Aldeburgh: You can’t get fresher!
Roger St. Pierre savours an East Coast gem
These beautiful North Atlantic islands of ours are blessed with an extraordinarily spectacular and varied coastline.
From the massive basalt stacks of the Devil’s Causeway to the towering Cliffs of Moher; from Northumbria’s vast, sweeping beaches to the hidden little coves of Cornwall, there’s mile after mile of eye-popping scenic delight.
Among my personal favourite stretches are the haunting marshlands and mudflats of East Anglia and in particular, the Essex/Suffolk borders.
The most powerful magnet drawing me there is the diminutive fishing town of Aldeburgh whose boats are drawn up on the broad shingle beach to offload their morning catch directly into the black pitch covered fishmongers’ stalls – and you can’t serve it fresher than that.
Crabs, lobsters, tiny sweet-fleshed dabs, big plump Dover sole, the ubiquitous North Sea herring and a dozen other species find heir way onto the slab.
Yes, this is a seaside resort but it’s very much a working town too, with a vibrant life stretching far beyond the bucket and spade shoulder months of summer.
This is a town richly endowed with cultural happenings – not least the world-renowned annual arts festival, which is currently in full swing and runs through to June 23.
This is the centenary year of Sir Benjamin Britten, the festival’s spiritual father. Classical music, rhythm and blues, poetry readings and art exhibitions too are all to be found on the programme, and don’t feel you’ve missed out if you find it is too late to book because Aldeburgh has a busy all year round cultural and arts schedule, which means there’s plenty to see and do, even in the darkest, most storm-lashed depths of winter.
Much of the activity centres around nearby Snape Maltings an exquisitely pretty riverside location with sweeping views across gently swaying beds of reeds.
Here you’ll sometimes find a traditional red-sailed Thames barge or two moored at the jetty.
There’s a superb little concert hall here while, besides theatre, music and the other arts, this rambling complex is home for a community of antiques’ dealers, the trendiest of home furnishing and fittings showrooms, a massive cook shop, gourmet food ingredients purveyors and first-rate restaurant and café catering (just try a slab of the exquisite coffee and walnut cake!).
Being less than 90 minutes drive time from Stansted Airport makes Aldeburgh eminently accessible for visitors from Ireland. Yes, it’s a smart, fashionable little place but the prices for visitors and their needs have not yet run riot and affordable but quality accommodation are still relatively easy to find.
Our own choice was the White Lion, which s privately owned by TA Hotel Collection, a small group of individually styled boutique hotels located across southern Suffolk. These include the stylish Brudenell, also in Aldeburgh; the close-by Thorpeness Golf, Hotel & Country Club; the Crown, in Woodbridge, and the beam-laden Swan at Lavenham. The company also offers for rent a selection of self-catering holiday apartments in Aldeburgh.
Our room at the Whte Lion – there are 36 of them, 12 with sea views – was a bit dated and on the small side but had quality amenities, while the superbly outfitted new bar and brassiere was a whole different story, presenting head chef Jason Shaw’s own enticing slant on modern British/French cuisine.
Fresh fish from Dean’s Shed, located on the beach just cross the street, is complimented by a whole raft of farm to fork local produce. The full-English breakfast is, well, fulsome, but I’d recommend you to go instead for the succulent locally smoked kippers, supplied by nearby Pinneys of Orford, or the poached haddock option.
Dinner choices red-starred such currently in-vogue options as melt-in-the-mouth belly pork, super-tender confit of duck and delectable Thorpeness crab risotto.
Pro-active in its approach, the White Lion runs a calendar of activities and events, including family events, dinner dances, seasonal food weeks; ladies’ luncheons; children’s activities and dining on the beach.
Within a short drive of Aldeburgh are the mighty Orford; and Framingham castles, the lovingly restored pier and Adman’s Brewery attractions in Southold, mediaeval Lavenham, Henry VIII’s formidable Landguard Fort, overlooking the busy Orwell estuary, day-boat hire on the River Waveney, the Long Shop steam engineering museum in Lewiston and the bustling shops of Ipswich.
Our own selection for a day out was a visit to the remarkable Sutton Hoo site, an Anglo-Saxon burial place today ably managed by the National Trust.
It was in the long, hot summer of 1939, when war clouds were looming ominously on the horizon, that the astonishing discovery was made of an Anglo-Saxon warlord buried along with his dazzling jewellery and armour in the belly of his longboat.
Most of the truly priceless artefacts are today kept at the British Museum but their reproductions, plus the carefully annotated story can be savoured at Sutton Hoo, along with a walk among the vast burial mounds – a dozen of them in all – that mark this as a place of great importance n the Anglo-Saxon era.