By the North Sea, the town of Aldeburgh is on the Suffolk coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and will forever be tied to Benjamin Britten.
The composer, most famous for the opera Peter Grimes, moved here in the late-1940s and quickly thought up the Aldeburgh Festival, an enduring opera and classical music event every June.
Aldeburgh Beach is a wide strip of shingle, tracked by twee fishermen’s huts where you can still buy fresh fish.
Aldeburgh’s hinterland is all wide open skies, reedbeds and marshes on the Alde River.
The tidal estuary abounds with birdlife, from the thousands of wintering wildfowl to waders like redshanks and lapwings in spring.
It is in this environment that Britten founded the Snape Maltings arts complex, home of the Aldeburgh Festival.
1. Aldeburgh Beach
If you’re put off by some of the tackier aspects of the English seaside, Aldeburgh’s quiet working shoreline is from a simpler time and looks a bit like a Constable painting.
This beach is shingle, mixed with some sand, and changes dramatically according to the tide.
Behind is the Crag, a seafront path is lined by rows of elegant properties, and as you idle along you’ll see the many fishing boats sitting on the shingle, hauled in at high tide.
These vessels serve establishments like Ash Smoked Fishes, a wooden smokehouse on the beach preparing delectable smoked salmon, trout, kippers, juicy prawns, as well as a range of fish/seafood rolls and pies.
2. Aldeburgh Festival
Across two weeks in June, the Aldeburgh Festival was founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten.
In its first years the festival took place at venues around Aldeburgh before moving to the converted Snape Maltings in 1967. This arts centre has a capacious main hall, allowing for large scale opera productions.
Each year there are performances by a host of high-profile artists and ensembles, as well as a series of masterclasses by important figures from the world of opera or classical music (tenor Mark Padmore and conductor Antonio Pappano in 2019). The festival has three artists in residence who curate a different part of the festival.
As a hint of what to expect, the 2019 edition was curated by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher, tenor Mark Padmore and Canadian soprano/conductor Barbara Hannigan.
Larcher’s opera, The Hunting Gun received its UK premiere at the 2019 festival.
3. Snape Maltings
Most of the Aldeburgh Festival’s programme happens at this Victorian malthouse converted by Britten and his partner the tenor Peter Pears into an 832-seat performance venue in the 1960s.
Previously barley would be turned into malt at this humongous complex for the brewing process to be shipped off to London or Europe.
Along with the Snape Maltings Concert Hall in that main hall, there’s an array of smaller structures like the Hoffmann Building housing studios and rehearsal space and the Britten-Pears Building a former barley store now containing the Holst Library, a recital room and more rehearsal space.
Even outside the Aldeburgh Festival there’s a feast of opera and classical music at Snape Maltings.
You can also see what’s on at the three galleries, and peruse an array of shops like the upmarket Food Hall, stocking artisan goodies and local seasonal produce.
4. The Red House
In 1957 when Britten’s career was in full flight, he moved with Peter Pears from the waterfront to this beautiful 17th-century house.
The couple would spend the rest of their lives at this property, which had belonged to the artist Mary Potter (she moved into Britten’s old house). Calling on contemporary documents and the recollections of people who visited, the Red House looks as it did when Britten was living here.
Most memorable are the composition studio where Britten wrote War Requiem, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Noye’s Fludde, and the library (often used for recitals). A gallery was built in the 90s over Britten’s open-air swimming pool, with exhibitions acquainting you with Britten’s life and music.
A Peter Grimes hut celebrates Britten’s most famous work, while there’s a fun Noye’s Fludde dress up area for youngsters.
The Red House puts on regular talks, recitals and special exhibitions, as well as workshops for youngsters.
5. The Long Shop Museum
In the mid-19th century the agricultural machinery, trolleybus and steam engine manufacturer Richard Garrett & Sons built Leiston Works, an enormous factory in the namesake village close to Aldeburgh.
Infused with the sights, scents and sounds of the Industrial Revolution the Long Shop itself has a large central space below fitters’ galleries on the upper floor.
Here and at the works’ outbuildings you can inspect historic steam traction engines and rollers, as well as a water tower with a well 148 metres deep (the deepest in Suffolk). Kids can dress up like Victorian workers and try making moulds with the works’ pattern boxes.
There are lots of interesting stories to uncover, like the life of Elizabeth Garrett (1836-1917), the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Britain and later the first woman in the country to become a mayor (of Aldeburgh). Come on one of the regular “Steam Ups” to see the rollers and tractors brought back to life.
6. Aldeburgh Museum
The Moot Hall on Market Cross Place in Aldeburgh is a captivating Tudor half-timbered building, used as a meeting hall for more than four centuries.
The building went up in 1520 and was then remodelled in the 1650s.
The Baroque sundial on the facade is from that time, bearing the date 1654. The Moot Hall would be something to keep in mind even if it didn’t house the town’s local museum.
When we wrote this article in 2019 the museum was temporarily closed for renovations, due to reopen later in the year.
In the inventory are Roman and Anglo-Saxon artefacts, tools from the local fishing and shipbuilding trades.
You can dip into the history of the lost village of Slaughden, and the women executed for witchcraft in Aldeburgh and other Suffolk towns in the 17th century.
7. Aldeburgh Cinema
Now more than 100 years old, Aldeburgh Cinema was built as an extension to a Victorian High Street shop, and so has a quaint Mock Tudor facade.
This is one of the oldest continuously operating cinemas in the UK, rescued by the community in the 1960s when it was threatened with closure, and going strong ever since.
You can catch independent films and well-reviewed new releases, as well as plenty of classics.
At the time of writing in 2019 there was a Billy Wilder season for instance.
