A guided walk with Garden Manager Penny Brice
1 Transcript: Welcome to the 5-acre gardens and grounds of The Red House, home of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
Entrance Driveway: The Sweet Chestnut tree in the entrance driveway was planted by the couple in the 1960s. The north face of the house is cloaked by a climbing hydrangea and the beds adjacent contain a mixed herbaceous border of shade tolerant plants with striking white Zantedeschia lilies which are in flower in June.
Tennis Court Lawn: Walking down the brick path towards the Archive building you will see the site of the old tennis court and on the left in the centre of the lawn are several mature trees, most noticeably a Gleditsia, which is the Honey locust tree which is flanked by black pine, Macrocarpa, and Pinus radiata trees. All along the boundary trees and hedges, predominantly yews and cypresses were planted by Britten to create shelter from the maritime winds and for privacy.
The Archive beds: The archive beds encircle a remarkable concrete and cast iron sculpture ‘Sirens’ created in the 1950s by Geoffrey Clarke. The formal planting of golden and black bamboo alongside willows and dogwoods display an array of stem colours during the winter months which complement the austere grey and black structure. The grasses on the left hand side of the Archive entrance recreate a seascape. Britten’s love of the ocean drew him back to Aldeburgh and this was a fundamental source of inspiration for his music. A run of Himalayan birches follows the span of the archive building down to the croquet lawn. These are encircled by lavenders. These beds contain drought tolerant pollinator-friendly flowers such as agastache, scabious, asters and salvias providing long summer colour. Turning down the steps onto gravel path alongside the Archive, you will come to the kitchen garden.
Kitchen Garden: Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears employed two gardeners who maintained a productive kitchen garden. Vegetables grown, including asparagus beds, were accompanied by many soft fruits: strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberry bushes and blackberry canes flank the modern design, which now contains two herbaceous borders and centrally a pergola planted with sweet peas, climbing roses, ornamental gourds and winter squash. Continue along the path as indicated towards the Croquet lawn.
Croquet Lawn: A venerable Irish yew stands proud facing the original entrance to the house and is accompanied by a lovely old gnarly mulberry tree which has split apart but continues to produce a heavy crop of berries in late summer. The long bed running along the pillared wall, which provides a protected environment for growing tender plants not commonly seen. Plants such as the towering canary island native Echium and Crinum lilies from South Africa flourish here. The garden also displays many plants commonly found in a traditional cottage garden. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears enjoyed the outdoors and loved the site planting many roses, flowering trees and shrubs, with firm favourites delphiniums and irises. Along the rose terrace at the back of the house sits a beautiful red dissectum Japanese acer. A green leaved filigree example lies to the west behind the water lily pond.
The Orchard: The small orchard to the west of the house contains some trees from Britten’s time here, today this displays apples and pears with some stone fruit. Almond, quince, medlar, fig and crab apple trees are close by and add to the top fruit collection. The pond retains a typical 1970s waterlily aesthetic. Plants of interest surrounding include a weeping Australian Acacia pravissima and in the opposite bed behind Britten’s Composition Studio the graceful variegated Cornus contraversa tree.
The Library: The south facing beds at the back of the Library protected by the adjacent brick wall provide the setting for a late summer tropical border ablaze with hot colours provided by canna lilies, dahlias and salvias from the Americas.
Courtyard: Finishing in the courtyard which is home to a wonderful resplendent purple Chinese wisteria, the beds contain cottage garden favourites, such as geraniums, clematis, roses alongside salvias, Russian sage and pelargoniums for long lasting colour and fragrance. Britten was very inspired by the natural world around him, and a number of his compositions reflect this great interest.
An Introduction to the Garden
2 Transcript: The garden was one of the features that most attracted Britten and Pears to The Red House. They knew the gardens well, from the house’s previous occupants Mary and Stephen Potter who were friends of theirs; and Britten and Pears’ previous house on Crag Path had relatively little outside space. The garden is 5 acres in size, and surrounds the house from all sides. Standing in front of the porch, and facing towards the large chestnut tree in the car park, if you look right you can see both the former tennis lawn, and opposite it the croquet lawn, which leads up to the east-facing side of the house. The gardens also comprise a vegetable patch, a small orchard, and myriad other shrubs, borders, and trees. While not gardeners in a practical sense, Britten and Pears were very involved with the planting of shrubs and fruit and vegetables, and made great use of the garden for sport and for entertaining. They also collected sculptures, and there are a fascinating variety of these dotted about the lawns – such as a beautiful Roebuck at the far end of the croquet lawn and a sculptured Duck near the pond. Today, the garden retains its domestic character with typical cottage garden planting. Our garden manager has recently re-introduced plants that Britten and Pears were fond of such as delphiniums and incorporated new trees and shrubs to increase the diversity within the garden which reflects some of the places to which both travelled and performed. We recommend you go and find a bench, and soak up the views.
Five Flower Songs
3 Transcript: A few years before Britten moved to The Red House he composed a beautiful choral work, Five Flower Songs – and here’s part of one movement of it to listen to while you enjoy the stunning array of colourful flowers in the garden. ‘The Succession of Four Sweet Months’, from Five Flower Songs
4 Transcript: As you walk around the gardens, you can see various other buildings on The Red House site – these are marked on the map of the site which you can get from Reception. They date from different periods of the site’s history. The house itself has components from the seventeenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, reflecting its expansion from a modest farmhouse to a much larger operation – and including Britten and Pears’ own addition of a front porch. Britten’s composition studio, number 5 on the plan, was originally a hayloft, and the Library (number 3) a cow shed. Other outbuildings have been converted into the reception space and offices, and the gallery stands over what was an outdoor swimming pool. Number 7 on the plan is the Archive, constructed in 2013, and the most modern building on the site. Two other buildings can be seen on the plan but are not open to the public. One is Cosy Nook, to the right of the Archive, and through the vegetable patch. This was built 1972 as a retirement home for Miss Hudson, who had been Britten and Pears’ housekeeper for nearly 25 years. It was designed by Peter Collymore, who also designed the building at the far right of the plan with a pitched roof. This is Red Studio, built in 1963 for the artist Mary Potter, the former resident of The Red House itself. Both Red Studio and Cosy Nook are now used as accommodation for Creative Retreats: space and time for composers and other creative artists to stay on The Red House site to work on their artistic projects. Feel free to turn off this guide and wander around the garden at your leisure.
Britten’s Composition Studio
5 Transcript: Britten composed some of his most well-known and evocative pieces of music while living at The Red House, such as the pacifist choral piece War Requiem, and the community opera Noye’s Fludde. The studio where he wrote them (marked number 5 on the plan) is not currently open, but you can stand below its window and admire the view Britten would have seen when composing. Many of the works composed here were to do with night, sleep and dreams – themes he’d often explored before, but particularly so at The Red House. The four extracts that follow are from these ‘night’ pieces: Nocturne, a song cycle for voice and small orchestra; the opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Night Piece for piano; and Nocturnal for guitar. Take a seat, and enjoy these stunning, nocturnal pieces.