In the late 19th century, the Thorpeness we know today was a tiny fishing hamlet on the East Coast, buffeted by the merciless North Sea and home to only a few houses that had not been taken into the waves by erosion.
Just a couple of decades later, it would be transformed into a fantastical holiday village, with a beautiful boating lake, complete with Peter Pan islands, a 70ft fairytale cottage on stilts, mock-tudor homes and a luxury country club.
The village population continues to swell with fond visitors every summer, many of whom fall in love with its magic and charm. So how was it transformed into the wonderland that graces Suffolk’s coast today?
In 1859, Alexander Ogilvie, a civil engineer from Scotland, bought Sizewell House as a holiday home in Suffolk. Having made a fortune from his work around the world as a railway engineer, within 40 years he had expanded his estate to over 6000 acres, stretching from Dunwich to the north, down the coast to Thorpe, and inland to Leiston and Aldringham.
The house was extended and renamed to become the magnificent Sizewell Hall as it stands today.
In 1908, the estate passed into the hands of Alexander’s son, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, born in 1858. Ogilvie was an Edwardian architect, barrister and playwright.
After severe flooding in November 1910 reduced Thorpe to a mere puddly field, Ogilvie purportedly looked out to the land at the southernmost point of his estate and declared, “Let’s keep it, and build a holiday village around it.”
So Thorpe was renamed Thorpeness to distinguish it from the many 'Thorpes' in the country and Ogilvie’s plan, to create a fantasy, holiday haven for the upper middle classes, was put into action.
Work began promptly and the new country club, known as The Kursaal, with an 18 hole golf course and tennis courts, opened in May 1912, the same year that the first properties were leased in the village. Development was interrupted by the First World War, but the construction of more accommodation and other planned facilities continued in the years afterwards.
A concrete-brick-making machine was imported from Australia and used to make blocks out of shingle from the beach, making Thorpeness one of the first enterprises in Britain to utilise the potential of concrete.
Despite the innovative building materials, Thorpeness remained nostalgic for a past England “at a time when it was all too obviously slipping away with the onslaught of urbanisation and mass commerce”. (de Mille)
The village was hailed as ‘The New Suffolk Seaside Resort’. An early brochure proclaimed “It will attract those who have no desire for promenades and cinemas. . . those who can appreciate a beautiful little hamlet situated between sea and lake"
Despite the depression, development continued in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, the village was thriving, with its ornate architecture, a successful country club, and even a Railway Station. It was regarded as a high class holiday resort.
The waters of the Meare, bordered to the south and west by the Hundred River, were originally part of an Elizabethan safe shipping haven that had silted up over the centuries. Following the November floods of 1910, Ogilvie was inspired to block the river permanently and create the piece that is central to the village. 64 acres of safe and shallow water, and ornamental gardens, were hand dug in the winter of 1912 to 1913. With a maximum depth of two feet, six inches, it was billed as “The Children’s Paradise”.
The Meare provided a watery playground for Swallows and Amazons-style adventurers, with its Blue Lagoon, Spanish Main and treasure islands.
In August 1912 the first Regatta took place on the Meare, and continues as an annual tradition in the village. During the day boat races and other competitions take place in and on the water, which is lit at night by Chinese lanterns on boats, and a finale of fireworks ends the festivities as dark falls.
Thorpeness was promoted as “The Home of Peter Pan”. JM Barrie, author of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (Peter Pan), was a friend of the Ogilvies and regularly visited the village. His characters inspired the magical little islands in the centre of the famous Meare. The landings are still marked with names from the storybook, and you can find locations such as the pirates lair and Wendy's home, to play on.
One of the most striking features of Thorpeness, one that can be seen sitting atop the horizon from the nearby beaches at Aldeburgh, is the 70ft house on stilts, commonly known as ‘The House in the Clouds’.
When Stuart Ogilvie’s son died in the early 1970s, the family state began to break up. The family was left with punitive death duties, which were met by the gradual selling off of the village’s buildings and businesses. Houses were sold to those intending to be long-term residents, or frequent visitors to the village. By 2000, the only sector still owned and run by Stuart Ogilvie's grandson, Glen, was the Meare.
Due to careful and mindful preservation, Thorpeness is little changed today; the Meare remains just as magical, the original postcard buildings still stand, and the Country Club and Dolphin Inn still function with great success. In summer, the population swells, as visitors arrive to fill the holiday accommodation and day trippers join to take a boat out on the water, to dip in the sea, or to feed the swans. A unique place, it is one of only two purpose built holiday villages in the UK, the other being Portmerion in Wales.
Enjoy a peaceful holiday in the highly sought after village today:
Spinneys Boat House is a modern, sleeps 6 house, fantastically located on the beach, complete with indoor swimming pool.
The Courthouse is a truly elegant, stylishly furnished sleeps 8 house in the centre of the village.
Sea View, sleeps 12, pre-dates the original development of Thorpeness at the beginning of the 20th century, and has wonderful views over the sea.
The Lookout House, sleeps 10, has a magnificent, elevated beachside location.
Shore Cote, right on the cliff top on the edge, sleeps 10.
Alexander House, a traditional Suffolk farmhouse, probably dating back to the 16th century, sleeps 13.
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