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?
The Ogilvie Family
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.”
Building a Holiday Village
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.
It was described as “an architectural crucible for experimentation” by Dr Charlotte de Mille, a visiting lecturer at the Courland Institute of Art in London, who ran a 6 day centenary exhibition on the village in May 2012. De Mille’s grandparents had lived in Thorpeness from the 1970s.
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”
But Thorpeness was more than a for-profit holiday resort; Ogilvie designed his haven with social idealism in mind. He wanted fresh air and room to move – the healthy places of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city principles – harmonious living between people and nature, and the sustainment of traditional family values.
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 Home of Peter Pan”
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.
A House in the Clouds
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 Ogilvie set about making his quaint, ornate village, the huge and unsightly water tower to the North of the Meare proved a problematic blemish in his idealistic vision.
Originally intended to provide an adequate storage capacity for the village’s basic water supply, the tank at the top of the water tower was designed to look like a fairytale cottage, with accommodation in the stalk below.
It had a capacity of 50,000 gallons and was capable of pumping 1800 gallons of water an hour from a well in the re-erected Aldringham Mill, with sufficient wind or a petrol engine used as an auxiliary power source in periods of calm.
An English Bofors shell, intended for a low flying V1 flying bomb, passed through the tank in 1943, causing extensive damage. At the time, two Miss Humphreys were asleep below, but neither lady woke up.
Ogilvie’s marvellous holiday village needed to be accessible, so the Great Eastern Railway opened Thorpeness Halt in 1914, a small railway station on the 8.5 mile branch line from Saxmundham. Its minimal facilities were housed in redundant GER passenger coaches, and remained so until the station was closed in 1966. The platform survives, though overgrown with vegetation now, alongside a public footpath that runs through the old station. The original trackbed can be walked on from Aldeburgh to Leiston.
The Breaking Up of the Estate
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.