Fishermen prepare for Aldeburgh feast: David Lister reports on the community spirit that pervades a Suffolk arts and music festival

EARLY MORNING in Aldeburgh. The only activity is on the shingle beach. Jimmy Churchyard, a fisherman with a name and a tanned, rugged complexion that belong in a Benjamin Britten opera, sets off for the first catch of the day.

With the two-week Aldeburgh Festival of music and arts opening last night, the owners of all the fishermen's cabins were putting out the boats. The town's population of 2,950 grows to 7,000 when all the second-home owners and visitors arrive, and queues for fresh cod and sole form early.

At the parish church someone else was up early, putting fresh lupins on Britten's grave, and on that of his friend, the tenor Peter Pears; also on the grave just behind, that of Britten's assistant, Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav Holst.

The black slate gravestones of Britten and Pears bear only their names and dates. Imogen Holst's has an inscription: 'The heavenly spheres make music for us. All things join in the dance.'

The owner of the outfitters in the high street nips across to the Aldeburgh Foundation offices to get publicity to place in his window. Another shopkeeper puts up blue festival flags along the high street.

This is a town full of volunteers. Unlike the Edinburgh Festival, where half the city leaves for the duration, Aldeburgh will not just patronise but will help to run its international music festival.

After their morning swim in the sea, staff at the Aldeburgh Foundation discuss how to mix their official and volunteer duties. Rachel Bostock, head of information by day, will be a page-turner for musicians by night. All 70 ushers at the main Snape Maltings concert hall are volunteers from the town, and there is a waiting list just as long.

'It's a very tight-knit community,' said Miss Bostock. As it was in Britten's operas - though the tensions burst through in those of course. Mention the underlying violence in Peter Grimes, and local people will be quick to tell you that it was a setting very like Aldeburgh, but the town was never named.

Equally they will tell you that the whole town is on the beach in moments when the lifeboat maroons go off, just as they were in Grimes.

Could Britten or his librettist Myfanwy Piper - who is giving seminars this year - have ever invented a character as remarkable as one he certainly knew in the town? Letty Gifford, now 81, runs the 1920s mock-Tudor building that is the town's cinema, and is also running a one-woman film festival. When she says in a tone that makes it sound like a tiresome irritation, 'We have to compete with Cannes of course', it is not an idle boast.

She has secured one world premiere and one British premiere, travelling to Washington to fetch one film herself, ringing up 'one of my friends, the head of Polygram' for another.

This is a remarkably peaceful town even at festival time. Festival-goers, mainly in their fifties and above, do not want a raucous time. During the festival, there are guided walks through the neat alleyways from the 'Suffolk pink' cottages on the front, up the steep steps to the imposing houses above, one of which is the British home of the conductor Rostropovich.

Some concerts are given in the parish church and local halls; but the big ones are a few miles away in the 840-seat converted malthouse at Snape, the venue for last night's opening performance, Britten's rarely-performed opera Owen Wingrave, given as a concert performance, as sponsorship has been insufficient for a fully staged opera. At Snape too, preparations began early in the day.

Julian Worster, in charge of catering, was in touch with the oyster farms that supply the restaurant and oyster bars, and was also checking that other local produce - crabs, eels, lobsters, asparagus - was on its way. No Glyndebourne- style picnics here, but captivating scenery for the interval drinker. The River Alde winding behind the mud flats; the light and the colour of the reeds always changing.

Steuart Bedford, joint artistic director, is excited about the programme, with visits by the American pianist Peter Serkin, the composer Toru Takemitsu and the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra. Exhibitions include prints and drawings by Tom Phillips and the work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. 'It's musically very strong,' he says, 'and the Maltings is a wonderful concert hall with terrific acoustics. But there's also the churches and the beautiful walks. They all add to the appreciation.'

(Photographs omitted)

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