As a child, a trip to the seaside meant a visit to the sandy beaches of Scarborough and Bridlington.
The Suffolk coast was a new experience and the shingle beach of the beautiful seaside town of Aldeburgh proved something of a revelation.
We stayed at the four star Brudenell Hotel that occupies a fantastic location with only a small service road between its front entrance and the shoreline.
Although it was late afternoon when we checked in, there was still time to enjoy the last of the autumn sunshine, and take in the stunning views from our room’s small balcony, before changing for dinner.
The Brudenell is part of the TA Hotel Collection, a group of award winning luxury hotels and leisure facilities across Suffolk. As you would expect, the two AA rosette Seafood & Grill restaurant has an excellent menu choice with the very best ingredients provided by local suppliers and fishermen. By way of a bonus, every table has a panoramic sea view.
The service was superb and the food we ordered exceeded our expectations.
Waking up early next morning, we could hear a strange whistling sound created by the wind whipping around the hotel and the rhythmic crash of the waves on to the shingle beach. It was a reminder that these orchestral sounds of nature had provided musical inspiration to one of Aldeburgh’s most famous former residents, the composer, Sir Benjamin Britten.
Although he was born and raised in Lowestoft, it was at Aldeburgh that he composed some of the best known classical music of the 20th century.
Like many visitors to the town, we planned to ‘follow in Britten’s footsteps’ and to seek out the places where he lived, was closely associated with and where his legacy lives on today.
Britten always said that he felt rooted in the community where he worked. Much of his musical output was written with them in mind. It is fitting, therefore, that a ‘Britten Trail’, around Aldeburgh and the surrounding area, was created by members of the community to give visitors an opportunity to experience the sights and sounds that that were so special to Britten himself.
The Brudenell Hotel is an ideal starting point as many of the key attractions are within easy walking distance.
Fortified by a hearty Suffolk breakfast, we decided against the six mile each way Sailors path between Aldeburgh and Snape, much loved by the composer himself. Instead we opted for the more leisurely mix of walking and driving.
First stop on our walk was Aldeburgh Baptist Chapel. This was used, during the early Aldeburgh Festivals, as a venue for talks given by many distinguished speakers.
Close by is the Peter Pears Gallery. Renamed in honour of Britten’s long term partner after his death in 1986, it has been the main gallery for Aldeburgh Festival exhibitions.
A short walk further along the seafront is Aldeburgh Jubilee Hall. Remodelled in the late 1950’s, the venue hosted first performances of two of Britten’s most popular stage productions and some important chamber works. It is still an important Festival venue today.
Crag House, our next port of call, was bought by Britten in 1947. Being right against the beach, it overlooked the sea that was such an important influence on his musical output. It was here that the idea of ‘a modest festival with a few concerts given by friends’ was first hatched and the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts was born.
The Moot Hall has been at the centre of civic life in Aldeburgh for more than four centuries. It is still the home of the Town Council and houses the Aldeburgh Museum. It was in this building that Britten received the freedom of the Borough of Aldeburgh in 1962. The Moot Hall is generally regarded as one of the best preserved Tudor public buildings in Britain.
Opposite the Moot House, Victoria Road leads to Aldeburgh Parish Church. It was the venue for the first concert at the first Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. The Lawn Cemetery, next to the churchyard, became Britten’s final resting place after his death in 1976. Peter Pears, who survived him by 10 years is buried next to him. Both their simple headstones were carved by friend and artist Reynolds Stone. Behind them is the grave of Imogen Holst, Britten’s music assistant, composer and daughter of Gustav Holst.
Before collecting our car from the hotel, we visited the Aldeburgh Music Room in the grounds of the local primary school. It has its origins in a donation made by Britten in the early 1970’s to help build a dedicated centre of music and the arts for the use of the school and the local community. It took a further 30 years for Britten’s dream to be realised and the building was officially opened in 2003.
On the beach just north of Aldeburgh and a short journey by car from the Brudenell Hotel stands the Scallop. This 4m high steel structure, shaped in the form of a scallop shell, was conceived by Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling and constructed by Aldeburgh craftsmen Sam and Dennis Pegg. Pierced through the steel is the phrase, from Montagu Slater’s libretto for Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’.
During 1957, Britten found that the easy accessibility of Crag House had made him the object of cultural tourism. Such was his fame, members of the public were constantly trying to catch a glimpse of him both at work and play. The solution was to exchange houses with his friend, the artist Mary Potter. She was living in the more secluded setting of The Red House and was looking to downsize. Britten and Pears made the move in the November of that year.
With more space at his disposal, Britten was able to spread his wings to separate his work from his living space. Architect HT Cadbury-Brown suggested converting a former hayloft next to the house into a purpose built studio. Here, Britten was able ‘to bang away to my heart’s content’, for the last two decades of his life.
Today, The Red House is the home of the Britten-Pears Foundation.
We were given a private tour of Britten’s Studio, the Gallery and Library and the house itself. A lot of time and effort has been taken to carefully recreate the interior of the house to reflect how it would have looked in the 1960’s. This has been so successful that we felt that Britten and Pears might walk back in to join us at any moment.
There was still time to explore the large garden and to view the purpose-built Archive created to house Britten’s comprehensive collection of work. It was opened in 2013 to celebrate the anniversary of his birth.
Another legacy of Britten’s work and vision is to be found in nearby Snape.
Britten had moved into the Old Mill at Snape in 1937. He wrote the opera Peter Grimes in the house and its success in 1945 sealed his international reputation.
During the 1960’s the Aldeburgh Festival was growing and more concert space was required. In 1965 it was announced that the Snape Maltings complex was to close. Britten, who knew the building well, had the vision to realise its potential as a concert venue. The skill of the design team and structural engineer produced an 830 seat auditorium. The exposed original brickwork and the pitched wooden provided excellent acoustics.
The new concert hall was opened by the Queen on 2 June 1967. A fire that started on the first night of the 1969 Festival destroyed much of the building. It was quickly rebuilt and was re-opened by the Queen in time for the 1970 Festival opening.
Today, the area provides a creative campus that includes not only the concert hall but also the Hoffmann Building and the Jerwood Kiln Studio. The additional spaces have enabled Aldeburgh Music to expand its artist development initiatives including Aldeburgh Education, Aldeburgh Residences and the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programmes.
During a private tour we were able to visit the whole of the magnificent complex and to hear how the facilities continue to provide a year round programme of activity for the local community and well as musicians and visitors from all over the world.
Group Cultural & Heritage Tours of Aldeburgh, the Suffolk coast and the Benjamin Britten Trail are available through Ambient Tours from Spring 2015.