There is an unparalleled charm to Suffolk, on the east coast of England, a known touristic destination for both British and international tourists. The county is a craddle to attractions such as the 800-year-old Tide Mill in Woodbridge, the 15th century Wool Towns, as well as Framlingham, known as “the essence of the English market town" and Thorpeness, the home of Peter Pan — to name but a few must-see locations.
While the cool winds from the North Sea embrace the wide fields and towns, Suffolk is also a fascinating destination for music lovers, and particularly those who wish to explore the lands of this unique spot of East Anglia, where the renowned British composer Benjamin Britten was born in 1913 and lived, where he found his inspiration, and passed away in 1976.
Britten was born in Lowestoft, 50 kilometres north of Snape and Aldeburgh, two small neighbouring towns that are proud of being consecutive homes to the composer. And, as locals would tell you, today, as small as it is, Aldeburgh is a getaway for London’s upper middle class searching for peace, as provided by this beautiful town.
Aldeburgh's coast (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
It is not easy to reach many of the Suffolk cities and your life will be much easier if you rely on a car, rather than rail and multiple changes. On the other hand, while most of the lodging is in Aldeburgh, a bike or a car will help you move to Snape, almost 10 kilometres away.
The only bus line that operates in the area is not the most reliable transportation, while taxis – a popular transportation choice – can be a challenge to low-budget travellers.
However, it is the beauty of the area, its history and cultural depth, that compensates for any possible hardships of the traveller spoiled by the facilities that big cities provide.
The fields in Snape, bordering with Snape Maltings complex (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Snape is known mainly for the Snape Maltings, an art complex that Britten built within the historical buildings of red brick and wooden roofs, edifices that once served as malting locations for barley for the brewing of beer.
It is here that together with tenor Peter Pears, Britten lived for several years upon his return from the United States.
In Snape, Britten had his studio, and in 1967 he turned one of the buildings into an over 800-seat concert hall. By the time the hall was inaugurated by the Queen, it became one of the core locations hosting the already well established Aldeburgh Festival that Britten launched in 1948, and which is considered one of the most prestigious classical music festivals in the UK and world to date.
Today, the artistic complex is managed by the Snape Maltings company (which in late 2016 adopted this new name, dropping its previous Aldeburgh Music).
Snape Maltings, the fields and the River Alde (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Snape Maltings is an active attraction for music lovers and the local community at large, where they can attend a variety of concerts, relax on the banks of the River Alde, admire a few sculptures scattered across peaceful fields, and sip tea on benches before they return home with many beautiful memories and gifts provided by small local shops.
To those aiming to spend more time in Snape, the complex offers a variety of fascinating programmes that use music as a tool of reaching out to the community.
Faithful to Britten’s belief that “a composer should be useful to the community,” the Snape Maltings’ Learning and Inclusion Department uses music to address children, differently-abled, elderly and prison inmates, extending its activities to the international scene through its Friday Afternoons’ programme that offers Britten’s and other commissioned songs for free to the children of the world.
Snape Maltings' concert hall [L], founded by Britten and inaugurated in 1967 and the concert hall's lobby [R]. (Photo: At Metwaly)
The Snape Maltings is also home to a much more recent endeavour, the Aldeburgh Young Musicians (AYM), a programme that focuses uniquely on the UK’s brightest young musical talents aged 8-18, providing them with an alternative conservatory, and a highly creative and professional music education.
And while during Britten’s life, Snape became identified with the composer and the attention it drew distracted him from creative work, in 1957, Britten and Pears moved their home to Crag Path in Aldeburgh, settling down in what is known as Red House.
In a letter to Edith Sitwell, Britten explained this move saying, “Alas, away from the sea, but thankfully away from the gaping faces, and irritating publicity of that sea-front. It is a lovely house, with a big garden all around.”
The Snape Maltings with the building housing the concert hall on the left (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Aldeburgh is a small town dotted with colourful houses, cottages spreading on gentle land elevations that provide a breathtaking view of local architecture and the soothing waters of the North Sea.
Protected by white wings of seagulls, a walk along the seashore is a delight to the senses, especially in the early morning. Yet the myriad of small colourful stones that form the beach’s carpet can be a challenge to your feet.
Aldeburgh’s central High Street that parallels the coast is a wonderful introduction to the areas delights, from the British hallmark fish and chips shop, teashops and small bars to a post office that is the best place to exchange money, little art galleries, cinema and a rich in volumes bookshop.
South end of Aldeburgh's High Street (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Yet, as the area’s beauty grasps your attention and steals your time, you need to remember that by 5.30pm most of the shops begin closing.
As you reach the north end of the High Street, you can turn left to Victoria Road that will lead you to Aldeburgh Parish Church (St Peter and St Paul).
Naturally, the 19th century organ is what any music lover will notice first. However, the church also houses several artefacts such as the font that dates to 1320, 15th century sculptures, and the pulpit made in 1632.
The stained-glass windows with biblical depictions as well as memorial windows created to honour the artists who graced the church (Britten, Pears, Imogen Holst, George, Crabbe, John Piper) allow just enough light into the church to create an inspiring atmosphere.
Aldeburgh: the road to the Red House and two of the rooms with Britten's Steinway pianos (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Adjacent to the church is the cemetery where Britten, Pears and Imogen Holst — Gustav Holst’s daughter who for many years worked with Britten — are buried.
From the church you can head farther towards the inlands. It will be a long walk through the lovely paths in between fields, to be rewarded with Red House, Britten and Pears' home.
Today managed by the Britten-Pears Foundation, Red House and adjacent buildings are a great testimony to the composer.
Aldeburgh Parish Church (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
An artistic mood lingers over Red House. In the mix of traditional and contemporary styles, you will be able to visit a room where the composer created many of his works, admire his Steinway pianos and collections of scores and books whose topics vary from works about art, music, to history and culture at large. The walls are abundantly covered with precious contemporary paintings, Pears’ proud collection.
In a separate building, the huge archive — opened to the public by appointment — houses most of Britten’s manuscripts, scores and letters, as well as scores transcribed for him by Imogen Holst.
The area also includes a small museum where the visitor is walked thorugh Britten’s life, and a guest house, which was a stop for many renowned minds of the time.
Cemetary next to the Aldeburgh Parish Church. Graves of composer Benjamin Britten, tenor Peter Pears and composer Imogen Holst at the back. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
If you wish to take a break, the extensive grounds with lawns are a good spot for a small picnic or outdoor croquet game during summer.
A few days visit to Suffolk is not enough to capture all its gems. It is enough, however, to provide an experience that will lead you to further readings about this captivating county, its history and music legacy that was given to the world through Benjamin Britten.
As the composer said, "Suffolk, with its rolling intimate countryside; its heavenly Gothic churches, big and small; its marshes, with those wild sea-birds; its grand ports and its little fishing villages. I am firmly rooted in this glorious county."
Aldeburgh's sea side (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Aldeburgh's sea side (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Aldeburgh's sea side (Photo: Ati Metwaly)