Tonight at the Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh in Suffolk we’re putting on Benjamin Britten’s opera ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and I’m singing the part of Oberon, King of the Fairies. It’s an opera that was first performed in 1960 at the Jubilee Hall, which lies at the northerly end of the small seaside town of Aldeburgh. Both Snape and Aldeburgh resonate with the memory of Britten. You can stand on the pebbled beach and hear the music of his opera ‘Peter Grimes’ in the rumbling tide, or walk past his old lodgings off the high street.
Wherever you look you see what Britten saw; this is why so many musicians such as me relish the chance to head down to this quiet corner of England and make music. Once here, looking out across the rooftops of Aldeburgh towards the never-ending horizon with the swish of seawater and cries of gulls, time at once stands still.
Aldeburgh in my mind is a long line of shops and houses waiting to disappear into the sea. Up the coast in nearby Dunwich all that is left are one street and a scattering of monastic rubble. But great efforts by man have been made to protect Aldeburgh. After severe floods in the mid twentieth century, the beach front was engineered and banked in such a way that the community may enjoy their view hopefully for a long time to come.
It’s not the first time that Aldeburgh has been the subject of protection. Looking at the sea you need only turn your gaze ninety degrees to the right to spot some ominous shadow of a building looming in the distance. This is the Martello Tower. On closer inspection the intrepid walker will find (about fifteen minutes along the pebbles from the High Street) this monolithic brick construction like a giant jelly mould sitting all alone between the waves of the North Sea and the River Alde. Look even closer and the gateway to the bridge that leads to the secluded entrance bears the name ‘Landmark Trust’.
My wife and I have been fortunate enough to secure the Tower for four nights whilst working here at the Aldeburgh Festival. It’s not the first time we’ve stayed in a Landmark Trust property and it certainly won’t be the last.
We live in York, which is ridiculously blessed on the historic buildings count. In fact Clifford’s Tower in York (the mediaeval castle keep) bears a striking resemblance to the Martello Tower.
Martello Towers were constructed all along the south eastern cost of England in response to the rising threat of Napoleonic invasion at the start of the nineteenth century. This costal defence strategy of a chain of squat, circular towers was suggested by an army captain who had seen how successful were similar ones in resistance to bombardment by the Royal Navy at Mortella Point in Corsica in 1794. The name of course got messed around and Mortella became Martello.
The approach is these days either by foot or by car. We suggest you bring a car as the higher position of the tower can mean in windy weather quite an exposed trudge over the pebbles. It’s nice to be able to stroll in the sunshine, but food shopping or log carrying for the wood-burner is less appealing in the wind. A narrow bridge takes us from the land into the tower, over what used to be a moat or certainly a large defensive ditch. It’s easy to forget in some of the more eccentric of the Landmark properties that they were not designed for living, so well are they kitted out for just that purpose these days. Martello Tower is no exception.
Originally it would have sported four large canons atop its roof and have cellared dangerously large quantities of gunpowder. Perhaps there was a stove or a chamber pot for the soldiers on guard here. Now however, there is an immediate blast of heat when we walk in. The central heating system is really good. And you quickly see why. This is a truly isolated building. It’s like being in a ship. Stand in the living room and gaze out of the narrow window and all you see is sea. The wind howls all around and the undulating ebb and flow of the North Sea waves trick the visitor into a sense of voyage. But the heating…it’s so good!
Despite the warmth inside we are keen to explore the roof and see the view. This is madness, as there is a gale blowing outside and the rain is beginning to chuck itself on Suffolk. The week before had been glorious sunshine and late evening fish and chips as the sun set. For some reason we’ve chosen our Martello stay to coincide with the cliché British summer instead. Nevertheless, come rain or shine the rooftop is stunning. The views are unparalleled save for perhaps those from nearby Orford Castle’s well-appointed vantage. There’s a handy nook in the defensive wall’s crenulation in which to have a barbeque, but not today.
