In his introduction to the Collected Ghost Stories, M.R. James explains that Seaburgh, the setting of "A Warning to the Curious", is Aldeburgh in Suffolk. The narrator of the story is equally plainly MRJ himself. Monty knew Aldeburgh well, first as a child and then from annual visits later in his life. I visited the little town recently, and was pleased to find that much of it is the same now as it was in Monty's time, and the events of the story can be followed with little difficulty.
The "Bear" in the story is the White Lion hotel, on the sea front, where Monty often stayed. It has been remodelled a good deal internally (there are no sitting rooms now) but still makes an excellent base from which to explore the town, and if you have a room at the front of the building the view of the sea is wonderful.
The beach is exactly as described. A road runs parallel to the sea, but between it and the water is a ridge of shingle, where the fishing boats are drawn up for safety when not in use. There is still a thriving inshore fishery here. At the water's edge (except at high tide) is a strip of sand, much easier to walk along than the stones. You do feel a bit cut off: the shingle bank is high enough that the sand and the road cannot be seen from one another, as the story makes clear: "We chose the sand, for that was the loneliest, and someone might come to harm there without being seen from the public path".
Go inland, up the short steep road to the church, and walk through the graveyard. A path runs through the older part, which can't have changed much in the last seventy years. On the far side, past the new addition of the "lawn cemetery" where Benjamin Britten is buried, the "narrow path with close high hedges" is as the story describes it. It's a claustrophobic place, where you feel as though eyes might be upon you, and leads out after a while into the fields to the north of the town. One thing missing is the railway: it and its terminal station were a victim of Dr Beeching and have now gone. The ridge where the crown was buried is real enough though, but very thickly wooded. I think the trees have grown up a great deal since the 1920s, and it is impossible to tell (without entering the wood, which I didn't get an opportunity to do) whether there really is a barrow at the seaward end.
You can walk back to the sea across the flat, dyked pastures, and stroll southwards along the beach to the Martello Tower. This now belongs to the Landmark Trust and is probably in far better condition than it ever was before. Of the old battery there is no trace. It was fragmentary in Monty's time, and any slight remains were probably cleared away in the coastal defence works carried out here in the last few years.
The Moot Hall, a lovely timber-framed building which was and is the town hall, houses a museum and has several items of interest to us. For instance, it has a print dating from the 1860s which shows the old gun battery, just north of the Martello Tower, virtually intact. The second half of the nineteenth century must have seen a great deal of damage; by the turn of the century the battery was a crumbling ruin. This whole coast has suffered from the inroads of the sea. In the sixteenth century there were three whole streets to seaward of the current front, and the Moot Hall, now practically on the beach, was well inland.
The museum also has a picture painted around 1900 showing the railway, the ridge of firs where the crown was supposedly buried, and (in the distance) the sea. The trees were much more sparse then. It gives you a good idea of the scene as it was in the story.
I was disappointed that nowhere in the museum, the hotel or anywhere else in the town did I spot a reference to MRJ. They could make a lot more of the connection than they do, I feel. But it is very pleasant to wander about with a copy of "A Warning to the Curious" and trace what happened where. Next time I go there I shall follow up one or two places I didn't get a chance to look at this time, such as the cottage in the fields below the barrow, which I haven't yet pinned down. And the church at "Froston" with the Three Crowns over the porch - was it meant to be Friston (some five miles distant), as the name suggests, or Theberton (which Michael Cox prefers)? Then there is the shop where the proprietor tried to sell Monty a copy of one of his own books - I wonder where in the town it was?
Copyright (c) 1993 Darroll Pardoe.
Links (March 12, 2001)
The White Lion Hotel, Aldeburgh (Photos of the hotel, how to order a brochure and how to book).
The Landmark Trust
(Details of projects, how to order their excellent handbook, etc. A photo
of the Aldeburgh Martello Tower is on the "More about the Landmark
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