Saturday, March 26, 2005
Easter at Aldeburgh
Iken Church in the distance from Iken Cliff, all photos taken today under a typical East Anglian sky.
The overgrown path led me to Iken Church this Easter Saturday morning. The church is on a promontory sticking out into the River Ald downstream from Snape. It is a place of inspiring beauty and peace, a wonderful setting for a monastery. St Botolph built his minster at Iken in the 7th century, and became the first person in Britain to follow the Rule of St Benedict. The monastery was destroyed by raiding Danes in the winter of 969/70, and parts of the current church date from the rebuilding which started in the 11th century. The story of destruction by Viking invaders is a reminder of how this part of East Anglia is on the margins of civilisation. During World War 2 the village of Iken was evacuated and the church closed to make way for a practice battleground. And despite the beauty of the area the Sizewell nuclear power station to the north is a constant, and visible, reminder that this area remains on the edge. Further north is even more graphic evidence of the precarious existence here. The medieval town of Dunwich was half the size of London in the 12th century, and contained eight churches and several religous orders. Coastal erosion has claimed the whole town in Gotterdammerung style, and all that remains today is St James' Church, part of a leper hospital built outside the town walls. The themes of the power of nature, tragedy and exclusion are never far away here, and they are the threads that are woven through Britten's opera Peter Grimes which is set on this coast.
When Iken monastery was in its heyday in the seventh and eighth centuries it was a base for monks making missionary journys into East Anglia. Today the Iken Church is a destination for pilgrims, both of the religous kind who visit it as one of the first Christian sites in the country; and also musical, as nearby Iken Hall is the setting for Britten's opera for children, The Little Sweep. The thin line between civisation and the abyss is well illustrated here. This premiere of a morality tale for children by the pacifist Britten, who had spent part of the war in safety of the US, took place the nearby Aldeburgh just two years after Iken Church had re-opened after spending years isolated in a middle of a mock battlefield.
From Snape into Aldeburgh, and a repeat visit to Maggi Hambling's Scallop sculpture on the beach. The artist created the twelve and a half foot high work in stainless steel in 2003 at a cost of £70,000, and the brief called for it to withstand gales of up to 100 mph - shades of the sea interludes! It was raised as as a tribute to Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh resident who put this small Suffolk town on the map. The words cut into the top edge of the shell, and visible in my picture, are from Peter Grimes - "I hear those voices that will not be drowned." But despite its status as a tribute the Scallop has fiercely divided local residents, and has been the subject of petitions, rows in the council chamber, and even paint daubings. We think it is a wonderful work, and we are also delighted that the townspeople can get passionate (both for, and against) a work of art. And the bitter controversy neatly sums up the schizophrenia of Aldeburgh under Britten - creative brilliance coupled with conservatism, small-mindedness and in-fighting. For a wonderfully entertaining portrait of Britten see his eponymous biography by the late lamented Humphrey Carpenter. (What a strange convergnce of overgrown paths, the scallop shell is of course the symbol of the medieval pilgrim, and is still referred to as 'St James shell').
The Scallop sculpture, art or aesthetic vandalism?
After lunch I buy the Britten and Richter recording of Schubert piano duets recorded live by the BBC in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, and now released on Decca. (A measure of the cultural capital invested in Aldeburgh is that this town of just 3500 residents can support a first class independent bookshop, and an excellent classical CD outlet). As we return to the car we wander into a craft fair in a small hall. On the stage of the hall we buy some essential oils from a stall. And then realise that the hall is the Jubilee Hall, and we are standing at precisely the spot where Britten and Richter played (and recorded) their Schubert recital forty years ago. Another remarkable direct line to Britten.
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