit on it to gaze out to sea.  I have seen toddlers use it as a climbing frame, and the mother of a small child spread a towel under it to breastfeed in its shade on a sunny day.  At sunset it glows, and the words from Peter Grimes cut into its edge (“I hear those voices that will not be drowned”) are stencilled starkly against the sky.  For me, a visit to Aldeburgh is unthinkable without going to pay my respects to the Scallop.

This part of eastern England feels very old – this is where the people who would become the English first settled, and the great Saxon ship burials at Snape and Sutton Hoo, only a few miles away, bear testimony to their legacy.  But it is also being continually remade.  The fortunes of the fishing industry have ebbed and flowed along this dynamic coast, in the wake of economic, political and climate change.  Look north from the Scallop, and you see the 20th century fantasy village of Thorpeness, and beyond it the looming grey mass and white dome of Sizewell A and B nuclear power stations – Sizewell C may or may not be the built as the 21st century iteration, depending on whether environmental campaigns win the day.  Connecting them all is the sea – the sea that is always the same, and yet always changing, no two waves the same, drowning villages and building shingle banks, giving livelihoods and taking lives.  If you can, I’d love you to visit Aldeburgh and experience this unique, liminal place for yourself – but if you can’t, then find a recording of the Sea Interludes, close your eyes, and imagine yourself on the shingle beach, facing the wide grey North Sea, tasting the salty wind.

[Published in The Pilgrim, Issue 5, June 2020]