Suffolk: The man who dared to dream, and then created Thorpeness
He was a man with a vision. And, a century on from work starting, the fantasy village created by Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie remains a jewel in Suffolk’s crown. STEVEN RUSSELL hears about an exhibition celebrating the magic of Thorpeness
THERE’S a tale – and please, please let it be true! – about Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie’s Eureka moment that led to the birth of a Suffolk village known for its kitsch architecture, a boating lake with allusions to Peter Pan and the quirky House in the Clouds. (The latter is a disguised water tank that looks like a cottage floating 70 feet up, among the treetops.)
In Concerning Thorpeness – published more than 30 years ago by Suffolk Preservation Society – Moira Coleman wrote about widespread flooding in 1910. Ogilvie – an architect, barrister, playwright and landowner – is said to have considered a puddly field one misty November afternoon and declared “Let’s keep it, and build a holiday village around it.”
Work that began in 1912 (and was interrupted by the First World War) created an idiosyncratic but sophisticated fantasy-land up the coast from Aldeburgh. It combined nostalgia for a “merrie England” with state-of-the-art facilities and building techniques.
Homes sprang up, and by the 1930s there was a country club with tennis courts, and an 18-hole golf course. Never meant solely as a holiday resort, it was also flavoured by social idealism. One of the underlying philosophies drew on Ebenezer Howard’s garden city principles – healthy places with fresh air and room to move, where people lived in harmony with nature – though on an obviously-smaller scale than a community such as Letchworth.
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Marketing pushes were run to tap the local, national and even international markets. There were publicity campaigns on the Great Eastern Railway and articles in Ideal Home, and through British Gas.
Thorpeness – not long before a tiny fishing hamlet buffeted by the North Sea – was trumpeted as “The New Suffolk Seaside Resort”. The meare – 60-odd acres of safe and shallow water and ornamental gardens – was billed as “The Children’s Paradise”.
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Dug out by hand, the meare contained (still does) many tiny islands with Peter Pan themes, such as Wendy’s house and a pirate hideout. JM Barrie – the author of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (Peter Pan) – was a friend of the Ogilvies and regularly visited.
With all this laid on, it wasn’t surprising that folk came for soothing vacations. Others later became permanent residents.
About 80 years after its founder’s death, the core character of Thorpeness remains. Its story is chronicled by a six-day centenary exhibition opening at Thorpeness Country Club on May 26. It’s curated by Dr Charlotte de Mille, a visiting lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London but with deep Thorpeness roots of her own.
With grandparents living there from the 1970s, Charlotte was a regular visitor from her family home in Rutland – coming for at least a fortnight in August and a week at Easter, and often Christmas, too. “I grew up like every other Thorpeness holiday child, being marooned on the meare! It’s a wonderful place, because you could virtually run wild and nobody really minded,” she laughs. Putting together the display is a bit like “coming home”. The connection was made even firmer when Charlotte wrote her 2004 masters thesis about Thorpeness.
Then, last December, Thorpeness and Aldeburgh Hotels Ltd managing director Tim Rowan-Robinson – whose business interests include the country club – asked if she knew of anyone who could curate a centenary exhibition. Well . . . “Because I was sitting on top of the material anyway, it was more straightforward for me to do it!”
The displays will feature a range of photographs, many of them from the 1890s to the heydays of the 1930s. There are estate documents that the general public won’t have seen before, and meticulously-kept books of press cuttings in which articles have been pasted, and other ephemera.
Visitors are bound to learn much. Take the buildings, for instance. Charlotte reports that Thorpeness was one of the first enterprises in Britain to harness the potential of concrete, importing a concrete-brick-making machine from Australia to make blocks from beach shingle. The village was “an architectural crucible for experimentation”, keeping up to speed with “vermin-resistant inventions such as asbestos, and political debate surrounding economical housing solutions for returning service-men from World War One”.
Innovation in building materials “was mixed with the nostalgia for an authentic England at a time when it was all too obviously slipping away with the onslaught of urbanisation and mass commerce”.
Charlotte says Ogilvie’s Thorpeness was the realisation “of a poetically nationalistic ideal that combined beauty with a desire for moral and social good. His publicity booklet passionately describes the ‘compelling charm . . . for those who love their England . . .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 exercises’.”
In a lecture a few years ago, Charlotte spoke about the romantic idyll dream that melded with philanthropic yearning. “For instance, the Meare, a unique attraction, was characterised as 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’.” Ogilvie “hoped the environment would shape its visitors and residents into citizens who were ‘kind, generous, polite, energetic, moral, nationalistic, intellectual, comfort loving, and fond of beauty’.”
He wanted these benefits to be felt not just by the privileged but also by the workforce – an integral part of village life. “Engaging with the highly political issue of employment for ex-servicemen, eighty-five per cent of Ogilvie’s men came from this background.”
