Go out onto the shingle beach in Aldeburgh and stand among the fishing boats, which rest on the shore after a morning’s trawl. If you look northwards up the coast, you will see a number of peculiar structures poking out into the skyline. Perched atop the horizon is what looks like a small, red wendy house; the House in the Clouds, in Thorpeness. Around the same area is the tall, square gatehouse of the village. You will also see a large white sphere, like a golf ball; part of Sizewell power station.
Take a short walk southwards, and into view will come one of the old lifeboat houses, now an artists’ studio, with its attractive cast iron staircase, spiralling up to the lookout.
And just inland of the tower, an extraordinary little house intrudes on the seafront car park – its floor area, and that of the recently added, adjacent walled garden, each only the same size as a single parking space.
These are but a few of the architectural peculiarities dotted throughout the area. Here, we look into the stories behind a few of the interesting structures.
The House in the Clouds, Thorpeness
When Glencairne Stuart Oglivie was looking to transform the small hamlet of Thorpe into a holiday village, the large and unsightly water tower posed a clear problem for the postcard-perfect aesthetics he had envisaged.
Constructed by Braithwaite Engineering Company in 1923, it was intended to provide an adequate storage capacity for a basic water supply to the village.
It was the genius of Ogilvie, along with architect F. Forbes Glennie and works manager H. G. Keep, that saw the house transformed into, what looks from Aldeburgh beach like, a cottage sitting within the trees.
The house was designed for a Mrs Malcolm Mason, a friend of Ogilvie’s and children’s author. It was at first to be called the Gazebo, but Mrs Mason christened it The House in the Clouds.
70ft high, the cottage encased a water tank, with a capacity of 50 000 gallons, capable of pumping 1800 gallons of water an hour from a well in the re-erected Aldringham Mill.
The steel structure below was boarded in, and turned into living accommodation, with 7 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms.
In 1979, the tank was removed, allowing for the “room at the top” to be made, boasting stunning views.
The building now has 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, along with 68 stairs.
Stay near the House in the Clouds. The stylish Courthouse in Ogilvie Hall sleeps 8. Smaller groups will love 4 Truman Lodge (sleeps 4), Rainbow Cottage (sleeps 5) and Church House (sleeps 6). Larger groups might like Alexander House (sleeps 12), 10 The Whinlands (sleeps 9) and 7 Sanctuary.
Thorpeness Mill, Thorpeness
Close to the House in the Clouds is the crisp white windmill. Built in Aldringham in 1803 as a corn mill, the windmill was moved to Thorpeness in 1923 and converted to a water pumping mill, in order to supply the house.
During the war, some children blocked the tramway that the winding wheels, driven by the fantail, run on. Consequently, the steps lifted up and the mill tilted forward. No efforts made to fix the problem were successful, until millwright Ted Friend was able to restore the mill to normal using a sledge hammer!
The windmill and House in the Clouds together make the quaintest scene, overlooking Thorpeness’ beloved golf course.
Lifeboat Towers, Aldeburgh
On the shingle beach in Aldeburgh are two, L-shaped buildings. Built around 1830, these were once used to keep an eye out for ships in trouble. The tower and their adjoining boathouses were later used by fishermen for storage.
The south tower has since been used by artists; for 30 years the author Sir Laurens van der Post climbed up to the lookout’s tiny second-floor room to write. Now, the tower is owned by the former deputy director of the Tate Gallery, and rented out to artists who gain inspiration from the views out over the North Sea.
The Small House, Aldeburgh
Perhaps one of the smallest houses you’ll ever see, right on the seafront in Aldeburgh, in the car park behind 152 High Street, is this tiny building. Consisting of a kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom, the house is the width of one parking space. Recently, a walled garden was added, taking the width of an adjacent car park.
Moot Hall, Aldeburgh
Moot Hall, the well known, timbered frame building near Aldeburgh seafront, was the subject of a painting by Thomas Churchyard in circa 1850. It was built sometime during the early 16th century as a Council Chamber and Market Cross. Later, it was named Moot Hall, and the tall chimneys were added.
