Weird and Won­der­ful Thor­pe­ness

This England - - Portrait of a Village - JOHN WADE

If you are trav­el­ling the Suf­folk coast and ar­rive in Thor­pe­ness, be pre­pared: the place isn’t all it seems. In some ways it’s a lit­tle weird; in other ways, it’s truly won­der­ful.

This de­light­ful lit­tle com­mu­nity is full of Tu­dor and Ja­cobean build­ings — but they were built around 300 years later than their styles sug­gest. The boat­ing lake looks deep and nat­u­ral, but is shal­low and man-made. And there’s a house bal­anced pre­car­i­ously above the trees at the top of a 70ft tower.

Thor­pe­ness owes its ex­is­tence to a Scot­tish bar­ris­ter, ar­chi­tect and playwright named Glen­cairn Stu­art Ogilvie, who made his for­tune as a civil en­gi­neer and rail­way de­signer. In 1910, he bought the land around a fish­ing vil­lage called Thorpe in Suf­folk and set about trans­form­ing it into a fan­tasy hol­i­day vil­lage to which he could in­vite friends and col­leagues to spend the sum­mer.

More than 100 years later, his legacy re­mains as one of only two pur­pose­built UK hol­i­day vil­lages, the other be­ing Port­meirion, de­vel­oped by Clough Wil­liams El­lis in Wales. Un­like El­lis, who went for an Ital­ianesque flavour to his build­ings, Ogilvie de­cided to re­vive the English Tu­dor and Ja­cobean era, whose styles date to the years be­tween 1485 and 1625.

The vil­lage and its build­ings re­mained in mostly pri­vate own­er­ship of the Ogilvie fam­ily for three gen­er­a­tions, un­til Ogilvie’s grand­son Alexan­der died in 1972, when many of the prop­er­ties had to be sold to pay death du­ties.

To­day, Thor­pe­ness is home to around 400 peo­ple, a pop­u­la­tion that swells to four times that amount in the sum­mer months as vis­i­tors flock in. De­spite that, it has none of the vul­gar hall­marks of a pop­u­lar tourist re­sort, re­main­ing in­stead an un­spoilt and charm­ing lit­tle vil­lage by the sea. Walk­ing around its streets is like step­ping back in time.

At the heart of the vil­lage, West­gate is en­tered through the arch of a huge brick tower that leads to a nar­row road, bor­dered by grass verges and hap­pily free of yel­low lines. Mock Tu­dor houses line each side.

Nearby, the Mar­garet Ogilvie Almshouses com­prise 12 cot­tages that pro­vide re­tire­ment and shel­tered hous­ing for those who have lived in Suf­folk for at least three years.

Dom­i­nat­ing the vil­lage is a huge boat­ing lake called the Meare. Cov­er­ing around 60 acres that in­clude 40 acres of wa­ter and nu­mer­ous small is­lands, it was dug out by hand when Thor­pe­ness was built and no more than three feet deep at any point. J. M. Bar­rie, the au­thor of Peter Pan, was a per­sonal friend of Ogilvie and scenes from the book were recre­ated on is­lands, with land­ings along chan­nels of the main lake marked with names also in­spired by the book. It’s why Thor­pe­ness was orig­i­nally pro­moted as The Home of Peter Pan.

To­day, the Meare is as pop­u­lar as ever, es­pe­cially dur­ing Au­gust when the Thor­pe­ness Re­gatta takes place with fire­works, boat races and a night-time pa­rade of lit-up and dec­o­rated boats on the lake.

The weird­est land­mark in Thor­pe­ness is un­doubt­edly The House in the Clouds, seen from most places around the vil­lage,

Por­trait of a Vil­lage

hov­er­ing above the tree­tops. It ap­pears to be a nor­mal house built in­con­gru­ously at the top of a 70ft tower, but ac­tu­ally be­gan life as a wa­ter tank for the vil­lage and hold­ing 50,000 im­pe­rial gal­lons of wa­ter. Ogilvie thought its ug­li­ness spoiled the sky­line, and had it cam­ou­flaged. He was very keen on dove­cotes and, at his own house fur­ther along the coast, he had al­ready had a wa­ter tower dis­guised as one. With the wa­ter tower at Thor­pe­ness, how­ever, he let his imag­i­na­tion run riot.

The steel tower was boarded and con­verted for liv­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, with the tank at the top dis­guised as a house, de­signed as a clap­boarded build­ing with a pitch roof, fake win­dows and chim­ney. His orig­i­nal name for it was The Gazebo, but that changed when the first ten­ants moved in. They were Mr. and Mrs. Mal­colm Ma­son, the lat­ter be­ing an­other writer of chil­dren’s books, and a poet. She wrote:

When she men­tioned this to Ogilvie one evening, he im­me­di­ately de­cided on chang­ing the name to the far more es­o­teric House in the Clouds, telling Mrs. Ma­son: “You are my Lady of the Stairs and Starlight.”

When the tank was fi­nally re­moved in 1979, the house-shaped area it left be­hind al­lowed for more liv­ing space and the area be­came known as the Room at the Top, from where vis­i­tors could get a bird’s-eye view across the Meare, Thor­pe­ness Golf Course and the Suf­folk Her­itage Coast. To­day The House in the Clouds can be rented as unique hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion with rooms on five floors, 67 stairs and a spiral stair­case to the up­per gallery.

Across the nar­row lane op­po­site the gate to The House in the Clouds stands Thor­pe­ness Wind­mill, orig­i­nally built in 1803 as a corn mill at Aldring­ham, a cou­ple of miles in­land from Thor­pe­ness, when the Ogilvie fam­ily were millers. It was dis­man­tled in 1922 and re­built at Thor­pe­ness for the pur­pose of pump­ing wa­ter into the tank at the top of The House in the Clouds, and con­tin­ued to serve that pur­pose un­til 1940, when wind power was re­placed by an en­gine. To­day, owned by Suf­folk County Coun­cil, it is open to tourists.

The walk from The House in the Clouds and Thor­pe­ness Wind­mill, down a lane back to the Meare, is also not with­out its ec­cen­tric­ity. Note the house with an Amer­i­can post box out­side; the sign warn­ing vis­i­tors to be­ware of snakes; the wall-mounted clock a lit­tle fur­ther on whose hands in­di­cate the usual num­bers from one to 12, but ranged only around a semi­cir­cle rather than the usual full cir­cle of a con­ven­tional clock.

Thor­pe­ness earned its weird rep­u­ta­tion in 2003 when Bizarre mag­a­zine voted it the Weird­est Vil­lage in Eng­land. But visit the place and you might think call­ing it weird is a lit­tle un­kind. Un­usual, how­ever? Prob­a­bly. Ec­cen­tric even? Pos­si­bly. Charm­ing? Most def­i­nitely.

The houses that line West­gate are not as old as they seem. Left: Thor­pe­ness Mill and vil­lage sign.

Boats for hire on the Meare.

The Mar­garet Ogilvie Almshouses. Be­low: The road lead­ing to the en­trance to West­gate; The House in the Clouds; Swans on the Meare.

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