Food for the eyes, mind and stomach at Alde Valley Spring Festival

This weekend the annual Alde Valley Spring Festival staged by Suffolk artist Jason Gathorne-Hardy gets underway at his Great Glemham home.

The four week celebration of food, farming, landscape and the arts takes over the buildings at White House Farm, Great Glemham, near Saxmundham and features a wide array of Suffolk-based or Suffolk-inspired art, traditional crafts as well as contemporary ceramic work and a wide variety of wildlife walks.

Jason describes the event as being a unique celebration of Suffolk marrying the traditions of the past with the best of contemporary life.

“I always think that it is quite an honour and a privilege to live in Suffolk, surrounded by all these extraordinary aspects of our history. Sometimes I am rather like my dog, I get distracted something interesting off the beaten track so to speak, my love of Suffolk chairs is a bit like that, it’s a fabulous tradition and I love the land and the landscape. It all keeps me occupied.

“One of things I am learning in life is that it is very dangerous, but quite easy, to chuck out the baby with the bath water. It’s very tempting to say that we need, ‘new this and new that’, ‘everything in the past has gone’ let’s concentrate on the future.’

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“But if you look around you we probably have everything we need – particularly in terms of skills, traditions and ideas and if you keep hold of your heritage and traditions then you can look to add to them or rework them in conjunction with new innovations. That I find quite exciting.

“It’s the past informing the present and what has gone before can be very informative. It’s all about learning from experience but the important thing to remember is not to put on rose-tinted spectacles. If you talk to the older folks who worked the land two generations ago, it was very hard work. It was tough.”

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But, Jason celebrates the fact that at the same time that tools and furniture were largely made by hand and there was a sense of attachment to those objects as a result.

“It applied to chairs, to machines, to animals and the landscape. People looked after their world, I think they felt more in touch with it and one of things I hope the festival promotes is a sense of belonging, helping people get back in touch with the landscape with their own heritage while still being open to new ideas.”

Jason said that this year’s festival has been inspired by the journey of the saints through Anglo-Saxon Britain and, in particular, by John Marsden’s book Sea-Roads of the Saints.

“It’s an account of the dispersal - almost like dandelion down - of the early Irish saints across the western isles of Scotland. They included St Brendan the Voyager, St Columa and also St Fursey, who sailed round the north of Britain with his brothers to found a monastery near Lowestoft.

“Icon painter Marchela Dimitrova is with us exhibiting icons of the early Irish, Anglo-Saxon and English saints including beautiful images of St Edmund and St Felix who both have very strong links to Suffolk.”

He said that the idea of the saints moving, by the sea, around Britain has given this year’s festival a broader theme of The Land & The Sea.

The festival is laid out in a wide variety of farm buildings including lambing sheds, barns and milking parlours.

There is also a newly created reading room, which will be home to a well-stocked library of books on art and Suffolk as well as the complete collection of books by the Suffolk-based Full Circle Editions.

The room has been lagged and insulated with wool from the farm and the new flooring has been made from oak milled from trees taken from the farm.

“We have dramatically increased our footprint this year – greatly expanded the number of buildings hosting exhibitions and the areas covered by our Wildlife Walks. This year you are aware that the whole farm is involved, there’s something happening in every corner of the farm.”

He said that this year there was a mix of work from Suffolk artists and artists-in-residence who have come to Suffolk from coastal regions in other parts of the British Isles.

“New artists include Jason Hicklin from Wales, who is presenting work from the Western Isles and the Cill Rialaig project in Kerry. He will be artist-in-residence in early May and John Jobson from Wicklow in Eire is artist-in-residence as the festival begins.”

John has also created a series of Suffolk paintings in the weeks running to the start of the event providing a new view on the familiar. Jason said that it was interesting to see how a fresh pair of eyes managed to re-introduce us to our own world.

“John’s up and out every morning at five o’clock and he asked where were some good areas to paint and it was then that I realised that I only have five areas which I like to return to. So I said it’s better you discover your own Suffolk rather than have mine suggested to you. It’s better coming with fresh eyes.”

John said that his wanderings had led him to Iken and he was bewitched by the views, the skies and the dramatic sunrises.

Sharing the space will be Jason’s new large-scale gull drawings: “I started drawing birds in Battersea Park and with most birds you get the feeling that they struggle to get off the ground but with gulls you get the opposite feeling. It is as if they have to hold onto the earth because the moment they open their wings they could be whisked off.”

Also in the lambing sheds will be Ffonia Lewis’ seascapes and flower paintings which will lead visitors upstairs to the Icons gallery.

This year there will also be a small photography exhibition celebrating the power of the sea and the traffic that still characterises our coastline.

Paddy Sutton and Justin Partyka are both showing large-scale photography from East Anglia as part of the festival.

No celebration of the sea would be complete without a new series of works from Maggi Hambling. Her large-scale works will be displayed in a recently restored barn on the farm and will include a new series of smaller works called Night Valleys, some new sea paintings and a dramatic whirlpool picture inspired by news coverage of the Japanese tsunami.

“Key aspects of this year’s festival include the growth of community projects and small cultural art links to other projects in the UK and abroad. New basketry from the Alde Valley’s sister festival Pesta Nukenen Bario in Borneo has been loaned to the Sainsbury Centre’s Basketry: Making Human Nature exhibition Peter Dibble’s work also features in the Sainsbury Centre’s three month exhibition and it is exciting to be able to welcome him to the Spring Festival as well.”

Suffolk crafts are celebrated with works from potters Sylvia Dales, Mercury Hare and Robina Jack, Suffolk Chairs and benches will also be on display, made by Jim Parsons, Tim Whiting, Dylan Pym and Raymond Hopkins, as will Glemham oak table tops by Mouse Pritchard-Barrett.

On the farm, John Esling is working on a Landing Stage land art project, building a woven hazel bank in the flood plain of the Upper Alde. This will be opened on Saturday May 7.

Paintings exhibited across the farm include works by Kate Giles, Tory Lawrence, Tessa Newcomb and Meriel Ensom along with sculptures by Stuart Anderson, Laurence Edwards and Sam Taplin.

“Other key events include the Thursday evening Mardles. Dr Sam Newton will be talking about the early Saints of Suffolk on April 28. Jules Pretty will be talking about his new book This Luminous Coast on May 5 and Justin Partyka will be discussing his photography for the new edition of Mary Chamberlain’s book Fen Women – Portrait of Women in an English Village on May 12.”

The final Mardle on May 19 is a free event co-hosted by Alde & Ore Futures Living on the Edge – What Art can teach us about shaping our Future Coast.

There are also food links for events up and down the valley on the Alde Valley Spring Festival website: http://

Jason said: “Overall, my hope and prayer for the Festival is that it will continue to grow, holding the arts, food and landscape heritage of this beautiful part of the world at the heart of its planning activities. I hope this year there will be more for visitors to engage with and see. Entrance is free, people are welcome to come and relax and explore the Farm Walks opened up by the White House Farm, as the Festival venue.”

n The Alde Valley Spring Festival runs from this weekend until May 23.

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