The History of Aldeburgh
The history of Aldeburgh gives an insight into the changing nature of coastal settlements in this country over two millennia. But then so does the geography of the town: in Roman and Saxon times there was rather more land than there is now, the work of storms and gradual erosion by the sea having left part of the land that was once settled by the Saxons now under the North Sea; even some land occupied as late as the Tudor era disappeared long ago.
Evidence of Roman occupation in the area has been found, with some suggestion that a port of some sort was founded by them at the mouth of the river Alde, at that time of such a width that it would have facilitated the sheltering of sea-going ships and their journeys inland.
The Saxons had various smaller settlements in the district, but excavation of a burial mound at Snape inland from Aldeburgh revealed a princely boat and gold jewellery, indicating the place was of greater importance than a mere trading post or mooring, though the narrowing of the Alde at this period would surely have made it less attractive for trading craft.
In the early medieval era it was Dunwich , about 10 miles north, which became the greater port, but as the Alde opened wider again and Dunwich from 1286 was devastated by the storms that turned one of the great towns of England into a mere village Aldeburgh waxed and its rival waned.
By the reign of Henry VII Aldeburgh had become a significant ship-building centre, helped by demand from its thriving fishing industry. When his grand-daughter Elizabeth I was on the throne it was here that Drake ’s Pelican and Greyhound were constructed – local men also sailing with him on his voyages of discovery, defence of the realm, and downright piracy.
The Tudor Era was indeed a golden age for Aldeburgh. In 1529 it gained a charter; in 1571 its Freemen were given the right to elect two MPs, a sign of its importance, though its greatest building – the Moot Hall - dates from the middle of the following century, to this day still operating as a council meeting place: famously the country’s first female mayor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson , presided there after her election in 1908 .
When the Alde yet again narrowed and silted up the shipbuilding declined, though the fishing remained as it still does today, with the catch of smaller craft sold on the beach and in the town. And the value of the sea to the town comes from the marina and the holiday industry, its Blue Flag beach and lack of the tackier attractions less refined resorts provide drawing the well-heeled to the shingled shoreline, enhanced or not according to your taste by the modern sculpture the Scallop. The holiday and fishing trades combine famously in the town’s renowned fish and chip shops, and the local delicacy of smoked sprats .
It was in the early 19th century that the holiday trade began: and even then it was a rather exclusive haunt for the wealthy, by that time wanting to avoid the overcrowded beaches of the Kent and Sussex coasts. Other potential visitors at this time were less welcome –a unique Martello Tower with four lobes still stands on the shore, a reminder of Napoleon’s threatened invasion. The architecture to be found along the front in Aldeburgh mainly dates from the 19th century, with some decidedly quirky buildings: an overgrown beach-hut; Dutch gables; traditional pink-washed Suffolk houses with blue and yellow ones alongside them.
A place as lovely as Aldeburgh is bound to have artistic connections: it provided a setting in one of Wilkie Collins ’s novels; and the other-worldly character of the seascape was exploited by our greatest ghost-story writer, M.R. James in his A Warning to the Curious. The poet George Crabbe was born there in 1754, a neat link to more modern times, his work The Borough providing the grain of the story for Benjamin Britten ’s opera Peter Grimes. Britten and his partner Peter Pears lived in the town from 1942 until their respective deaths in 1976 and 1986. In 1948 they founded the Aldeburgh Festival which still thrives now. Originally a musical event it soon encompassed other forms. Aldeburgh, and the main venue for its festival, Snape Maltings , are today famous around the world thanks to that event.