Thorpeness: The Suffolk holiday village that sailed to success

With a boating lake at its heart, it is a century-old Utopian escape, says Kate Simon

Craig Block, boatman at The Meare in Thorpeness, is explaining how some of the canoes, dinghies and rowing boats in the shed he's showing me around are named after local girls. "I called my daughter after one of the boats – it was easier than painting a new name on one," he laughs.

Craig looks after around 100 craft, hiring them out to the holidaymakers who descend on this quaint village on the Suffolk coast near Aldeburgh in the summer months, mending and repainting them with three colleagues through the winter. It has been his job for the past two decades, a role he took over from his late father.

Most of the boats are about a century old, dating from when The Meare opened in 1913. The 64-acre lake paints a pretty picture. Swans, teal and Canada geese grace waters shaded by willow and alder. On the shore, a cluster of black clapboard buildings edges a village green, framing a favourite snap for holidaymakers.

The Meare is the centrepiece of an extraordinary village that still provides a delightfully eccentric escape. It was born of the imagination of the barrister and playwright Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, the owner of nearby Sizewell Hall, who, just before the First World War, began transforming the fishing hamlet of Thorpe into Thorpeness, one of Britain's original holiday resorts.

Ogilvie bought the tranche of dunes and heaths on the southern edge of his estate and set to work in 1910 to revive the community, ensuring its fortune by making it a holiday village that thrives to this day.

The Meare was dug by hand to a depth of no more than 2ft 6in, "so kids from a very young age could learn to punt, sail and row", Craig tells me. Its man-made islands are planted with oak and ilex and set with playhouses and characters inspired by children's books, particularly the tales of Peter Pan, written by Ogilvie's good friend J M Barrie.

The boating lake shifted the focus from the sea. Ogilvie didn't want to replicate the promenade experience of resorts such as Clacton, further down the coast, which he found vulgar. His model resort might have been influenced by Ebenezer Howard, creator of the Utopian garden city movement, but it became an exclusive bolt-hole for the wealthy.

Ogilvie's idea was to create a village that would conjure up the spirit of Merrie England with its mock-Tudor and Jacobean-style buildings. In addition, he furnished it with everything the holidaymaker could desire for a wholesome break – a boating lake, tennis courts, a golf club and holiday lodgings, a green, a pub, a shop, and even a church.

Craig takes me to see the village's social hub, the Country Club, a gabled black clapboard building sitting on top of a sand dune. This Friday will mark the 100th anniversary of its opening, remembered with a special centenary exhibition. The opening of The Kursaal, its original name, was a glamorous affair attended by Ogilvie's society contacts from as far afield as London. It set the tone; the club remained members-only for much of the 20th century.

The Country Club still hosts events today. But this bizarre destination's top attraction is surely itself. Craig and I take a walk to see some of Ogilvie's most indulgent architectural whims. At Eastgate I find a building styled as a Norman castle, constructed for no other reason than to disguise one of the two water tanks necessary to supply the village.

The second tank was hidden in The House in the Clouds, the most eye-catching building here (you can see it from the beach at Aldeburgh), a red house suspended on a five-storey black clapboard tower, apparently floating in the air. The tank is long gone and the house is now an unusual holiday rental. Near it stands The Windmill, a 19th-century cornmill that was moved wholesale from Aldringham to the village in 1923 and converted to pump water to its lofty neighbour.

I was staying in a more conventional yet no less original timber-framed house on The Haven. The Ogilvies were forced to sell off buildings to pay death duties in the 1970s, and my holiday home for the week, like many properties here, was purchased as a private residence.

Consequently, many of the younger generations of the village's tiny population have had to move away. "They used to fill a school bus when I was a child, now just one kid gets on," Craig tells me. He's lucky, the boathouse on the edge of The Meare comes with his job.

Thorpeness's community may be dwindling but, come summer, the holidaymakers will be queuing up as usual to take a boat out on The Meare.

Travel essentials

Getting there and staying there

Kate Simon stayed in Thorpeness with Suffolk Secrets (01502 722717; suffolk-secrets.co.uk). A week in a property sleeping five costs from £601. Thorpeness is accessible by car via the A12 and A1094. The nearest railway station is at Saxmundham, six miles away, which is served by trains from Ipswich with Greater Anglia (0845 600 7245; greateranglia.co.uk). Bus number 521, run by the Suffolk Links Alde service (0845 604 1802; suffolkonboard.com), connects Saxmundham to Thorpeness five times daily, 7am-7pm.

 

Further information

Centenary Exhibition, Thorpeness Country Club (01728 452176; thorpenesscountryclub.co.uk; 11am-4pm, 26-31 May).

One Man's Dream: The story behind G Stuart Ogilvie and the creation of Thorpeness, by Ailsa Ogilvie de Mille (Nostalgia Publications).

Visit Suffolk: visitsuffolk.com

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