Aldeburgh Moot Hall’s refurbishment breathes new life into Suffolk’s oldest stories
PUBLISHED: 17:01 16 March 2020 | UPDATED: 17:06 16 March 2020
Aldeburgh’s Tudor Moot Hall has weathered storms for centuries. Now it rides the techno-tide to share its story | Words & Photos: Lindsay Want
Aldeburgh Moot Hall has to be one of Suffolk’s quirkier coastal characters, apparently just plonked by the prom, only a sniff away from Aldeburgh’s immortalised top dog, ‘Snooks’, and the smoked fish sheds.
Beached between the model yacht pond and ‘boules’ pitch, it’s definitely a bit of a curved ball when it comes to seafront architecture.
From its very heavy timbers to herringbone-brick ‘nogging’, it’s unlike anything else on the block. Then there are those Hampton Court chimneys worthy of Hampton Court and that strange external staircase.
With its fine finial and beautifully carved barge boards, intriguing ground floor window arches and rough-and-tumble stony flint wall, it’s quite a conversation piece.
At face value, it all appears a bit weird, whimsical and Harry Potter-ish. Even its rather quaint and antiquated ‘moot’ hall title doesn’t give much away to the modern ear.
In fact it’s easy to see why it might be tempting to explain it away as an imported and fantastical seaside folly, especially with the wacky ‘House in the Clouds’ just a shingle’s crunch to the north on the Thorpeness horizon.
Perhaps we need to look at it from a different angle. At the hilltop home of St Peter & St Paul’s in Aldeburgh, look seawards and the land falls away directly to the Moot Hall.
Take a stroll along Church Walk to the Town Steps on old Fir Tree Hill (now The Terrace), where centuries ago windmills and beacons once stood.
Down below, the Aldeburgh town and fishing communities have always gone about their business at the mercy of the elements, buffeted by the seasonal tides of trade and hungry waves of an eroding coastline.
The houses and buildings around the town’s market place disappeared, ravaged by great floods, but the most expensive and ostentatious place of the lot – second only to St Peter & St Paul’s perched more safely on higher ground – was so well built and so important for the town, that it somehow stood its ground.
“I rejoice in the fact that this marvellous building is still a moot hall, that it’s still doing exactly what it was built to do all those centuries ago,” says volunteer steward Mary Joel.
She relives that first ‘wow’ moment with every visitor who appears at the top of the external wooden staircase and has their breath snatched away by the great beamed chamber of one Britain’s best-preserved Tudor public buildings.
Beneath three of the four bays of smooth chamfered tie beams, a vast table takes centre stage, ringed by glittering glass cases, dummies dressed in civic regalia, framed maps, pictures and display boards.
In the fourth bay, by a collection of model tall-ships a gentleman sits gazing thoughtfully into a big stone fireplace. It’s filled with Aldeburgh tales which silently unfurl, courtesy of a TV screen the size of a Tudor hearth.
Nearby, suspended by one of the hall’s low and wonderfully curvaceous arched braces, is what looks to be a great whalebone.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Intriguing more like. But Mary has moved on, stroking the polished light wood of the mighty new council meeting table.
She’s keen to point out the quality of the marquetry showing Aldeburgh’s ship insignia. It is beautiful and, like the whole building, built on such civic pride.
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The delightful thing about Aldeburgh Moot Hall, since it re-opened last autumn after its gentle refurbishment and museum refit, is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels.
Go down through a cellar-style door in the Upper Chamber floor to view the museum collections where Elizabethan retail outlets used to be.
Enter at ground floor level to view the traditional and interactive displays. If stairs are an issue, experience the exhibits and architecture of the Upper Chamber with a virtual tablet-screen tour.
“Grade I listed buildings can have their limits,” acknowledges museum supervisor Alan Cooke.
“There was lots involved in getting permissions for cabling, to get the internet in and all that, but now things are more interactive, the museum is more attractive to kids and they enjoy it more.”
Mary’s pleased that all the clever tech and new displays introduced as part of the local partners and Heritage Lottery Heritage Fund supported project, are making life easier and the stories so much easier to follow.
And what a collection of stories. There are tales of market charters and Aldeburgh’s rise as a borough, of having the first lady mayor in England and providing two home-built ships for the fleet against the Spanish Armada.
Discover finds from Roman settlers and Anglo-Saxon ships unearthed at Snape. Learn about brave lifeboatmen, the ‘codbangers’ of old Slaughden, marauding pirates, smugglers who stored booty under the boards of the long-lost Three Mariners Inn, and witches left to languish in the gaol room.
Meet the men who managed the railway line and the folks who put a first fashionable toe in Aldeburgh’s waters from the seclusion of their bathing machines.
Follow the shaping of the coast and history itself from the Tudor map, which reveals the town’s ill-fated meare to the north. The Elizabethan maps celebrating Slaughden Haven to the south and showing Aldeburgh’s magnificent anti-Armada cannon.
And the late 18th century map with its fashionable mansions, town steps and hilltop bowling green. Trace the position of the recognisable Town Hall, now at the heart of the market place.
It was the Victorians who renamed this most important civic building ‘The Moot Hall’. From the outside, Aldeburgh Moot Hall is undeniably fascinating, but if you don’t go inside, you’re missing a treat.
The real conversation piece is undoubtedly within those Tudor walls in the Upper Chamber, where you can look out across the shoreline and the centuries and imagine a very different sort of Aldeburgh.
Find out more
Aldeburgh Moot Hall is open at weekends (1pm – 4pm) during February 2020, with regular opening times in the spring until daily opening throughout the main season.
Group visits for all ages by appointment.
Adult admission £3, accompanied children £1.
If you Gift-aid your admission once you qualify for a year-round visitor’s pass.