The Sailors’ Path

Although once again I live here in Suffolk, and have visited on and off for over 50 years, until last weekend I had never walked The Sailors’ Path. Growing up my family weren’t big walkers. Yes, we were repeat visitors to the Suffolk coast setting out from homes further inland and spending time at Shingle Street, Sizewell, Thorpeness, Aldeburgh and sometimes travelling further up the coast to visit Southwold.

The Maltings Concert Hall across the reedbeds.

However, although there was plenty of swimming and fishing, serious walking was not on the menu. My father enjoyed beach fishing and my mother the swimming, but the only lengthy walk I remember taking with them was a circuit of the bird reserve at Minsmere.

The River Alde at Snape Maltings.

Naturally, as they weren’t walkers they didn’t know of The Sailors’ Path, an old smugglers’ footpath from Aldeburgh to Snape that partly follows the course of the River Alde.

View across the River Alde towards Iken.

Last week my sister’s family came to stay at Aldeburgh and my brother-in-law suggested we should take the walk. We started at the Snape Maltings end and followed the route through the reed beds of the River Alde admiring the views back towards the Maltings. Then the path took us passed the marshes where the tide was low enough to expose parts of the muddy river bed.

The muddy marshland of the River Alde.

As we walked there was a gentle incline as the route skirted the heathland of Snape Warren before entering Black Heath Wood.

The beautiful light through the silver birch trees.

Eventually, on the other side of the wood the countryside again opened up with views across the marshes towards the River Alde.

The River Alde from Aldeburgh.

Just when we thought we might be able to go down and walk along nearer to the water the path switched away and it wasn’t long before we had to walk alongside the busy road into Aldeburgh.

The formal route does in fact continue along on the footpath of the main road all the way into the town. However, after about 10 minutes of this experience (horrible and noisy) we passed a recently resurfaced side road heading down towards the river. It didn’t look like a public road, but at the same time it wasn’t graced with the ubiquitous ‘private property’ signs we’d seen posted at all the previous lanes leading down to the water.

A splendid oak.

As we were trying to decide if there was a public right of way (no signs indicating that either), a dog-walker came up from the direction of the river and explained how to join another footpath along the water’s edge. She instructed us on how to navigate a new-build housing development enclosed with multiple road gates and join the river footpath. Thankfully, it was a route along the top of the sea defences and well away from any roads.

One camouflaged dog. My sister’s dog, Bertie.

It is hard to know precisely where The Sailors’ Path and gone. It may have been where the main road was built, but somehow I think as it was originally a route for smugglers it probably wove through the marshes. And, with the ever changing nature of marshland environments, the path had probably never been an entirely fixed route particularly in the distant past when used only by locals in the know.

A view of the river defences and in the distance the sea wall. The river no longer enters the sea here as it did in Tudor times, but flows to the right between Orford and the Orfordness peninsular and finally, about 10 miles down the coast, enters the North Sea at Shingle Street.

Returning to our progress along the river wall, eventually we left the river path and followed another footpath across cow pastures towards the buildings of the seaside town. We strolled past some beautifully tended allotments and then turned into the bottom of Aldeburgh High Street just as the sun finally decided to make an appearance.

Evocative art: The Family of Man, To Give Light and The Siren Installation

Last week I accompanied my father to a summer’s evening concert at Snape Maltings. I am old enough (just) to remember being driven past the old Maltings when it was being converted into a concert venue from 1965 to 1967. It was one of the earliest examples of an industrial building being repurposed for arts use. The whole site has expanded considerably over the intervening five decades. As well as the main concert hall there is now the smaller Britten Studio, rehearsal rooms, cafes, restaurants and bars, holiday accommodation and a variety of retail outlets including the Snape Antiques Centre and The Maltings Gallery.

The Family of Man is an unfinished sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which was created in the early 70s and unfinished at the time of the artist’s death.

All round Snape Maltings has pitched itself as a cultural centre and as such hosts visiting art installations that are placed amongst permanent works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms)’ (2018) – Ryan Gander. Close-up of No. 3 Southern Lighthouse Optic (1871)

When I was at the Maltings back in June, for a sublime performance by Vox Luminis as part of the the Aldeburgh Festival, a fitting installation was on display called ‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms) by Ryan Gander.

‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms)’ (2018) – Ryan Gander. Commissioned by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, as part of Great Exhibition of the North, 2018.

1 Lighthouse lamp (1847) – the gas-powered lamp from the first coal-gas powered lighthouse in England, in Hartlepool
2 Cat’s Eye (1934) – invented by Percy Shaw (1890-1976), born in Halifax
3 Southern Lighthouse Optic (1871) – the optic (lens arrangement) from the first lighthouse to use electricity in Marsden, South Shields
4 Incandescent Light Bulb (1860) – invented by Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914), born in Sunderland
5 Geordie Lamp (1815) – miner’s safety lamp invented by George Stephenson (1781-1848), born in Wylam, Northumberland
6 Cloisonné Vase Lamp (1878) – the first lamp to use an incandescent light bulb at Cragside, Northumberland; Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity
7 Quick Break Light Switch (1884) – invented by John Henry Holmes (1857-1935), the light switch was designed and patented in Newcastle upon Tyne
8 LED light (1907) – the technology behind LED (light-emitting diode) was first discovered by Captain Henry Joseph Round (1881-1996), born in Staffordshire
9 Flamborough Lighthouse (1674) – built by Sir John Clayton in Yorkshire, the first lighthouse in England
10 Safety Match (1824) – the world’s first friction match
‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms)’ (2018) – Ryan Gander. The walking couple give you some idea of the scale of this work.

Last week, we saw another art installation had joined ‘To Give Light’. Round the other side of the Concert Hall, near the main entrance, there is a slightly raised mound between the Maltings and the River Alde. Set on the lawn, unmissable and incongruous, currently stands a fisherman’s hut complete with ‘A’ board pavement signs.

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. Commissioned for ‘Siren Festival’ Aldeburgh, 2019.

However, there’s nobody selling fish from this hut. Instead, a small crowd of carved people trapped inside the hut gaze out at our world in dismay at the polluted and damaged oceans. (This work was originally sited on Aldeburgh Beach facing out across the North Sea. It had been commissioned for the Siren Festival, Aldeburgh.)

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. (2019) Humanity separate, desolate gazing out at the damaged marine environment.

The pavement advertising boards draw our attention to the plight of marine mammals and

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. (2019) Announcing marine mammal destruction.

the sign written boards hanging on the hut further detail many of the shocking facts regarding the precarious state of the oceans.

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. (2019) Rising sea levels.

‘Siren’ is an ecological art installation that disturbs and informs. It is the type of intriguing and evocative work that affirms a place for visual culture within the wider environmental discourse.