“The Borough” in the English composer Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is a bleak place. Based on part of a poem by George Crabbe, the 1945 opera opens with the titular fisherman being questioned over the death of his apprentice in a storm. Acquitted in the eyes of the law, Grimes remains socially outcast by his small-minded fellow townsfolk. Though never named, “The Borough” is generally understood to be Aldeburgh, a small town on England’s Suffolk coast, where Crabbe, and later Britten, lived.
Grimes and his weathered neighbours would scarcely recognise the gentrified Aldeburgh of today. Though you can still buy the catch of the day from fishermen’s huts on the shingle beach, the town now resembles an upmarket seaside resort more than a fishing village. Aldeburgh sits north of Orford, with its medieval castle, and south of Southwold, with its listed lighthouse and colourful beach huts. Together they are considered the jewels of Suffolk’s heritage coast, and are deservedly popular with Londoners looking to buy a second home.
Outside the school holidays, when the town swells with families, Aldeburgh and its surrounding area is characterised by an unlikely mix of pensioners – according to the 2011 census, 43 per cent of full-time residents were over 65 – and younger artists and creatives. “Lots of people that I know [who] were living in Shoreditch have all suddenly ended up living in Suffolk,” the former Young British Artist Gavin Turk has said. These include Sarah Lucas, who left London for the Suffolk farmhouse where Britten lived at the end of his life, another ex-YBA Abigail Lane and the painter Gary Hume, who has a studio in Suffolk.
The area’s rich cultural history has long been a draw. In 1948 Britten and his life-long partner, tenor Peter Pears, established the world-famous Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. The first performances took place in local churches and halls, and are now hosted in a former Victorian maltings converted into an elegant concert hall at Snape, a 10-minute drive from Aldeburgh. The Festival takes place in June, but there are concerts all year round. This year there are special events to mark Britten’s centenary this year, including a performance of Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach.
Second homes make up roughly a third of Aldeburgh’s residential property – and certainly dominate the top end of the market. Two and a half hours from central London by car, Aldeburgh has a community feel despite the prevalence of holiday homes, thanks to the lack of commuters (it’s too far to London and the train line was closed in 1966 under the Beeching cuts).
House prices in the town reflect such demand: they have risen by more than 90 per cent in the past 10 years, and have proved robust even in the downturn, increasing by more than 20 per cent in the past five years. By comparison, property prices in Suffolk as a whole have fallen by 1.7 per cent since 2007.
“The very best properties have not fallen in price – though there are very few of them, even in Aldeburgh,” says Peter Ogilvie of Savills. “The further you move from the ultra-prime positions, the more of a negative effect the downturn has had on coastal property.” According to Savills, prices for Suffolk’s prime coastal property (the top five per cent of the market) fell 0.7 per cent in the past year, compared to 2.3 per cent for the wider south of England. Buyers in Aldeburgh tend to be British rather than wealthy internationals, because the town is low-key.
There’s much to recommend this picturesque place. Running parallel to the beach is the pretty High Street of painted fishermen’s cottages, one of the country’s best fish and chip shops and a community-run cinema established in 1919. There is also a 16th-century Moot Hall, where the town council still meets, and a Napoleonic-era Martello tower. Set back from the town centre is the Red House, once home to Britten and Pears – and now to the Britten-Pears Foundation, due to reopen in June after restoration work.
Situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Aldeburgh has plenty to offer for families and retirees. The golf course is one of the best in England; there are tennis courts in the town and at nearby Thorpeness; and the yacht club, founded in 1897, runs sailing courses in the summer.
The properties in Aldeburgh most popular with second-home buyers are the small fishermen’s cottages on the High Street and the Victorian family houses on Park Road and Priors’ Hill Road. The former, which are ideal for couples or young families looking for a weekend bolt-hole, start at about £300,000; the latter, which are more scarce and much sought after, go for anything from £1m. A small proportion of homes are bought as buy-to-let investments, though Ogilvie says that “isn’t a driver” in the market.
East Anglian estate agent Bedfords is selling Oriel Cottage, a recently renovated three-bedroom fisherman’s cottage on the High Street, for £450,000. As for larger properties, Flick & Son is selling North Gable, an attractive bay-fronted house on Crag Path, a desirable address on the edge of the beach. With five bedrooms and sea views, it is on the market for £900,000. At the top end, Savills is selling a light and spacious new-build close to the High Street with river views. It has four bedrooms and three bathrooms, and is selling for £1.1m.
Just outside Aldeburgh, Savills is selling Knodishall Place, an old rectory with a detached three-bedroom cottage, three miles from Saxmundham (whose train station has services to London via Ipswich). The main house has six bedrooms and comes with wooded gardens and grounds, a tennis court, summerhouse and paddocks. It has a guide price of £2.5m.
Less than 20 miles up the coast from Aldeburgh is Southwold, another picturesque historic town favoured by second-home owners. Savills is selling the four-bedroom ground floor flat of a house overlooking Southwold beach, with a guide price of £920,000.
According to the guidebooks of the time, holidaymakers first came to this strip of the Suffolk coast in the 19th century for its “clear and healthy” air and “the excellence of its water”. Though property prices are steep, Aldeburgh, Southwold and the surrounding area continue to attract those looking for tranquility close to London.
The Editorial Intelligence ideas festival Names Not Numbers, in association with FT Weekend, takes place in Aldeburgh, March 17-19. www.namesnotnumbers.com
● The number of properties sold in Aldeburgh dropped from 69 in 2011 to 59 in 2012
● Aldeburgh has an average high of 21C and an average low of 3C. August is the wettest month, with a monthly average of 2mm of rain.
● Crime in the area is categorised as “low”, with an average of 80 reported incidents a month.
● Aldeburgh has the second-highest life expectancy in the UK, according to a study by actuarial firm Towers Watson.
● This year marks the 60th anniversary of the devastating 1953 East Coast Flood, which claimed 50 lives in Suffolk. Flood risk remains: in July 2012 basements were flooded in Aldeburgh and nearby Leiston.
What you can get for …
£500,000 – a three-bed period cottage on the High Street with sea views
£1m-£1.5m – a five-bed Victorian house with large garden and river views