Why the big Christmas lights switch-on is now a turn-off
James Tapper travels to Aldeburgh, where, as in many towns, the big event is now seen as too much bother
Christmas lights are meant to inspire festive cheer – not death threats. But for the shopkeepers of Aldeburgh, organising the big switch-on has met with such a mixture of opposition and indifference that they have given up.
The lights are up in the charming seaside town on the Suffolk coast, but without the fanfare of previous years. “It’s such brain damage,” said Rob Mabey, who owns the Regatta restaurant and chaired the lights committee for five years. “We used to close off the road, so people couldn’t park. We had abuse, death threats. We were doing it for the town and the ratio of nasty letters to good letters was… well, we didn’t get any good letters.”
Aldeburgh is not alone. Whitstable has no Christmas lights at all this year, after the chamber of commerce gave up amid a row about funding. A group of volunteers tried to step in but, by July, they had admitted defeat. Basildon in Essex had no switch-on this year, and in Taunton, Somerset, the lights made a return after three years – though the event prompted an angry letter to the local paper about the “unwanted” lights being switched on “by a nobody”.
The reaction in Aldeburgh to news that there would be no switchon was that it must be because of the influx of second-homers. As in nearby Southwold, the number in Aldeburgh has risen steadily, fuelled by City bonuses – the local version of millionaire’s shortbread is known as a banker’s bonus – and attracted by the pastel-shaded houses and a high street a few steps from the beach.
Yet most of the retailers in Aldeburgh believe that secondhomers and weekend visitors keep them afloat. They share a problem familiar to many small towns in East Anglia, and outlined by the essayist Ronald Blythe in his book Akenfield: there are fewer jobs locally, so residents work in Ipswich or London, reducing business for local shops. “We’re running to stand still,” said Mary James, who runs Aldeburgh Bookshop and for whom high rent and business rates meant that volunteering to arrange the Christmas lights was out of the question. “We have to work harder to get the same volume of sales. We’re all worried about online shopping, but the second-homers keep us going – some are very loyal.”
In theory, a Christmas lights event should tempt people to the high street, but retailers say they see a dip in sales. Arranging the events ate up 200 hours of his time, Mabey estimates. This involved organising lights, shutting the street and finding personalities, including Lenny Henry and Emma Freud, who switched them on – as well as raising about £22,000. Sally Ogden, Mabey’s replacement as chair of the Aldeburgh Business Association, said even her stripped-back event last year cost £6,000, and the burden falls mostly on the independent stores. “It is a thankless task,” she said. “We had money out of some of the smaller chains but the big chains just don’t bother. We went to every shop and some said, ‘The lights will go up anyway, why should I pay?’”
LEFTThe beach at Aldeburgh, which cancelled its lights event owing to lack of support.
BELOW Emma Freud switched on the Aldeburgh Christmas lights in 2013.