Aldeburgh

Posted on August 18, 2012 by

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Fancy a trip to Aldeburgh?

Aldeburgh!? Are you MAD!!!? MILES away!

Two hours.

In THIS heat?

We have aircon.

On a SATURDAY!  Nowhere to park.

We can eat fish and chips on the sea wall. Fresh fish. Caught every day by locals (he knows my hooks). Never mind. Only a thought.

Oh. Go on then. But I warn you. It’ll be a disaster.

It wasn’t. It was a lovely day. Plus there was free – favourite word – parking all day.

Aldeburgh was, of course, put on the world map by the composer Benjamin Britten and his partner the opera singer Peter Pears. They founded the Aldeburgh Festival now held in nearby Snape Maltings.

Buzzing with tourists, the town is pleasantly non-touristy. Although there are a few pretentious I Saw You Coming shops there is no BUY. BUY. BUY. Indeed some shops are reluctant to part with their wares. Himself had a thirty minute wait to buy a birthday card for his sister-in-law. The shop assistant was on the phone. As per my modus operandi (barely controlled irritation) I yell to him from across the room THERE ARE OTHER CARD SHOPS YOU KNOW!!!!.

Aldeburgh Chish and Fips are so renowned people queue for generations. Not a pleasant experience with the sun beating down and temperatures in the 30s but they live up to their reputation.

As we psyched ourselves up for a stroll along the Prom we see a notice warning us we would be fined £500 if we feed the gulls and a small mortgage if we drop litter. As all the litter bins are overflowing with chips one does wonder if locals can sue the authorities.

Many visitors walk from the Martello Tower, one end of the prom, to Thorpeness at the other but it’s a fair old walk. Next to the Tower is Aldeburgh Yacht Club host of Aldeburgh Regatta, a sailing club and lovely views of the river Alde after which Aldeburgh is of course named. The ‘burgh’ means it was part of King Alfred the Great’s military defence system against the Vikings. If a town agreed to be garrisoned it was rewarded with special privileges. You scratch my back or, as posh people say, quid pro quo. If the burgh faced attack the King sent reinforcements and vice versa. Over the years, in some fortified towns, the ‘burgh’ became Borough, in others, Bury.

The Martello Tower is thirty foot high with thirteen foot thick walls. Britain stole the design from France. It should be The Mortella Tower after the one in Corsica but we mis-spelled the name. 103 of them once lined the coast as a defence against Napoleon. The roof-mounted cannons were able to shoot lead balls a mile out to sea.

This one, built in the shape of a quatrefoil to support four heavy guns, used nearly a million bricks in its construction. The Landmark Trust bought the Tower in 1971, restored it and lets it out as holiday accommodation.

Aldeburgh beach is lovely. Amber and bloodstones brought in by melting glaciers from Scandinavia, have been found. Old fishing boats dotted here and there are relics of a time when Aldeburgh had a huge fishing fleet. It still has a small one. Every day, fishermen bring in their catch and sell it from wooden huts along the beach.

Watching the RNLI dinghy and the Freddie Cooper Lifeboat brought ashore was a real treat as was, surprisingly, Maggi Hambling’s Scallop sculpture further along the beach. Surprisingly, because it was, and still is to some extent, surrounded by controversy. We thought it would be a monstrosity. It’s not.

Attacked two months after its unveiling in 2003, the sculpture was vandalised twice in the first three months after installation. Since then it has been damaged seven more times. Many of us who did not know this stretch of beach before it was put up, like it, whereas many of those who grew up in Aldeburgh say it’s an eyesore that should be moved to Snape. That would prove a bit problematic. There are five tonnes of shingle between the sculpting and its steel foundation.

Because it was commissioned to honour Benjamin Britten, the four ton pair of twelve foot steel interlocking shells were put on his favourite stretch of beach. Critics say it was Britten’s favourite walk because it was unspoilt, a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, untouched by human hand. One critic used the word ‘violated’.  You can see his point. We, who knew nothing of it’s history, were mystified as to why it was put on one of the few bits of virginal beach instead of nearer the town. The consensus seems to be that it is a beautiful work of art, but in the wrong place.

When the columnist Craig Brown wrote about The Scallop in The Daily Telegraph he said Hambling’s maquette ‘…looked like a …Conran soap dish…’. He also said scallops are not found in Aldeburgh and that Hambling chose an inappropriate quote to be inscribed on the shell. Taken from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’ is about Grimes being driven mad by his guilty conscience at having allowed boy apprentices to die at sea. Brown said; ‘… Britten loved that stretch of shore precisely because it was wild and barren. The erection of the scallop makes it less wild and less barren, damaging what it claims to celebrate’.

The most mysterious aspect of the whole débacle is this. It surely cannot be that the people of Aldeburgh were not consulted every step along the way? When the idea was first mooted (surely in its very fine Moot Hall) and especially the siting. It is imperative that people who live there should choose where it goes.

Leaving the Scallop to its Fate we spot a house on a stick on the distant horizon. Not able to gauge how far distant, we drive there. Known as The House in the Clouds, the folly is in Thorpeness, a model seaside village built in the 1900s to which the owner invited friends’ and colleagues during the summer. It reminded us of Portmeirion in North Wales by Clough Williams-Ellis built in the style of an Italian village. The House in the Clouds is in fact, or was, a water tower. To hide the eyesore it was covered in wood to make it look like a house on top of a five storey tower. It’s now rented out as holiday accommodation.

The artificial boating lake in Thorpeness took its inspiration from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Besides the large main pond are landings with names on the Peter Pan theme. Tiny islands have locations such as The Pirates’ Lair and Wendy’s Home. Thorpeness was rather surprisingly listed in the book The Hundred Worst Places to Live in Britain. Less surprisingly perhaps, Bizarre magazine voted it The Weirdest Village in England.

We never did find The House in The Clouds. Like Brigadoon and The Cheshire Cat it kept appearing and disappearing from view. No matter. We’ll be back. I won’t need my arm twisted next time.

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