I had no idea of the strong connection between Aldeburgh and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) when I decided to come here. I soon discovered it though, for it would be almost impossible to read about Aldeburgh or indeed come here and not see and hear references to the great composer everywhere. Britten was born in Lowestoft and was associated with the county of Suffolk for most of his life.
I walked down the beach yesterday afternoon to look at Maggi Hambling’s glorious memorial sculpture to Britten.
Today I wanted to visit The Red House on the outskirts of the town where Britten lived with his lifelong partner, the singer Peter Pears. Britten lived there from 1957 until his death in 1976 and Pears continued to live there until he died in 1986. It’s now home to the Britten-Pears Foundation. I’ve also arrived during the annual Aldeburgh Festival which the couple founded in 1948, a celebration of music and the arts, which continues to grow in strength with each year.
I booked an entry to the house for 11 a.m., its opening time, and decided to stop off on the way – it’s a 30-minute walk from the centre of town – at the 14th century church of St Peter and St Paul, where both Britten and Pears are buried.
The church was much larger than I’d imagined; I thought such an old church in the country would be small. Inside it has three aisles.
I was particularly keen to see the Britten Memorial Window – three panels of stained glass designed by artist John Piper. Piper has long been one of my favourite artists and he was a friend of Britten’s.
The window is stunning; really beautiful. I stood admiring and enjoying it for some time. Then back outside, I sought Britten’s grave. The graveyard is enormous and I had to ask a gardener to direct me to Britten and Pears’ graves. They’re really quite modest graves.
From the church, it was about a 20-minute walk to The Red House. It’s possible to take a bus from the town centre but I was happy to walk.
The house is large, with an impressive drive and entrance. The oldest part dates from mid-17th century and was originally a farmhouse. For a time in the 1920s it was a dairy school for poorer children from the neighbourhood who could learn milking and other skills. The farm lands were eventually split up and the house became privately owned. Now there are lovely gardens to explore, a gallery with many of Britten’s effects and which also houses temporary exhibitions; there’s a Composition Studio, Archive, Library and of course the house itself to see. The entrance fee is £8.50, which buys you a year’s pass allowing you to revisit anytime for the following year.
Inside, the house is preserved just as it was in Britten’s day, not only furniture and paintings but manuscripts, correspondence and bills and postcards from friends. Somehow it manages to avoid feeling like a museum and you feel instead you’ve stepped into a private house still occupied by the owner. I was delighted to find there was some original John Piper paintings and had a great conversation about Piper with one of the volunteers who was also a great fan of the artist.
Before making the walk back to the town I took advantage of the garden cafe to get an excellent flat white and piece of carrot cake.
I’d spotted somewhere earlier I fancied going for lunch but they were fully booked, so I booked for tomorrow instead and made my way back to Slate, said to be Aldeburgh’s best deli.
I bought what turned out to be a delicious spinach and ricotta pastry roll, a sweet potato and bean salad, and some locally brewed kombucha, and took it down to the beach and settled myself on a bench. And what a lovely view to enjoy while I ate.
I’d had a great morning and I really enjoyed following the Benjamin Britten trail. But now it was time to head back to my room for a while. I’d walked a few miles and a little rest was in order – after all, I am on holiday!