Aldeburgh Cinema also screens performances from cultural institutions like the MET Opera and National Theatre.
In November the cinema stages the Aldeburgh Documentary festival, which has been attended by the likes of Sir David Attenborough, Asif Kapadia and Louis Theroux.
8. Thorpeness Meare
In the early 20th century, the barrister and railway magnate Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie turned a simple fishing hamlet north of Aldeburgh into his own private holiday village.
This quickly grew into a resort, with homes built in Mock Tudor and Jacobean styles around a country club golf course and tennis courts.
Thorpeness Meare is a boating lake here created from the remnants of an Elizabethan shipping haven that had silted up.
Covering 60 acres, the lake was dug by hand and is never more than a metre deep as Ogilvie wanted it to be used by children.
The Ogilvies were friends with J. M. Barrie who wrote Peter Pan, and around the islands, creeks and coves you’ll happen upon names like Wendy’s Home, Pirate’s Layer and Captain’s House, while there’s a crocodile lurking by the water.
Dinghies, punts, rowboats, canoes and kayaks are all for hire at the lake.
9. Martello Tower
By the River Alde, on the isthmus leading down to the Orford Ness shingle spit there’s a sturdy Napoleonic era defensive tower.
This is the northernmost of more than 100 Martello Towers on England’s coastline, put up between 1808 and 1812 to prepare for an invasion.
This structure is unusual among Martello Towers for its quatrefoil plan, and is the last building standing in the village of Slaughden, which has been completely lost to the sea.
In 1971 the Landmark Trust took over, reinforced the tower and eventually turned it into holiday accommodation.
A talking point on Aldeburgh Beach, a few steps north of the town centre, Scallop is a sculpture dedicated to Benjamin Britten by Maggi Hambling.
Scallop has been here since 2003 and has aroused a lot of controversy, particularly in its first few years when it would be vandalised.
The work is two connecting scallop shells, both fragmented, and can be climbed or used as a seat (try coming here early to watch the sunrise). An interesting detail about Scallop is how it changes according to where you stand.
From the south, looking away from Aldeburgh it takes the form of a seabird, while looking back to the town, you can discern the outline of two men in a boat.
This is a nod to Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, and on the curve of the upright shell you can read, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”, a line from the same work.
11. Leiston Abbey
The ruins of a mostly 14th-century abbey for Premonstratensian canons are in peaceful countryside north of Leiston.
The abbey was founded at the end of the 12th century and had to be rebuilt following a fire in 1379 before being dissolved in 1537. After the house was suppressed the land was turned into a farm, and a farmhouse was built in the nook of the nave and north transept.
The rest of the site was allowed to fall into decay, but even after 500 years there’s a lot to discover.
After passing through a 16th-century gatehouse you’ll find the cloister, with remnants of a lavatory on the south range.
The refectory is in good condition, as is the undercroft below, which has a preserved pointed window.
You can also see what’s left of the sacristy, chapter house and warming house in the cloister’s east range.
But maybe most impressive is the church, where the north transept arch and crossing tower survive to an unusual height.
12. RSPB North Warren
Pretty much all of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB is a paradise for birdlife, and there’s a reserve maintain by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds moments from Aldeburgh.
North Warren is heathland, grazing marsh, woods and reed-beds.
In winter this is among the only regular wintering site for tundra geese in the country.
A multitude of other geese, swans and ducks can be observed at North Warren in this season, but there’s something to see in all other seasons.
Take spring, when redshanks and lapwings peck around the wet grassland, while hobbies and marsh harriers can be sighted in the reed-beds and the woods are filled with nightingales and warblers.
13. River Alde
At Snape the River Alde broadens from a little stream into a great tidal river on its way to the north sea.
In Tudor times this was a port, and ships were launched from the Alde to fight the Spanish Armada in 1588. To get a feel for this huge expanse of water, mudflats and saltmarsh you can visit Iken Cliff and walk the path to Iken Church, a mile or so along the estuary.
Bring binoculars, as you may see godwits, avocets, wigeons and many more waterfowl and wildfowl, depending on the season.
For more of an adventure Iken Canoe rents out canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on the River Alde for up to an hour or a half day.
14. Aldeburgh Golf Course
The Alde Estuary curves past this acclaimed golf course, and you may detect the scent of salt on the breeze while you play.
Established in 1884, Aldeburgh Golf Course is very highly rated, but also feared for its tapered fairways through prickly gorse shrub, which can often mean an out of bounds ball stays lost for good.
For seasoned golfers the Championship Course is as beautiful as it is tricky and grants occasional views of the North Sea when you’re not concentrating on avoiding the rough.
For beginners and high handicap players the River Course, a nine-hole par 32, is a laid back round overlooking the marshes and their wealth of birdlife.
Summer green fees are £80 (£85 on weekends) for the Championship Course, and £12 (£15 on weekends) for the River Course.
15. Fish and Chips
We’ve talked about Aldeburgh’s vibrant culture, coastal scenery, birdlife and history, but this seaside town has another string in its bow: Fish and chips.
Aldeburgh is often hailed as one of the best places to enjoy this comforting British delicacy.
The company, Aldeburgh Fish and Chips started as a single shop on the High Street, and now has three locations (Aldeburgh Fish & Chip Shop, Golden Galleon and Upper Deck), employing more than 30 people in the town.
The original owners, Cecilia and Horace Clooney, took over the shop in 1967 from a Yorkshireman, who taught them to fry using beef dripping instead of oil.
This basic method hasn’t changed in more than five decades, even if the technology has evolved using high efficiency ranges and triple filtration.
If you go to the shop on the High Street you can use the benches outside the neighbouring White Hart pub, providing you buy a drink.