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The trill of a skylark darting above the reedbeds shatters the early morning silence, as Teresa Cook looks out across the field where she grazes her sheep towards the world-famous Snape Maltings concert hall, home of the Aldeburgh festival.
So far so pastoral. But storm clouds loom over this beauty spot in east Suffolk, where the unspoiled landscape once inspired the music of composerBenjamin Britten, one of the founders of the festival.
The green idyll of the village of Snape and its environs is under threat, menaced by the prospect of a giant car park to serve the increasing number of visitors to the area. As battle lines are drawn, a coalition of local people and music lovers has formed to see off the threat and tempers are becoming frayed.
“These fields have been untouched for centuries,” said Snape resident John Hambley, a retired television executive who is coordinating the protests. “They were green when [local businessman] Newson Garrett built the Maltings, green throughout its long industrial history, green when Benjamin Britten was inspired by this landscape, green for the 50 years since his death. And now the heirs to his musical legacy want to turn them into a car park.”
The proposals – part of a “masterplan” to secure the long-term future of the concert hall and retail complex – are due to be unveiled in June, to coincide with the start of the annual arts festival and celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Snape Maltings concert hall.
Among the more than 1,000 signatures on the petition against the proposals are influential donors to Aldeburgh Music, residents of Snape and Aldeburgh, local politicians and artists, musicians and composers. Last week two more composers signed up – Oliver Knussen, a former artistic director of the festival, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Forty members of English Touring Opera also lent their support while visiting for a recent performance. In response to the outcry, a public meeting is to be held this week.
Around 500,000 people a year visit Snape Maltings, which has become one of the premier tourist attractions in Suffolk. As well as world-renowned concerts and exhibitions, the site offers shops, galleries, a pub, visitor centre, markets and a tearoom.
Parking space is, to say the least, at a premium. For larger, one-off events such as the annual Aldeburgh food and drink festival and biannual South American festival Flipside, fields are rented for “overspill” car parking from a farmer. Cook, the landlady of the Crown Inn in Snape, fears the proposed location for the 470-space car park would be a “visual monstrosity”, ruining a protected environmental site rich in wildlife as well as threatening her business.
“I am staggered by this,” she said. “We know that Snape Maltings needs to sort out its car parking, but the location, in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, seems extraordinarily ill-advised and insensitive. I am worried about light pollution from the car park – which will be floodlit at night, 365 days a year – as well as extra traffic on the local roads, which are already very busy when there are concerts. I don’t even believe that the plans have been costed.”
The car park would take up four acres – the area of two and a half full-size football pitches – of a 17-acre field in a sensitive area of wetland on the banks of the river Alde, which is a haunt of birds such as snipe, barn owls, marsh harriers, wigeons, godwits and avocets, as well as otters and water voles. Part of a corridor of marshes and reedbeds, the land is overseen by Suffolk Wildlife Trust on one side of the road and the RSPB on the other. To connect it to the main site, the charitable trust behind the Snape Maltings complex wants to build a swing bridge across the estuary.
The Aldeburgh festival was founded in 1948 by Britten, his partner Peter Pears and the librettist and producer Eric Crozier. After local malt production for brewing wound up in 1965, Britten – who was born in Lowestoft and lived in both Snape and Aldeburgh – saw the opportunity to convert the maltings into a new home for his expanding event. Snape Maltings was eventually opened by the Queen in 1967.
These fields have been untouched for centuries. Now the heirs to Britten's legacy want to turn them into a car park
John Hambley, Snape resident Hambley has helped set up an action group, GreenSnape, which organised the petition. He said that many of the signatures had come along with “substantial commitments to fund formal opposition. We are urging Snape Maltings to save face and simply drop this proposal now.”
Roger Wright, the Snape Maltings chief executive, previously controller of Radio 3 and director of the BBC Proms, told the Observer that the proposals were still at an early stage. “The fact is that all of this may prove to be too difficult and too costly to take further – final costings have still not been done. We’re aware of a broadly worded petition but of course we are in full listening mode. Unless we can prove a public benefit then the plans may not go ahead. The car park is just one aspect of a much larger development plan which provides many benefits.”
The Snape Maltings general manager Harry Young said the site currently came to a “grinding halt” because of parking difficulties on busy days and it would be “irresponsible” not to resolve this. If the car park were to proceed, Young said it would be grass-surfaced, often with sheep grazing on it, and very rarely filled to capacity. “We would never think about putting a concrete car park on the river bank,” he added. “This is a very special landscape and we are only interested in a very sensitive solution.”
But this is not good enough for John James, owner of the independent Aldeburgh bookshop. “Roger Wright is a decent chap,” he said. “But these plans have been drawn up and approved by people, including the trustees, who don’t live here or understand the issues. An iconic and uninterrupted view will be ruined.”