Suffolk: the culture coast that offers year-round festivals
Suffolk, the bottom half of Britain's great East Anglian rump, has a long coastline backed by willow-trailed rivers and fecund pastures: the kind of environment that brings on bouts of creative contemplation. So it's no surprise it attracts artistic incomers, and that its allure is growing.
Londoners start with Suffolk boltholes, then spend more time here and change to a London bolthole
Actress Diana Quick, director of the DocFest documentary festival at Aldeburgh Cinema from 16-17 November, has had a home near the seaside town for 30 years and has seen a dramatic rise in its cultural confidence.
"Suffolk's coast was once about Benjamin Britten concerts in high summer," she says. "Now there's culture all year round. There's hardly a weekend without something on."
Quick cites the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, now in its 24th year, and the literary festival in Southwold, Way With Words. Her daughter set up the High Tide Festival Theatre in Halesworth to champion emerging playwrights in 2007, and there's now a growing music festival — Latitude — to show that Suffolk has become one of Britain's great cultural destinations.
"It's still a bit highbrow," admits Quick, who cites "the Snape factor" — high-end opera at Snape Maltings Concert Hall — for once setting a rather exclusive tone. "The arts menu is so much wider now," she says. "Recently, I've seen great films, a chamber orchestra in a Norman church and a brilliant Japanese play in Orford." Now she will be adding cutting-edge documentaries to the mix with DocFest.
An international affair
Quick's former partner, Bill Nighy, is similarly effusive about the county's arts scene. "I've been coming to Suffolk for many years and it was relatively undiscovered in my early years there," says the Love Actually star. "But artists have always been drawn here.
"The music festival at Snape is a longstanding international affair and the literary festival has attracted writers from all over the world. The county is now associated with art of one kind or the other and the documentary festival stands out of the cultural calendar."
Central to Suffolk's appeal has been the venue Snape Maltings and the Aldeburgh Festival, one of the UK's longestrunning arts festivals since it was started by Britten in 1948.
"The Britten element has given it a real push and next year is the centenary of his birth, which will provide another lure," says Alex Paul of holiday rental company Suffolk Secrets, which has seen a growth in out-of-season short breaks that take advantage of the county's many second homes.
Close enough to London to have good metropolitan links, far enough away to be out of the commuter belt, Suffolk's iridescent coastal light and sense of space have long attracted artists, from Philip Wilson Steer to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and JM Barrie, through to Sarah Lucas and Maggie Hambling.
Dame Judi Dench, Richard Curtis, Griff Rhys-Jones and various members of the Freud family all have homes and connections with the county. That said, the Suffolk coast is hardly a secret, and for years has attracted affluent weekending second-home-owners — what Quick calls "the Islington barristers and A12 aristocracy" — who have contributed to the eastwards gentrification of London. "It's not such a hard journey," says Quick. "Trains to Norwich and Ipswich are better [from Liverpool Street] and I know daily commuters."
As Paddy Pritchard-Gordon in Knight Frank's country department says: "Suffolk is ideal for a family in London looking for a second home, because it only takes a couple of hours to get to, unlike the West Country."
The incomers certainly add to Suffolk's big cultural appetite. "A few decades ago it was popular with golfers and sailors but it's now artier," says Michael Bedford of Bedford estate agents in Aldeburgh.
"We deal with lifestyle purchases. We noticed Londoners start with Suffolk boltholes, then spend more time here and change to a London bolthole."
Also, there's a sense that Suffolk's cultural offering is becoming more leading-edge.
"Despite its reputation for having pretty but conservative buildings, Suffolk is actually a hotbed of innovation and experimentation," says writer Alain de Botton, whose Living Architecture initiative has two properties in Suffolk: the Balancing Barn and The Dune House.
"We found the planners here are sophisticated and forward-looking and positively encouraged our buildings," he enthuses.
Suffolk's coastal hot zones are the seaside towns and villages, including Woodbridge and Orford, through Aldeburgh and Snape, via oddball Thorpeness up to Walberswick and Southwold in the north.
The A12, which tracks the coast, is the great dividing line for many property hunters: the coast mostly expensive; the countryside cheaper.
DocFest: November 16-18; aldeburghcinemanow.co.uk/docfest
Living Architecture: living-architecture.co.uk
Visit Suffolk: visitsuffolk.com
Snape Maltings: snapemaltings.co.uk
Suffolk Secrets: suffolk-secrets.co.uk