Today’s home of chic shops and classical music has humble roots – and quirky tales to tell

East Anglian Daily Times: Snape Bridge in 1903. How times change Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPERSnape Bridge in 1903. How times change Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPER (Image: Archant)

It's the early 1840s and Robert Fennell is ill. He decides to sell his coal and corn business at Snape Bridge, about 10 miles from Woodbridge. Enter Newson Garrett - a man from enterprising stock who had left his native Suffolk to seek his fortune in London.

The youngest son of the Garrett family that ran an iron foundry at Leiston had managed a Whitechapel pawnbroker's shop. But when his father dies, he uses his share of the estate to snap up the Osborne and Fennell operation at Snape Bridge. The 29-year-old returns to his Suffolk roots.

Back then, the view from the little humpbacked bridge over the Alde is different than today. "Against the quay might be a collier brig being discharged with coal, her mast rising higher than the six low buildings standing back from the river. If this was Wednesday, one of the passenger sloops might be preparing to sail on her weekly voyage to London," we're told by writer and man-of-the-coast Robert Simper.

What no-one knew back in 1842 was that Snape Bridge Quay would become the chief shipping centre on the estuary, despite the slight handicap of vessels having to make a 21-mile journey from the North Sea.

East Anglian Daily Times: Mrs Ward watches the loaded barge Wyvenhoe, bound for Snape Quay and piloted by her husband Jumbo Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPERMrs Ward watches the loaded barge Wyvenhoe, bound for Snape Quay and piloted by her husband Jumbo Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPER (Image: Archant)

It's that man Newson. As Robert explains, "he began malting at Snape and within three years was shipping out over 17,000 quarters of malt each year." That was a lot. Snape was in a good spot: halfway between the Norwich and London breweries, and in an area known for producing some of the best barley in Europe.

The business expanded and became the largest in the area. "Newson marked out the front of the maltings by the road with his stick, but unfortunately he did not walk straight and the slight bend in the front of the building is still noticeable.

"The maltings grew until it had nearly seven acres of floor space. It became one of the most picturesque industrial buildings of the nineteenth century."

A quirky fact before we move on: Robert reminds us the quay is actually in the parish of Tunstall, not Snape! "The Norsemen made the first real settlement in the area, for there was a ship burial in Snape sometime during the sixth century."

East Anglian Daily Times: Snape Maltings: A seamless mix of old and new Picture: PAUL GEATERSnape Maltings: A seamless mix of old and new Picture: PAUL GEATER (Image: Archant)

Back to the past

The story of Snape Maltings - nowadays home to the Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts, Snape Proms, rather nice shops, an art gallery and more - is told in Over Snape Bridge Revisited.

The 15,500-odd words across 50-plus pages form the 42nd title from an author who lives by the Deben and is known for his writing about east coast rivers and the ports of the UK.

East Anglian Daily Times: Newson Garrett: Entrepreneur and progressive thinker Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVENewson Garrett: Entrepreneur and progressive thinker Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

Robert's original version was published in 1967, just after the Queen opened Snape Concert Hall. The new book is updated: chronicling changes over the subsequent half-century.

Back to the Newson Garrett success story. By 1855 he was listed as a lime, coal and corn merchant, malster, shipbuilder, and brick and whiting maker. It was said that in 1861 he owned a dozen of the 24 vessels registered at Aldeburgh.

The maltings were expanding rapidly, and he'd persuaded Great Eastern Railway to build a goods branch line from Campsea Ashe.

East Anglian Daily Times: The barge Justice and another boomie barge with coal from Saundersfoot, Wales. The nearest steam barge is Newson Garretts Katherine Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPERThe barge Justice and another boomie barge with coal from Saundersfoot, Wales. The nearest steam barge is Newson Garretts Katherine Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPER (Image: Archant)

A family of substance

Newson and wife Louisa had 11 children. One was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who became the first female to qualify as a doctor in Britain and England's first woman mayor (Aldeburgh, 1908 - following in the footsteps of her father).

Another was Millicent Fawcett, the leading suffragist who last year was the first woman to have her statue installed in Parliament Square, London.

Newson died in 1894, aged 82.

East Anglian Daily Times: A broken river wall above Snape Bridge after a very high tide in 1949 Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPERA broken river wall above Snape Bridge after a very high tide in 1949 Picture: COURTESY ROBERT SIMPER (Image: Archant)

Quirky facts

Youngest son George was the only member of the family to stay in Snape. He worked at the maltings for four years and became manager in 1882.

George invested a lot of money abroad, Robert tells us. "Snape helped in a small way to finance such projects as… United Rails of Havana and Central Argentine Rail. Garrett also had 300 shares in Barcelona Traction.

East Anglian Daily Times: The arrival of Father Christmas at Snape Maltings, by barge, has become a tradition Picture: GREGG BROWNThe arrival of Father Christmas at Snape Maltings, by barge, has become a tradition Picture: GREGG BROWN

"One of the few investments he made which did not pay too well was Aldeburgh Cinema." He did, though, give the biggest chunk of money when Snape's village hall was built in 1923.

