Sunday, April 26, 2009



The nearest relative of Thorpeness, a Suffolk village created almost from scratch in the 1920s and 30s, is Portmeirion. They were both dreamt of and built by wealthy, peculiar men who wished to fashion alternatives to modern twentieth-century Britain, and who wanted to generate profit from the vacationing classes. Both villages remain in their own unique categories, though the cosmetic strangeness of Thorpeness has not yet been used for a television show. But where Portmeirion and Thorpeness are very different is in the fantasies they create; for where Portmeirion is decidedly Italianate, Thorpeness is a mixture of bastardised English vernacular styles.

Thorpeness was built by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a rather directionless Scottish dandy who inherited the land from his mother. Ogilvie’s oversight of his “Art Village”, which began the century as a tiny fishing settlement, was single-minded and autocratic. He was inspired by Ebenezer Howard (the creator of Hampstead and Letchworth garden villages) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere, but his vision was altogether less utopian: his Thorpeness was to be a fantastical escape for wealthy holiday-makers. And escape implied elitism and exclusivity.


In his youth, Ogilvie had written some modestly successful plays, and he used his fanciful poetic style to set out the grand plan for Thorpeness:

Thorpeness is endowed with the Beauty…of wide Suffolk wolds and woodlands fringed by amethystine sea – the land of Viking Vigour and of sea-borne health. Thorpeness is absolutely English…in her beauty…in her healthy Home-Life…in her social amenities…in her devotion to every one of those popular athletic open air exercise.

His bucolic vision, shaped by the moral purity and virtuousness of outdoor living, was shaped by Romantic nostalgia and a loathing of industrialism and urbanness. He claimed that “the soul of Thorpeness is reflected, Narcissus-wise, in the still waters of her sometime Elizabethan Meare,” which was to be “a Temple of Tranquillity, where the Soul of over-civilised Man may escape the thraldom of the Great Cities and find its Self alone with Nature and at one with God”. There was, in this Midsummer Night’s Dream fantasy world, an anti-Enlightenment spirit, a desire to regress a stage, to repeal the avant-garde pre-war spirit, a return to the womb.

Such conservatism was an inherent part of Ogilvie’s outlook, but by the time the construction of Thorpeness began in the early 1920s, the horrors of the Great War had made such an attitude widespread. Ogilvie got round the post-war shortages of labour (and especially bricklayers) by exploiting the local abundance of shingle and new technologies in concrete slab manufacture. Producing cement using a machine imported from Australia did not require skilled labour, which meant that Ogilvy could use unskilled, non-Unionised farmhands from Sizewell to whom he could get away with paying low wages. Ogilvy paid just four pence an hour to the workers who dug the Meare, the centrepiece of his commercial vision. Like Letchworth, the land on which Thorpeness was built was owned by one man. All its houses were owned by the building company and sold as leasehold. Most bungalows, houses and flats were leased on a short-term basis, remaining empty in the winter.

I visited Thorpeness during the Easter weekend, as part of a long walk up the coast towards Minsmere and back through the Sizewell Belts. I don’t suppose it has changed much in the last hundred years. It remains out of keeping with the local area (even with Aldeburgh, an eccentric town a couple of miles down the road), and one does not get the feeling that it has many permanent residents. The golfing fraternity dominates, and the whole scene recalls, or tries to preserve, an almost feudal hierarchy. It is, most likely, terribly popular with Freemasons as well as golfers. People know their place and forelocks are symbolically tugged.

And what of the buildings themselves? Ogilvy rather fancied his talents as an architect, and to be fair, he immersed himself in the surprisingly rational design of the village. His approach was overwhelmingly Mock Jacobean (the village is stuffed to its gills with gables and eaves and decorative columns), with dashes of Mock Tudor, and soaked in local vernacular styles.



So the Workmen’s Club, which the paternalistic Ogilvy built for local workers so that they could be integrated into the village (though he never admitted it, Ogilvy needed to preserve a certain amount of solidarity to keep the otherwise transient nature of the village together), looks rather like an old Suffolk barn.

The Almhouses were based on Hampton Court (note the choppy eaves, suggesting that the houses are older than they really are).


There is a golf course and a strangely muted golf club, which is very appropriate, for just as golf is played in the pretend-countryside, Thorpeness is a pretend-village.


