The British Way to the Sea

Helen Wallace celebrates 100 years of Thorpeness at the Aldeburgh Festival

The proliferation of outdoor music events is a fine example of the triumph of hope over experience. With a fine spell of summer weather in the last fortnight, it’s so easy to forget the pain of rain – cowering under the walkway at Glyndebourne wishing you’d bought hot soup instead of cucumber sandwiches, a thunderous downpour on the roof at Holland Park drowning out a Mozart overture… I was taking no chances for the ambitious outdoor event at the Aldeburgh Festival this year, The Way to the Sea.
The programme warned ‘the audience will be required to walk and stand for some of the performance and routes between performance sites may be uneven.’ So, donning hiking boots and cagoules, we stumbled across the long stretch of shingle between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness, site of the performances.
I’ve always thought of Thorpeness as one of the creepiest villages in England, with its rows of Tudorbethan semis, built in 1912 by a magnate who wanted to create a healthy, suburban sea-side paradise for the ‘right sort of people’ who would indulge in fishing, boating, swimming and golf – as oppose to gambling and drinking on the pier at Southend. Everything looks flimsy, like the set for a southern version of The League of Gentleman’s weird ‘local’ village.
Media artists Pippa Nissen and Netia Jones of Transition Projects, devised a brilliant tour of a subtly transformed village, suddenly peopled with jolly types from the Twenties, dressed in canary yellow and playing tennis at the country club, thrashing about with a golf club in the bracken uttering oaths, or picnicking by the sea. In an inspired Magritte moment, we came round a corner and saw a man in pinstripe suit and bowler-hat standing motionless on the waters of the Meare, briefcase in hand, as if he’d stepped straight off a train from Liverpool Street.
I should add that it was pouring with rain, the wind whipping up white horses on the North Sea, but this mattered not a jot, as we weren’t trapped, but hurried on from venue to venue. The country club was the venue for Britten and Auden’s slyly hilarious Thirties GPO film The Way to the Sea, celebrating the new concept of mass tourism, followed by a mesmerising performance of Britten’s Holiday Tales played by Christopher Glynn. These early piano works are astonishing feats of virtuosity, intensity and atmosphere, and are rarely ever played.

Our final destination was the faux-baronial Ogilvie Hall for a recital of Auden-Britten songs with Glynn and tenor Alan Oke, focusing on the wittily abrasive On this Island cycle. Oke played the young clerk from London and a video set provided yet another provocative and witty dimension to the narrative. Meanwhile the music told the story of Auden’s ultimately futile flirtation with Britten, whose rejection is encapsulated in Night covers up the rigid land, one of their most beautiful songs. A rich and haunting afternoon’s music, come wind or weather.  

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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