* Ted Pryke, landlord of The Crown pub, experimented with a new crop - sugar beet - in the field next to the inn. "Dutchmen came over to help with the thinning out or 'singling' of the plants in about 1911 when sugar beet was thought to be first grown in Suffolk."

East Anglian Daily Times: Part of the cover of Robert Simper's bookPart of the cover of Robert Simper's book (Image: Archant)

* In the 1920s a narrow-gauge railway line ran from the malt store to the lower end of Snape Quay. "A horse was trained to pull the truck down and swivel it round on reaching the quay," writes Robert.

"The horse had a specially-made collar which he pressed against the side of the truck, so releasing the trip gear and making the truck tip up, sending the malt sacks sliding down into the barge's hold. The horse then plodded back for another truck-load."

End of malting

Following advances in mechanisation, S Swonnell & Son (as the enterprise was by then known) went into liquidation in 1965. It had 42 workers at Snape and was a profitable operation, says Robert, but could never match the efficiency modern techniques promised. So, after 120 years, the malting of barley stopped.

The Snape premises were taken over by George Gooderham (Investments) Ltd. The family business became Gooderham & Hayward, animal food compounders at Marlesford, and with warehousing at Snape. In 1965 it sought to bring in raw materials from London, 26 years since the last vessel came to Snape. Berths had silted up and there were concerns about water levels in the channel. But the motor barge Atrato just managed it.

A turning point

The Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts had begun in 1948, launched by composer Benjamin Britten, his partner the tenor Peter Pears, and civic leaders.

Concerts were held in churches and the Jubilee Hall. Growing audiences meant more space was needed. There was a plan to build a hall in Aldeburgh, but the large Malt House at Snape Maltings - overlooking the marshes - was an option, explains Robert Simper.

George Gooderham took Britten, Pears and festival manager Stephen Reiss around it and in 1966 a 50-year lease was signed.

Renovation work saw the red-brick walls retained - and not plastered over, either. "New wooden smoke cowls were hoisted up onto the roof by a huge crane so that the buildings would look the same as the originals."

Quirky fact: "It was one of (building firm) Reade's 70 workmen who gave what might be called the first recital. This was the carpenter Len Edmunds, who played his homemade violin in the empty hall during his lunch hour. Hearing Len Edmunds' playing convinced Benjamin Britten that the hall had good acoustics…"

Rising from the ashes

In 1967 the Queen opened the 20th Aldeburgh Festival and the new concert hall.

Two years later, fire broke out after the first performance of the 1969 festival and the roof collapsed. A failed electrical cable under the stage was the likely culprit. Happily, the concert hall was rebuilt, and was reopened by the Queen in time for the 1970 festival.

By 1972 the former maltings site was doing nicely, and George Gooderham's livestock-food milling and Snape Warehousing businesses were turning over £2m a year, says Robert. George that year opened a craft shop on the quay, selling goods made by locals.

"George noticed that takings in the craft shop went up when sailing barges visited Snape Quay on their summer cruise because more people stopped to look at them.

"He decided to have his own barge berthed at the quay to heighten interest and bought the 89ft Redoubtable… When George bought her she was a motor barge carrying ammunition on the Thames from Woolwich Arsenal. The barge still had a topside plank, painted red to warn that she was a 'powder barge'."

The Gooderham & Hayward animal food business eventually closed as it could not compete with the large mills on Ipswich docks. "Larger lorries had made road transport cheaper and very large tonnage ships were taking bulk cargos to deep water ports. The era of the barge ports had ended," the book says.

George, and then son Johnny, embraced and tapped the growing tourism industry by opening more shops and cafes. "However, this still left about half the old malt floor buildings empty and little-maintained for about forty years, and they were slowly deteriorating," Robert suggests.

Hopes of turning spare space into a hotel came to nought, before the business won permission to convert the malt-floor buildings into flats and small houses.

On the creative side, the body running the music and artistic events at Snape Maltings became known as Aldeburgh Music and gradually spread beyond the concert hall to create something of a "music campus".

In 2006 Aldeburgh Music agreed a 999-year lease; then in 2015 it bought the whole maltings complex - minus The Plough and Sail pub - in a multi-million-pound deal.

Everything seems set fair, then - thanks to decades of regeneration. As Robert Simper says, "Whilst many similar industrial buildings were pulled down, Snape Maltings, in a new form, lives on."

Over Snape Bridge Revisited is from Creekside Publishing at £10.

One final quirky tale…

In 1966, when sailing to Snape was no mean feat, river pilot "Jumbo" Ward guided the sailing barge Lord Roberts along the tricky final stretch.

His grandfather, when a boy, had served on Newson Garrett's ships.

Jumbo, who lived in a Suffolk-brick cottage beside the Alde at Iken Cliff, travelled outside Suffolk only once, according to Robert Simper. "When he did, he remarked that he had not realised that England was so large."