Bostridge, Britten and the beach are all favourites and we decided to combine all three with a first ever trip to the Aldeburgh Festival in June. Festival-going had never been a big part of our lives but Aldeburgh and the Hay Literature and Arts Festival were ones we’d always wanted to attend but somehow never got around to. We set off from London on a drizzly Monday morning for a planned two-night stay at Seckford Hall at Woodbridge in Suffolk before travelling on into Suffolk for our first concert on Wednesday. We stopped off in Colchester, found a blue badge parking spot on the High Street and set off for a coffee and a look around. We found a fine coffee shop, Loofer’s that must have a special Monday mummy and buggy offer – they were both everywhere and babies too. Getting to the loo was quite a mission. The organic coffee was excellent and we scanned our map of Colchester and left for a damp explore. The curving High Street is attractive and the Castle looked interesting but we decided against that as the rain was getting harder. Maybe sightseeing could happen on the way back. Finding refuge in Debenhams, like you do, I acquired some polo and tee shirts thanks in part to some vouchers that Dee had thoughtfully put in that pink bag.
We took those back to the car, ambled about a bit more and then stumbled across a splendid looking microbrewery pub so it had to be time for lunch. The Three Wise Monkeys didn’t disappoint. There was a wide range of beers and a good menu. Service was delivered in a most friendly manner by the young staff and we left refreshed and ready to move on towards Seckford Hall.
However as we made our way out of town a further diversion beckoned as we saw signs to the Beth Chatto garden. As keen gardeners this was not to be missed so off we went. A very worthwhile detour – even with umbrellas aloft the variety of planting in the different styles of garden was inspiring. We knew plants wouldn’t survive in the car for the next five days so there was lots of noting of labels and mental additions to lists of plant to be purchased elsewhere. Especially impressive is the gravel garden established on the old car park which has never been watered but in which euphorbias, poppies, thistles and favourites like agapanthus, agastache, rudbeckia and verbena flourish. Determined to get our planting sorted out this coming summer we finally left for the hotel. We vowed that another time we’d explore the evocative places that were just names as we passed through Constable Country – Dedham, Flatford, East Bergholt – they’d look better with some sun.
The driveway approaching Seckford Hall is impressive as is the Tudor manor house itself. It dates from around 1530 and alleges that Queen Elizabeth stayed there. Well we didn’t get the four-poster that she is supposed to have slept in but did have a very pleasant room in the old building – there is a new build/conversion courtyard near the spa which is where we headed next for a pre-prandial swim. We also booked a massage each for the next afternoon. A pleasant evening passed in the bar and restaurant and we decided that we’d go to Sutton Hoo next morning.
Tuesday dawned still grey but no longer raining so we breakfasted and went to the site of the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial some 4 miles away. The burial mounds – 18 of them – vary in size and impressiveness. They are thought to be the cemetery of Anglian royals named the Wuffingas which all sounds a bit Roald Dahl to me but was confirmed by the plaques in the excellent National Trust visitor centre as kings from about 600-750 AD. The replica helmet is truly stunning and the recreation of the burial interior extremely well done. We walked out to and around the burial grounds with a few stops along the way including a double take at this rather ominous sign.
We came back via Tranmer House from which a guest in the 1930s saw the ghostly vision that inspired the dig that found the ship burial. It has an apartment that you can rent through the National Trust which we thought might be fun one day. The house is full of stuff you can actually touch and included a typewriter that became the main background image for our new enterprise Verbalists.
The next great discovery was The Unruly Pig a great gastropub not far away. Lunch was so good we even booked for dinner later that night. After snacking our way through the cold cuts and cheese board we drove around the Suffolk Heath Area of Natural Beauty, well named, into Woodbridge to visit a couple of antique shops and then back for a 5pm massage. Having seen the Pig’s wine list we took a cab from the hotel and were not disappointed by dinner where food, wine, service and hospitality were all outstanding. A very good discovery – definitely not a pig in a poke.
Next morning as we checked out arrangements were being made for the start of what seemed to be a massive three-day Indian wedding, later confirmed by the reception staff. We decided to travel via the coast and visit Orford a place we’d heard of but never been to. More countryside of natural beauty surrounded us on the way and at Orford we made for the Quay and took a short stroll along the bank of the river Alde looking out across the estuary to Orford Ness, a long shingle bank with numerous birdwatching hides, the black clapboard radio beacon and the red and white striped lighthouse – proper coastline this. Back into Orford we ogled and couldn’t resist Pinney’s Smokehouse but having failed to bring the cool box and ice we reluctantly left the oysters and smoked mackerel in the shop. Lesson for the future – if you are going somewhere famous for fish take the cool box, the shop will provide the ice. Back in the centre of Orford it was time for a coffee admirably served by the Pump Street Bakery which had a tempting range of cakes and pastries on offer. Another antique shop beckoned but offered nothing we had to buy. On to Aldeburgh via Tunstall and Snape at whose famous Maltings Britten built the concert hall we were to visit that evening.
