The crowds cheered and laughed as I struggled along the High Street, a sleeping 2-year-old fairy slumped over my shoulder. It was Carnival day. I’ve already stated how much of a fan of the Notting Hill one I am, but this annual event – held a week before – is special in a quite different way.
Aldeburgh is an ancient, rather lovely fishing town. Around 3 hours’ drive from London, it’s on the country’s easternmost reach of coastline.
Alongside some celebrated fish ‘n chips and the dramatic ever-shifting shingle beach, it also keeps a positively urbane cultural calendar. This is due in large part to the Festival, founded by composer Benjamin Britten and based since the 60s a few miles inland across the marshes in repurposed Victorian Maltings at Snape.
The concert hall, its quality performances and the marsh-front setting along the banks of the River Alde, are uniquely arresting. Music dominates the local agenda and ensures the town always feels decidedly highbrow. But it’s the simpler, if still quite refined, bucket and spade pleasures Aldeburgh offers that bring the families back through generations.
As this year’s summer season reached its annual apex, the quintessentially eccentric Carnival drew us to the town, as it has done forever. Family lore has it I was conceived in the top room of Orlando, an imposing holiday rental property on the sea front named after the Aldeburgh-based children’s books about a marmalade cat. Doing the gestational mathematics, it would have been the Carnival weekend of 1971.
In 2012, the event itself was celebrating its 70th year. And as ever, curious but keenly observed traditions persist. People race in the sea. The lifeboat launches. There is a prize for the best fancy-dressed house.
We paid a pre-lunch visit to the fairground that always pitches up next to the Grade I listed 16th Century Moot Hall. This beautiful building was once at the centre of the town, but the massive coastal erosion that has repeatedly changed the area’s fortunes now means its situation is right beside the beach.
The rest of the year, this one-time village green is a world away from the Carnival’s over-excited candyfloss fuelled mayhem. Wooden sailing boats gently compete on the small pool built for that purpose alone. Fresh fish are landed, then filleted and sold virtually still twitching, from a row of huts right on the shingle.
We took the minor stroll up the beach towards local sculptor Maggi Hambling’s controversial piece, ‘Scallop’. Opinion was hugely divided when it arrived a decade ago as a tribute to the music of Britten. The work was soon daubed with paint. Twice. Aldeburgh folk are famously always up in arms about something. Right now it’s less glamorous yet potentially far more serious battle with a proposed edge-of-town Tescos.
Further north still from Maggi’s oversized shell, which sits lonely on the otherwise unbroken sweep of shingle (hence many of those objections), lies the odd holiday fantasy village of Thorpeness. Built in the 20s as private retreat for a wealthy Scottish barrister and his friends, it features the famously odd ‘House In The Clouds’, a holiday home perched high on top of a water tower in an inventive if incongruous attempt to hide it.
The kids enjoyed its heavenly proximity, way above the treetops and the surrounding fields, before we turned on our heels for a wander back through the High Street.
The focus of the shops these days might best be described as ‘upscale seaside’. The yacht club crowd have an abundance of casualwear options. It was the muted Suffolk linens and earthy homeware of boutiques like Runaway Coast that lured us in though, like hapless cod on one of the beach angler’s lines.
Food options run across the board, from higher end broadsheet darling The Lighthouse, through a range of similarly modern English focussed menus at OneFiveTwo and The Regatta to the ever popular dining option of thick cut chips while sat on sea wall (look out for predatory gulls).
And proving further still that Aldeburgh culture isn’t fixated on music alone, the 29th September sees the start of the Food & Drink Festival, where organic producers will muscle the cellists aside at Snape and a fortnight of fringe events including all manner of talks, walks, activities and eating with tumble forth.
The families will be back for the weekend of 26-29th October for a celebration of storytelling, ‘Storm of Stories’, lead by resident theatre company Wonderful Beast, which is bringing international guests and locals to perform, celebrate and enjoy the art of the spoken word.
As posters for these forthcoming delights fluttered in the sea breeze alongside acres of bunting, we joined the carnival procession with our coy fairy charges in tow. The fancy dress theme is your own topic. This year saw an obvious glut of Olympics tributes, but some stalwart drag and saucy buxom proponents to balance things out.
As the crowds laughed and the overtired daughter flaked out, memories of my own star turn in this very parade flooded back. 1975, aged 3, the year a streaker first made headlines at Lords. My parents came up with the topical ‘costume’ of me walking the route completely naked, modesty only preserved by a strategic if not entirely complimentary ‘Third Prize’ sign.
Later, as dusk fell, Chinese lanterns hung high on bamboo canes emerged from every doorway to fill the streets. They moved slowly, like hot lava, flowing towards the beach and grand firework finale. Thousands of little candles on the shingle, while sky lanterns floated up and out to sea, creating imaginary mountain ranges with their steady light.
Despite my deep associations, stark naked or otherwise, with this town, and the relatively recent history of these quirky annual festivities, it’s an equally magical, ritualistic moment for everyone else too. The wide eyes of the children confirm that. Happily there is much to tide the visitor through the rest of the year too. Our slumbering fairy has plenty to look forward to.
Words & Pics: Tom Kihl