First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Young musicians were streaming into the concert hall at Snape Maltings when I arrived on a peerless sunny morning. A Ferris wheel lazily turned beyond the buildings, its occupants masters of a stupendous view all the way down the snaking River Alde to Aldeburgh and the open sea. Snape was en fête this weekend, a grand public party.
When Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears converted the austere old maltings at Snape into a great concert hall in 1966-7, they dreamed of this: all ages, all stages of musical appreciation flocking to enjoy wonderful music in the incomparable, severely beautiful setting of the flat Suffolk coastlands. The Aldeburgh Festival they founded in 1948 has taken on a vigorous life of its own, and how Britten and Pears – iconoclasts and visionaries in their own era – would have revelled in that.
I stuck out along the boardwalk path through the reedbeds along the Alde. Everything in nature seemed lively and full of risen sap and reproductive purpose this spring morning. Shelduck argued over possession of the mudbanks, hawthorn flowers whitened the hedges, and reed buntings were loudly and emphatically declaiming their rights to stem and seed-head. ‘So-I-told-her, so-I-told-her!’ twittered one nestholder hidden among the reeds, almost close enough to touch but quite invisible to me. ‘Did-you? Did-you? Did-you? Frankly, frankly, frankly-my-dearie!’
Over the feathery tops of the reeds the river shimmered with wind ripples and mudflats gleamed in the hazy sunshine. Beyond them the stumpy tower of St Botolph’s Church at Iken showed above trees on the negligible rise of ground where St Botolph founded his monastery in 654AD. Botolph was a man in search of self-excoriation, like so many of those early hermits. ‘The unwearied man of God,’ recorded the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ‘looked about him everywhere, till at last he found by the mercy of God, such a spot at Icanhoh, which was just the Godforsaken, devil-possessed place he was in search of.’
Set in its sunny churchyard in a sea of buttercups, bluebells and anemones, the old church held no devil today, unless it was the faded stone dragon some Saxon sculptor had incised in St Botolph’s ancient cross shaft. I lingered long among the wild flowers and lichened headstones before setting inland.
Pigs lay stunned by the sunshine in self-excavated beds of wet mud. Partridges skimmed the potato fields, and sika deer crept secretively in the shadow of pine trees. Back on the estuary the tide had inched a little closer to the shore. The buntings still bubbled scratchily in the reeds, the river shimmered on, and the old maltings by the bridge rang with the sound of joyful young voices.
Start & finish: Snape Maltings, near Aldeburgh, IP17 1SP (OS ref TM 392574)
Getting there: A12, A1094, B1069 to Snape
Walk (6 ½ miles, easy grade, OS Explorer 212): From Snape Maltings bear right along riverside footpath (blue and yellow Suffolk Coast Path/SCP waymark arrows) for 1 3/4 miles to road in Iken (412560). Left; in 100 yards, left again to St Botolph’s Church (412566). Return along road to fork (413560); bear left (‘Sudbourne, Orford’) for ½ a mile; right at Swallows Corner (418553) along Sandy Lane for ½ a mile. 100 yards past Fir Tree Cottage, road bends right (411551); keep ahead here (footpath fingerpost) to dogleg round Oak Covert and reach SCP at ‘pig city’ (406547). Turn right, following SCP along field edges to road (403559). Right for 100 yards; left, and follow SCP back to Snape Maltings.
Lunch: Crown Inn (01728-688324) or Plough & Sail (01728-688413), Snape
More info: Snape Maltings (01728-687100); Aldeburgh TIC (01728-453637; www.suffolkcoastal.gov.uk/tourism)
Aldeburgh Festival 2009: 12-28 June (www.aldeburgh.co.uk)