In Aldeburgh we were able to park opposite the White Lion Hotel right on the beach at the north end of the town. It’s a pleasant hotel, like so many others especially near a coast it seems to have evolved over time and have a baffling number of different levels with small flights of connecting stairs which no refurb will ever even out without flattening the whole edifice. Friendly staff, OK room – should have paid extra for a sea view – two restaurants and a bar it had all one could ask for. We checked in and took a stroll to the nearest pub for a light lunch and then walked down the delightful main street. Aldeburgh is a very pretty town with some fine old buildings and a few not so fine, but has a welcoming atmosphere. As townies up for the festival we felt neither regarded as weird nor ripped off as easy targets. We had a fun time. The one thing this pre-referendum trip did for us was instil a sense of impending doom. Driving through Essex and Suffolk on the way we saw only one Remain flag after passing by hundreds of Leave posters and banners. Clearly the London bubble sees things a bit differently from those out in the country and this despite the fact that half our farmers would be broke without EU subsidies. Ah well!
The Snape Maltings complex is a great place to explore and we arrived early enough for the concert to do so. The grounds have interesting sculptures and pathways beside the river. We’d booked a pre-concert dinner for the first night prior to being able to suss out other options. We sat at a window overlooking the river Alde as it winds through the marshes and felt totally at ease the with blue sky, green and yellow grasses in distinct layers and the odd splash of colour from walkers. It was like being in a painting.
I won’t go into detail about the concerts we attended over three nights but they were performed by musicians of the highest calibre, included two world premieres. some familiar and some unfamiliar pieces. The highlight was favourite tenor Ian Bostridge performing two of Britten’s song cycles and one of Tippett’s interspersed with a brilliant version of Britten’s first string quartet by the Arcadia Quartet. The concert hall and its environs are excellent and at the intervals there was an excited buzz of conversation between friends and in our case total strangers moved to discuss the music they’d just heard. Glasto for the Golden Agers you could call it I suppose. Three nights of concerts on the trot was just right and with lots of time to explore the area on the days in between we were very glad we’d finally made it to the Aldeburgh Festival.
During her enforced retirement Dee had become mildly addicted to late afternoon TV antique shows like Flog it!, Great Antiques Road Trip and the like. So we visited a couple of the places nearby which had been hunting grounds for participants to see if we could find those bargains that later at auction would pay for our trip. Heaven forfend that the production teams ever plant items, but we found very little of any interest in any of the places we visited and even fewer that we thought might make us a profit. But pootling around the Suffolk countryside was enjoyable – the strange purpose-built 1910 holiday resort at Thorpeness, traditional seaside with pier and beach huts at Southwold (and Adnams fine brewery) and towns inland like Leiston and Saxmundham.
The weather failed us at Southwold but one plaque on the pier made us laugh. Back in Aldeburgh itself one of our favourite things apart from huts with strange signs. was Maggie Hambling’s beautiful shell sculpture The Scallop on the north beach.
At the other end of the town is the famous Aldeburgh Fish and Chips shop where you can buy your meal – great scoff – and take it to eat with a pint of Adnams – excellently kept – in the White Hart next door. We were there during the Rio World Cup and took in a couple of depressing matches among other England fans fortified with Adnams’ ales and wines.
Apart from the music, cultural highlights were a visit to the Red House which keeps the Britten-Pears archive and preserves the house as it was when they lived there together until Britten’s death in 1976 which gave fascinating insights into how mundane some of the pursuits of geniuses can be. In the Cinema Gallery back in Aldeburgh Dee spent a good time in painterly conversation with established local artist Delia Tournay-Godfrey who was fascinating in telling us how she was almost a smash and grab painter, going out with her oils in her car and often sitting in the car to grab scenes as they presented themselves. These were sometimes worked up into larger paintings in the studio but often left as they were – spontaneous art capturing a moment. For Dee, having just embarked on her watercolour classes at Blackheath Conservatoire and showing a real talent for it, the insights were very valuable and she later made several works from life very quickly.
We left Aldeburgh after a good top up of culture after spending too much of the year in hospital clinics and with Dee too frail from treatment to walk far or go to theatre or concerts. For this and a later trip to Spain by managing our days sensibly and reining in my enthusiasm for fitting in just one more sight we managed to get by without exhaustion. This was a superb Suffolk break.