Originally, it opened on to the town market – the arcade of four arches on the ground floor were filled in with brick by the Victorians, but would have originally been open, with space for market stalls beneath, as well as a pair of prison cells! When the infamous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, was hired by the burgesses of Aldeburgh to search the town in 1646, six local women were found guilty and held in the cells at the hall until they ‘confessed’ to their crimes. They were hanged on specially constructed gallows.
The houses between the market place and the shore have long since been swept into the sea.
Today, Moot Hall is home to Aldeburgh Museum.
For a full history of Moot Hall, see here.
Martello Tower, Aldeburgh
Dotted along the Suffolk Coast are a series of peculiar, concrete objects. These ‘Martello Towers’ date back to the Napolenic era.
Although the combined fleets of France and Spain had been defeated at The Battle of Trafalgar, the threat of a French invasion was a very real one to Suffolk inhabitant in the early 19th century. Napoleon was lord of all Europe and the burghers of Aldeburgh lay quaking in their beds at night plagued by nightmares of French Fusiliers marching triumphantly up the High Street. The fear of invasion was unswayable and so builders were summoned and the Martellos were born.
A total of 103 Martello towers were built in England, set at regular intervals along the coast from Seaford, Sussex, to Aldeburgh. They stand up to 40 feet (12m) high (with two floors) and typically had a garrison of one officer and 15–25 men. Their round structure and thick walls of solid masonry made them resistant to cannon fire, while their height made them an ideal platform for a single heavy artillery piece, mounted on the flat roof and able to traverse, and hence fire over, a complete 360° circle.
Martello towers can also be found at Felixstowe, Bawdsey and Shingle Street.
Sizewell Power Station, near Leiston
That large, golf-ball like structure protruding from the horizon is Sizewell B, a nuclear power station. It is the UK’s only commercial pressurised water reactor, built and commissioned between 1987 and 1995.
The distinctive white hemisphere we see is used to house the outer shell of the twin-walled Containment building, which protects the pressurised water reactor and its steam generators.
Leiston Abbey, Leiston
Inland and north of Aldeburgh, you may pass by the ruins of Leiston Abbey. It is one of Suffolk’s most impressive monastic ruins and has some spectacular architectural features. It was founded in 1182 by Ranulf de Glanville, Henry II’s Chief Justiciar, and was dedicated to St Mary. In about 1363 the abbey was moved away from what was evidently a rather unhealthy location on swampy ground, and rebuilt on its present site. As a result, the 14th century abbey incorporates some Norman features.
Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, Leiston Abbey was granted to Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk and brother-in-law to Henry VIII. The abbey became a farm with the farmhouse built into the ruins. Later, a Georgian front was added to the house, which was extended in the 1920s.
Lying in peaceful open fields these striking ruins represent parts of the abbey church and the fairly extensive remains of the buildings around the cloister. In the cloister, there are remnants of the canon’s wash place, and at the east end are the remains of the day stairs to the refectory.
The remains of the abbey church lie to the north of the cloister: a small arch in the sacristy leads into the south transept and the magnificent north transept arch is ahead
Snape Maltings, Snape
From across the river, you can see the vast concert hall building, with its collossal pitched roof and large cube chimneys.
Approached from the road, a more delicate facade greets you, that of the original Maltsters cottages; fine red brick buildings, with neat white windows of varying shapes and sizes, external staircases below protruding lucams, and a cascade of ivy covering the walls.
Built by Newson Garrett in the mid-19th century, Snape Maltings is an impressive complex of grade II listed buildings and was, until it closed in 1965, one of the largest barley maltings in East Anglia. Garrett used the existing port at Snape to transport the barley across Britain and into Europe on Thames barges.
In 1889, he was named mayor of Aldeburgh, and it was his famous daughter Elizabeth, the first female doctor in Britain, who took the same post fifteen years later, becoming the first woman mayor in the UK too!
George Gooderham, a local farmer and businessman, recognised the potential of the disused buildings and purchased the site after the maltings had closed. In the 1960s, he leased the largest Malthouse out to Benjamin Britten, who was looking for a new venue for the ever expanding Aldeburgh Music Festival. The concert hall was opened by The Queen in 1967. Elsewhere on sites are a number of retail outlets, cafes, a restaurant, and a pub.
The site is a massive four hectares big, and the majority of the buildings remain redundant and in need of restoration.