Organised social activities brought together staff and residents. “Most memorable perhaps was a much-publicised concert by Emilio Colombo, former violinist to the Tsar.”
The exhibition will show previously-unseen photographs of building work going on, and “The Book” – a detailed record of plans, influences and materials. There’s also a fascinating insight into the dialogue between Ogilvie and architects Frederick Forbes Glennie and William Gilmour Wilson.
As now, life revolved around tennis at the country club, golf, and boating on the meare. There is documentation of the annual regatta, which has sometimes included challenges such as the swimming egg-and-spoon race!
Charlotte points out that Ogilvie had a less-widely-known “double life” as a successful West End playwright. One of his works, a piece for children, drew on the village he created. “The Meadows of Make-Believe is a wonderful play he wrote about the meare in 1922. As far as we know, it’s never been put on; but we’ve got the text, costume and design drawings, and we’ve got the music for it as well. The drawings are fantastic.”
A “bring and leave board” will form part of the exhibition, so people can add any memorabilia they’d like to share.
So, what kind of a man was Ogilvie?
“I think he’d have been terrifying, actually! I was told about his granddaughter, aged about six, going to Sizewell Hall with a friend. He sort of appeared in the hallway and the first word he said to them was ‘Scintillate!’ You can imagine being a six-year-old child and being completely taken aback by that!”
The Ogilvie family had bought Sizewell Hall (though it wasn’t then called that) in 1859. Within 40 years the estate had grown to more than 6,000 acres. Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, born in 1858, inherited early in the 20th Century and it wasn’t long before he dreamed his Thorpeness dream. “I think he had a vision and was iron-willed in wanting to fulfil it. There are minutes of board meetings where he’s saying ‘We will work together’ or ‘It is a collaboration’, but actually they [workers] would come in and there would be a note saying ‘The dahlias are all orange and I wanted red’, or something.”
Charlotte adds: “That close observation and hands-on running of the building project is, I think, why it’s such a remarkable place. But, also, I would imagine he could be very difficult to work with. He obviously had tremendous energy and verve and enthusiasm – and a sense of fun, or he would never have created something like the meare.”
She thinks “charisma” is a likely good word to describe his character – “enthusiasm that sweeps everybody along with a plan, whether they have time to stop and think about it or not! I think he was probably one of those remarkable people where that mixture works. You wouldn’t be able to get away with being so autocratic and iron-willed if you didn’t have some humour and wit in there somewhere.”
One sadness is that Ogilvie wasn’t around to see the project develop further. He died in the early 1930s, explains Charlotte. It’s interesting to ponder what it might have looked like had he lived longer and the money been endless.
“What I don’t get the impression of is any moment when he feels it’s complete. He could be very pleased with things – like the country club and the meare and the way the houses are working, and the feeling he’s really creating a community and that the vision is beginning to take shape – but I’m not sure he’d have known where to stop.” Ogilvie had brought to Thorpeness the windmill from nearby Aldringham – to pump water to the water-tower and thus give the village a reliable supply – and she suspects he’d have gone on to “rescue” more neglected buildings.
She acknowledges that some visitors to the village – particularly first-timers – might just see Thorpeness as quirkiness and whimsy, “but what they might not know is that they’ve stepped into a long, continuous history”.
Charlotte recognises, too, that although Thorpeness nowadays has a welcoming air, in days gone by it did have something of a cliquey feel that risked deterring strangers not part of the established social scene. “That’s partly what Ogilvie wanted – part of its success. Generations had a house there or made it their holiday base from year to year; so it functioned as he wanted, with a continuous sense of community.”
The estate stayed mostly in the family for decades – houses sold to folk intending to be long-term residents or frequent visitors. Then, in the early 1970s, many of the properties, the golf course and country club were sold to meet death duties. A new chapter began about 16 years ago, when Tim Rowan-Robinson and partners bought the course, followed by the country club and the Dolphin pub, and began a programme of modernisation that nevertheless cherishes the spirit of the founding vision. Charlotte says Tim wants to stress that we can look at the historic photographs of the village and, while aspects such as clothing might have changed over the years, recognise the place is intrinsically the same. “What’s remarkable is that the life of Thorpeness has continued, almost as if in a time-warp; in a bubble. Where else, for instance, would a regatta on the meare, with fireworks, be quite as successful? That was something instigated right at the beginning, in 1913. It’s an extraordinary legacy.” The plan is to bring back the exhibition next year, when the meare celebrates its anniversary. By then, Charlotte hopes, the amount of material might have been expanded, thanks to memorabilia donated by this year’s visitors. “I think I’d rather call this ‘phase one’!” she laughs.
l The exhibition runs from May 26 to 31 at Thorpeness Country Club, The Benthills, Thorpeness, from 11am to 4pm each day.