So we head to the opposite end of the tower and into its cellar. Secret doors from a couple of the main rooms lead down a stone staircase into chambers below, dimly lit and hardly touched since their construction. Where there were once gunpowder stores and military supplies now lies an eerie silence. My mind of course sees the potential for the most beautiful wine cellar. I imagine that’ll be a hard one to persuade Landmark to take on.
Back in the main floor of the tower we have a choice of two bedrooms. We chose the one facing the north as the wind seems to be coming from the south, but as it happens the windows here are well protected with clever folding shutters that keep the elements at bay. Indeed, I wake the next morning after 7am thanks to the covering of sunlight, which is a first in a long time for me. Grateful for this ‘lie-in’ we prepare breakfast in the simple kitchen that has everything you need and nothing you don’t need. It’s a quiet reminder that Landmark Trust properties manage to cater for the uncluttered lifestyle and this adds to your sense of freedom and ultimately peace and relaxation. Meals at the Martello Tower can be enjoyed in the central room, which is vast in proportion and has a table to match. A well of light cascades down from a small opening in the centre of the domed ceiling, and with all the four rooms around this atrium shut off you feel as far away from the outside as is possible.
As a singer who travels the world performing in opera houses and concert halls, isolation can be a good thing from time to time. Hotels are comfortable but you can’t always practise when you want and inevitably the cost rises the more dignified the residence. Landmark Trust properties offer a very competitive pricing to self-catering accommodation, bed and breakfasts and hotels. Clearly the larger the property the more friends or family members you can bring along and the cost drops per head. But for me it’s the isolation and chance to enjoy something unique that sets these properties apart from the competition. It’s worth reminding myself that I’m singing a role in an opera that was premiered 1000 metres from where I am typing this, sitting as I am in a building built purely for the purposes of sinking the French Navy. It’s not a Travelodge, is it?
During the four days I make two televised interviews. One is for Euronews, a channel who have come to focus on the Britten opera we are performing. This year marks 50 years since the opening of Snape Maltings concert hall and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was the featured opera in 1967 as it is this year. The other interview is a very special one that I wanted to make for the Landmark Trust. We put together some pieces to camera about my experiences of staying at other properties and how we have got on here in the tower. I also sang a short song from Twelfth Night, ‘Heigh, Ho, The Wind and the Rain’, which was all the more appropriate considering the recent turn in the forecast.
Our penultimate morning was one celebrating the best aspect of this property, and I think of all the properties. That is to share it with your friends and experience something out of the ordinary. I invited the cast of the opera over for a brunch: dozens and dozens of pork sausages from Aldeburgh’s excellent butchers set out with coffee, juices and toast. A chance to bring the building to life, with conversation and laughter. I always believe that buildings are not solely made by the architect but also by the people who live and breathe in them.
For that reason, Landmark Trust properties are significant in that what appears to be something that isn’t on the outside ‘for me’ is actually solely ‘for you’. Your visit will be unlike anyone else’s, because you are the actors taking that stage at that time. Staying here is uncannily like being in an opera. Flicking through the brochure is like picking a theatrical set and letting your imagination do the rest.
And so it is that this particular set of scenes must draw to a close. As my colleagues leave the Martello Tower, some, unable to find me to offer their goodbyes until opening night, call ‘where’s the King of the Castle then?’ I’m not King of the Castle, well maybe just for these four days, but I’m certainly off tonight to be King of the Fairies. The stay at the Martello Tower has been one of those experiences that can only enrich your life. I hope in some way the magic of the building will rub off in tonight’s performance. Its strange position, straddling the land and the sea and the forgotten melancholy of threatening empires that eerily haunt the brickwork, can only enhance the otherworldliness of Oberon. As always with Landmark Trust stays, you can truly escape and return the better for it.
I forgot to mention but there’s little or no phone reception at this end of the beach and certainly no Wi-Fi. It would usually be a blessing to be so cut off from the world but yesterday there was a General Election and this morning I’m still none the wiser as to who is running the country. I might just stay a few minutes more…
Watch Iestyn perform at Martello Tower
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