Snape is perhaps best known today as the venue for the Aldeburgh Festival; the Snape Maltings Concert Hall its most famous building. But the village has a long and fascinating history, aided, no doubt, by its position at the navigable head of the Alde Estuary.
Two thousand years ago it was settled by the Romans, evidence of occupation being found on the banks of the Alde where ancient wooden uprights revealed the presence of salt pans - shallow wooden structures where water from the river could be diverted and then evaporated to produce salt.
By the 800s it held significance as an Anglo-Saxon settlement. Like Sutton Hoo, on the Deben Estuary near Woodbridge, it was chosen as a burial place for the rulers of East Anglia, perhaps even the Wuffings, whose palace was at nearby Rendlesham. Excavations have uncovered many graves and two boat burials, dated from about the middle of the first millennium. Anglo-Saxon settlement of Snape was evident up by the road to Aldeburgh, close to the present church. It is obvious that at some point the village was moved by half a mile to its present site close to the Alde. There may be several explanations for this – plague, economics or politics may all have played their part.
In the Domesday Book of 1085 Snape is shown to have had 49 men. Given that many would have had families this would make Snape a considerable sized village for its time, while the church was recorded as standing in 8 acres of land and valued at one shilling and four pence – a considerable sum in its day. The present building, originally thatched, dates from the 13th century, with the porch and tower added in the 15th century.
By 1155 the village had been augmented by a Priory built by William Martell, a local landowner, who later took part in the Third Crusade. The Priory remained open until 1525 when Cardinal Wolsey closed it and stripped its assets to use, at least in part, to set up Ipswich School. The barn is all that remains of the Snape Priory, now known as Abbey Farm.
It is assumed that it was the Priory monks who constructed the first water mill as well as a bridge across the Alde, probably close to today's bridge. It was certainly wooden and by 1492 sufficiently in need of repair for the Bishop of Norwich to give permission for alms to be sought from travellers to pay for its repair. The bridge was of considerable importance for many centuries; the road through Snape the precursor to the present A12 for many hundreds of years. Eventually the wooden bridge was replaced by a rather narrow hump backed bridge, which remained a much loved feature of Snape until the 1960s.
As the navigable head of the Alde and the first point at which the River Alde could be crossed without getting soaked, Snape has more than its share of smugglers tales. The Crown public house has a dormer window facing south which was supposedly used to signal the all clear once the militias were in the bar below seeking refreshment.
The Crown also had a role in the great attraction which brought crowds from London to Snape in the 18th and 19th centuries long before the Maltings concert hall produced a similar influx.
The Snape Race Course on the banks of the Alde, at the end of a long avenue of trees stretching from Friston Hall, hosted a race meeting every year for the best part of 150 years. Entries were made at the Crown or the White Lion in Aldeburgh. Racegoers, at least after 1785, were able to arrive via the new road (the present A1094) which was built by the Aldeburgh Turnpike Company and made Snape more easily reached.
The road's importance was not challenged by the railway. Although a branch rail line was put through to Snape in 1888 it was only ever used for goods traffic to the Snape Maltings.
The River Alde played a more significant part in Snape's development than the railway. In the 1800s you would have seen sloops and coasters carrying coal and corn between Snape and Iken Cliff, where there was a coal yard, to London, Chatham and as far as Rotterdam. As a small inland port, with the growth of the Snape Maltings it was, by the end of the 19th century, also a remarkably busy one with ketch barges or ‘boomies’ carrying up to 130 tons over the flats to Iken.
It was by Thames barge from the port that, a hundred years ago, a significant cargo was sent to Holland. Sugar beet had not been successfully grown in this country before but a crop, planted on the field between the Crown and the river and shipped to the Netherlands for processing, proved that it could be made to pay. It was soon to become a staple of East Anglian farmers.
The village had three windmills in the 19th century. At one, Hudson's mill – which was eventually made into a house and in 1933 occupied by Benjamin Britten - the first experiments were conducted which led to what has been called The Suffolk Gold Rush. A Saxmundham bone merchant, Edward Packard, conducted the initial experiments which led to the treatment of coprolite so that it could be spread as a fertilizer. Coprolite, largely consisting of Tri-Calcium Phosphate, was to be found in a strata of local crag.
For the second half of the 19th century fortunes made as coprolite sold for £2.10 a ton and an acre of land in the right place could produce 300 tons. Although better fertilizers were eventually discovered Edward Packard, made prosperous by his process, set up a firm with two partners which eventually became Fisons.
Today the village has about 300 houses and 600 people. With some lovely holiday cottages the village of Snape is a great place to stay both to enjoy the varied programme of concerts at the Snape Maltings and the peaceful lowland heaths, estuary and coastal walks which make this such an attractive area to visit time and again.
Spend your Suffolk holiday in Snape! Writers Studio (sleeps 2), just a stroll from the concert hall, is situated next door to the Old Mill where Benjamin Britten lived. Vincent Studio (sleeps 2) is a comfortable first floor apartment with views over the Maltings.