The holiday homes are more Suffolky in style, but each has a neurotic little folly or figure to mark it out from the crowd: the diagonal chimney on the Haven houses, the asymmetrical roofs of the Whinlands.




There are two, equally weird towers in Thorpeness. The Westbar water tower, a horribly kitsch Mock Tudor confection in Westgate (itself a flurry of architectural styles, spanning the centuries, spinning round a Gothic core) dominates the village.


More surreally charming is the Gazebo, better known as the House in the Clouds. The gazebo, described as “a monstrous pigeoncote” by the Sunday Referee, was once part of a network which supplied water to Thorpeness. It was linked up to a shortish, stoutish, rather marvellous windmill.



The gazebo, like so much of Thorpeness, is now a luxury holiday home. But should you choose to visit the mill, you will be shown around by my father, who defies Health and Safety regulations by working a six hour shift without an onsite toilet. He will tell you all about this overlooked Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and if you mention me by name he may even give you a free poster (he gave me three!).

(asterisked photos, and much more information about Thorpeness, can be found within this very detailed long essay)


Blogger Charles Holland said...

Really interesting post - thanks! I have long been fascinated by Thorpeness as I grew up not that far from there on the Essex coast. It's very odd. The mere is a kind of children's narrative landscape is it not, with its islands and sculpted outline referring to Peter Pan and other Edwardian whimsy?

Thorpeness features in quite a lot of fiction too including Toby Litt's Exhibitionism and (I think) W G Seabald's The Rings of Saturn.

5:52 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Thank you very much - yes, the mere is certainly based on a Romantic childhood fantasy. The whole project is a bit of a reversion to childhood, as though the innocence of Peter Pan landscapes could save mankind from the 20th century atrocities of war and modern life (two things which for Ogilvie were inextricably linked).

Funny - I don't remember Thorpeness being in the Rings of Saturn, but I shall scurry back to my copy this weekend to see what Sebald makes of it...

7:05 AM  
Blogger darling vicarage said...

ahh, following my bank holiday jaunt this all makes brilliant sense. fab post, paddington x

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Wendy said...

Anyone who grew up around Thorpeness came away with incredibly happy memories. Those memories serve to make life sweet despite all the hard times. That is surely the purpose of Ogilvie's vision. Clearly you don't get the point. It an A-political zone! Where were you when you grew up?

6:16 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Wendy - I grew up just down the coast from Thorpeness, on the Shotley Peninsula.

I disagree with you twice over. First, your claim that anyone who grew up in Thorpeness came away with happy memories - if taken literally, that cannot be true. Even the most beautiful areas have their detractors, and many terrible things happen to people in idyllic places. The purpose of Thorpeness was (and still is) to be a profitable holiday destination - it has always had a small permanent population, so not too many children will have actually grown up there. People with whom I have visited Thorpeness (and the majority people who my dad - the village's windmill-attendant - speaks to every weekend) haven't simply found it to be pretty or twee. There is something disconcerting about the place, rather in the way that a pre-Raphaelite painting can beguile you and freak you out at the same time.

I would also argue that false memories are scant compensation for a life of misery, whether personal or global.

Secondly, Thorpeness is demonstrably not an apolitical place. It is riddled with politics - Ogilvie and Forbes Glennie's choice of vernacular and "mock" styles is determinedly conservative. And of course, Thorpeness was designed to be an "exclusive" destination - it was certainly not affordable to riff-raffish elements.

Don't misunderstand me - despite my ambivalence to Thorpeness, I always enjoy it very much. But contrary to what you say, I very much think I do get its point. One does not need to look very deep beneath Thorpeness's veneer to glean something rather less utopian than what I suspect you have in mind.

8:09 PM  
Blogger urbanpenguin said...

Interesting words, and images too. Thankyou.

I am from a little further down the coast from Thorpeness, and used to visit it as a child. I have to say I always liked it (what child woundn't enjoy that mere?) but also found it rather uncanny and disconcerting.

I'm now researching for my thesis paper which concerns, amongst many other things, Thorpeness. The link to the long essay you mention doesn't work any more, and seaching on the st. andrews site there I can't find anything, so I wondered if you had the document saved or knew of it in another place as I think it may be useful.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Alice Bluegown said...

Currently working on a story set in this place, so much useful info provided here. Have actually visited, and like Portmeirion, it is full of strangeness and charm!

2:11 PM  

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