There's Something About Aldeburgh
PUBLISHED: 13:57 22 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:53 20 February 2013
Is it its modesty, its succession of feelgood festivals, or the good<br/><br/>old fashioned appeal of the sea? Peter Sampson isn't sure why he<br/><br/>likes Aldeburgh but it invariably warms his heart
Aldeburgh is no Portofino.Its not even a Portmeirion.And its certainly neither aScarborough nor aMargate, something forwhich the residents can sometimesseem just a little too grateful.After all, theres only one wide andunremarkable shopping street lined onboth sides with a jumble of fairlyundistinguished buildings and forevercrowded with tightly packed parkedcars under the high coastal sky. Thebeach has no sand, only noisy anduncomfortable shingle, and theweathers nearly always just that bitcolder and windier and cloudier than itis a few miles inland. Theres reallynothing very obvious to explainAldeburghs continuing popularity.But popular it certainly is. For years,the place has exerted an almostmagnetic pull on visitors, particularlyon visitors who could quite easily haveafforded to travel to more obviouslyglamorous places. Long before Brittenand Peter Pears started the AldeburghFestival in 1948, bringing a wider fameand a lot of tourists to the place, youmight well have bumped into WilkieCollins, the friend of Dickens, orThomas Hardy on a clandestine holidayfor a few days with Florence Dugdale.(Theres a photograph of the pair ofthem sitting on Aldeburgh beach.)M R James, who used to stay at theWhite Lion, set one of his best ghoststories there A Warning to the Curious.A couple of hundred years ago,Crabbes poetry was rooted in theAldeburgh landscape, where he wasborn and where he was briefly a curate.However, even Crabbe had no illusionsabout what was then only a small anddecaying fishing port. All is want andwoe and wretchedness, he wrote andclaimed that Aldeburgh people were awild amphibious race who scowl atstrangers with suspicious eye. Theydidnt like him much, either.In spite of all this, and particularly inthe summer months, the place seetheswith people. The queue outside its mostfamous fish-and-chip shop can stretch50 yards or more, parking places are asrare as hens teeth and the price of whatwas once a fishermans tiny cottage willmake your eyes water and your kneesgo trembly.It can seem as if every second personyou meet has come to Aldeburghspecifically to write the Great Englishnovel or to play the cello or paintsomething or to sculpt, to design a stageset or direct an opera. Rumour has itthat Aldeburgh contains the highestnumber of titled people per head of anyplace in the country. Familiar andvaguely familiar faces from stage andscreen scurry unobtrusively along thatone main shopping street.So the place must have somethinggoing for it, some appeal notimmediately obvious to an outsiderseye.Do I like the place? Is it a favourite ofmine? To be honest, I really cant makeup my mind. But I know I go there oftenand never regret having done so. Itsjust that its difficult to bite to the coreof just what the places attraction is.One thing, of course, is the presenceof the sea. Theres no such thing as adull seaside town, whether it be Aldeburgh or Aberdeen. And to walkbeside the beach along Aldeburghsversion of what in more vulgar placeswould be called the prom but Aldeburghcalls the Crag Path is always a delight.Start in front of the Brudenell, whereyou can see people having theirbreakfast in the covered terrace lookingout over the beach as if they werecharacters in an Agatha Christie novelfrom the 1930s, and carry on past thelifeboat station and the look-out towersuntil you reach the Moot Hall and theboating pool. The houses you pass arereally rather pretty, painted pink andcream, white and blue, and they allseem to have balconies. I suppose mostof them are holiday lets or havens forsecond-homers but theyre undeniablyattractive on a hot summers day.Then head north in the direction ofThorpeness until you can rest in theshade of Maggi Hamblings Scallopsculpture, a beautiful object rooted inthe Aldeburgh shingle. Youll have gonepast the Moot Hall, once in the centreof Aldeburgh until the sea claimed itsshare of the town and everybody had tomove further inland. The WarMemorial there seems always to have asolitary seagull perched on top. Itswhere whats left of the Aldeburghfishing fleet have their wooden huts,from which theyll happily sell youskate, sole, flounders and whitingcaught that morning. If its anyfresher, its still swimming, announcesone chalked board.Particularly in the cool of an earlysummer morning, before the crowdsare up and about, that walk along CragPath is guaranteed to soothe away thefretful irritations in your soul. The sunlow above the horizon, waves shushingbackwards and forwards on the shingle,the smell of seaweed and ozone youcant help feeling that there may bemore to existence than the A12 and adesk in Ipswich.As for the town itself, one thing thatmakes it interesting is the fact that,perhaps unexpectedly, its somethingof a party town. There seems to bea never-ending succession of festivals in Aldeburgh.To pick a few at random, theres theMusic Festival itself in June, the Carnivalin August with floats and fireworks andChinese lanterns, a Food and DrinkFestival in September, a Childrens FilmFestival in October and a DocumentaryFilm Festival and a Poetry Festival inNovember, each no doubt trailing itscomets tail of parties and gossip andChardonnay.Talking of film festivals, the AldeburghCinema must be one of the few cinemas inthe country that was about to close some 50years ago only to be rescued by a group oflocal residents who got together to form acommittee that would run it for the benefitof local people. Now, it seats nearly 300people in an up-to-date single-screencinema that shows a nice mixture of artfilms and popular films. That sayssomething about Aldeburgh which makes itan intriguing sort of place.And more or less opposite the cinema isone of the best independent bookshops inthe country.Of course, the main shopping street hasall that even a demanding visitor orresident could need in terms ofrestaurants, tea-shops, antique shops,butchers and bakers and, probably,candlestick makers. Further out, at HallFarm on the edge of town, is VintageAngels, a new shop offering much sought aftervintage and designer clothes ataffordable prices.But it would be difficult to argue forAldeburghs beauty or even charm. Youneed to cut through to Crag Path for that,where youll find plenty of both.So its an odd place, Aldeburgh, anunsettling combination of the humdrumand the charming. I suppose if I had to pickout the one quality that holds the towntogether and makes it one of my favouriteplaces it would be that Aldeburgh...how canI put it?...Aldeburgh doesnt show off.It neither beats a drum and shouts to alland sundry Look at me, look at me in awelter of carousels, bungee jumps andcandy-floss nor does it sit there smuglyindifferent to the rest of us. It just gets onquietly with the business of beingAldeburgh.I like it.