Weird and Wonderful Thorpeness
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.