Stories from the Archive

Seaside, water and sea-creatures

This month’s objects all emerge dripping from the archive as we dive into Glyndebourne’s seas, lakes and ponds – on-stage and off.

August – month of heatwaves, summer holidays and trips to the seaside.

Glyndebourne may not be on the coast (though since the very beginning casts have headed to nearby Seaford for a swim) but it has plenty of water features of its own. This month’s objects all emerge dripping from the archive as we dive into Glyndebourne’s seas, lakes and ponds – on-stage and off.

Photograph of wine bottles in the Glyndebourne lake

At the heart of the Glyndebourne gardens is the lake. Company members swim in it, audience members stroll around it, and water lilies, fish and eels all live in it. But for a brief period during the 1960s the lake had another function – refrigerator.

Before the era of coolboxes a custom developed; before the start of performances visitors would take their bottles of white wine or Champagne, tie a string around their necks and then float them in the lake to keep them cool. When the long interval began they would retrieve them – or at least attempt it. The number of bottles discovered when the lake was dredged in 2005 suggests that at least some may have escaped, while many others were thrown back once emptied. A story goes that one man, while trying to reel his bottle back in, slipped into the lake soaking his trousers in water and mud. He was taken off to the wardrobe department by the ushers who found him a replacement pair of trousers to go back in for the second half. By the time he emerged at the end, his own trousers were waiting for him – washed, dried and freshly pressed.

The main Glyndebourne lake is just the first in a chain of three lakes going down the side of the field in front of the opera house. The second has become a home to wildlife and water-birds, with ‘Duck Island’ at its centre, while the third was dug out by John Christie, lined with concrete and surrounded by yew hedges in order to be used for swimming, back when the main lake was much marshier. Many Glyndebourne guests and artists swam there including Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, captured in one photograph from 1946, relaxing at the side of it in a break during rehearsals for The Rape of Lucretia.

Cod’s head from Peter Grimes

This lifelike cod’s head (currently on display in the Old Green Room) is the sole surviving prop from Glyndebourne’s original Peter Grimes. This beautiful 1992 production, directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by John Gunter, was premiered in the original opera house but also revived in 1994 as part of the first season in the new house.

This traditional production opens with a vivid scene of Suffolk seaside life. Women sit on the quayside gutting huge baskets of fish – including this one, with its bulbous head and bloodied body. The production was the prompt for an unexpected letter dated 9 May 1992 from a certain Abert E Bream representing ‘The Fish Union’. Mr Bream took vigorous issue with Glyndebourne’s violations of the standard ‘Grimsby Agreement’ for fish appearances on stage. Inadequate dressing room facilities, segregated showers and central heating were among various grievances listed for the author’s fishy clients. Read the full letter.

Unlike animals, fish haven’t made frequent appearances on the Glyndebourne stage, but another memorable example was 2006’s Betrothal in a Monastery. In Prokofiev’s opera, the young heroine is promised in marriage (against her will) to a fish merchant. A dream sequence saw dancers take the place of various characters including the fish merchant, now complete with a giant fish’s head sticking up from the top of his suit. The appearance of three small children, each with their own little fish head, completed this grotesque vision of future domesticity.

1937 newspaper cutting about Glyndebourne’s ornamental fountain

A 1937 newspaper cutting from The Times reports on the significant changes taking place at Glyndebourne during the process of improving the original theatre:

‘The extension to the theatre has involved the removal of the little fountain in the garden outside. Those who regret its disappearance may be reconciled to the new covered court, with its views and vistas from its open end, by the thought that they can now reach their dinners in the dry; not only will they not fall into the pond, as people sometimes did, but the rain cannot mark frocks or splash trousers.’

The ‘little fountain’ mentioned was situated immediately behind the back of Glyndebourne’s original theatre, in an enclosed garden. Bounded by a low wall on just one side, it’s easy to see how, in the dark at the end of a long evening, an unwary audience member could easily stumble into it, as apparently happened on more than one occasion. Filled in to form part of the covered way, it wasn’t replaced until 2016 when the redesigned Figaro Garden acquired a new reflective pool into which (as far as we know) no one has fallen – yet.


Image credits: Header image, photo by Guy Gravett | Wine bottles by the lake, photos by Mike Hoban | Archive objects: Cod’s Head from Peter Grimes and 1937 Newspaper cutting, photos by James Bellorini

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