Let's staycation in... Thorpeness
- Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown
Thorpeness is an absolute gem in the crown of Suffolk’s gorgeous coastline.
Gloriously quirky and just a mile from Aldeburgh, it was bought in 1910 by Scottish playwright Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie who created a private fantasy holiday village for his friends and family to visit in the summer.
The Tudor and Jacobean-style homes and the fabulous fairytale sky-grazing House in the Clouds remained in the Ogilvie family until 1972, when the majority were sold.
Fringed by a shingle beach, marshland and stunning heathland, Thorpeness is a wonderful base for walkers, cyclers, birdwatchers and lovers of the weird (I’m in the latter camp).
The meare at the heart of the village covers more than 60,000 acres and is a glorious shallow boating lake where you can drift between tiny islands named by Peter Pan author JM Barrie and then, of course, there’s the sea.
It’s a magical place to visit for the day or for longer, a true escape from the world.
Where to stay in Thorpeness?
We stayed for two nights at Spinney’s Boathouse on the Beach through UK Vacations in a small but perfectly formed self-catering timber cottage with a private gate to the beach. It has a garden, sleeps six and has everything you could need for a short break. It’s available on lots of booking sites and host Donna is a delight and a mine of local information.
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You can hear the waves from the bedrooms and you’re 60 seconds away from house-to-beach to watch the sunrise on the east coast.
We had breakfast at The Kitchen@Thorpeness which was a two-minute walk away and had plentiful fry-ups (great sausages, my husband said) and fluffy pancake stacks with Biscoff cream. There are plenty of farm shops and delicatessens for picnics and easy dinners nearby.
Where else can you stay?
Try Thorpeness Golf Club and Hotel, home to one of Suffolk’s finest golf courses and featuring a 36-bedroom hotel, an 18-hole championship course. There's also Ogilvie’s Grill House Restaurant and Braid’s Bar and Jigger’s Miniature Golf, or The Dolphin where three rooms overlook the garden. Or there's Thorpeness Alms houses, where the restaurant serves vegetables grown a stone’s throw away at its own allotment.
We asked James Jenkins, who runs Mabel & Co and has a shop and Letterpress studio in Thorpeness, to suggest some wonderful things to see in the village and beyond.
Why do you love Thorpeness?
Approached along the coastal road from Aldeburgh, the outline of Thorpeness is as unique as the village itself. The low treeline along the North Warren marshes give way to the wind pump, House in the Clouds, numerous towers and the dome of Sizewell, before petering out to the shingle beach and sea. Then as you arrive you struggle to work out what you are looking at; mock Tudor and genuinely older buildings sit alongside old army barracks and boat houses, as well as modern architecture. Embarrassingly it's only when you have been away that you come back and realise how strange and wonderful it all is. It's a well-known saying that to being anything is forgivable - except boring, and I think that's what I love about Thorpeness - round every corner is something fascinating or unexpected.
If you were going to stay in Thorpeness, where would you stay?
Five Acre Barn is just outside Thorpeness: winner of both national and regional RIBA awards for its architecture, the house is nestled in its own beautiful gardens that are the labour of love for owners David Woodbine and Bruce Badrock. Both are warm and friendly hosts, and when visitors come to the shop they are always full of praise about their stay. This is not entirely surprising as the B and B has featured in numerous national newspapers and Conde Nast Traveller, but they wear all this attention lightly and Five Acre Barn is the perfect relaxed place to stay when exploring the coast.
Five things to do in Thorpeness:
1. Well obviously we would love you to come and seek us out! Look behind the Dolphin Pub, where we will be treadling away in our letterpress shop on our Victorian printing presses. Of course, while you are there it would be rude not to slip through the gate and enjoy a something refreshing at The Dolphin's garden, looking out over the village triangle and almshouses, complete with their own tower (one of four towers we have in the village, including the church).
2. While the path between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness can feel a bit like the M4 on a sunny day, few people venture north of Thorpeness, where the coastal scenery is arguably even more beautiful and is certainly much quieter. A picnic here among the dunes, looking out over the shingle beach is a lovely way to spend an hour or two.
3. No trip to Thorpeness is complete without going to see Craig and renting out one of the famous old rowing boats from the boathouse on the Meare. It's worth hiring one a little longer than you think, as towards the west side are hidden passages, that snake through trees and reeds. Out here it's not unusual to leave everyone else behind and find yourself lost in the start of the Fens, with only dragonflies and birds for company.
4. If you are coming up from Aldeburgh there is a circular walk that approaches Thorpeness along the beach (taking in that famous scenery) and returns along the old railway line. On your way up, it's worth looking out for the Aldeburgh Beach apple tree, incongruously nestled in the shingle near to the ruins of Sluice Cottage and mentioned by Roger Deakin in his famous book on trees, Wildwood. To return, walk past the House in the Clouds and along the golf course, until you meet the path at Sheep Wash Crossing. From here the track is straight and just as you approach Aldeburgh you might spot a second wild apple tree, Railwayman's Pippen, on the left.
5. Finally, take time to just explore the village, away from the usual road route through. Most of the tracks and paths are public and wandering in and out of them, seeing the unusual and diverse buildings, walking under the towers and across the commons is a key part of being here. Set back from the beach houses, among the old fishing huts, is the new Heritage Hut, where they can help guide you around and provide some of the history of the village.
Other places to visit nearby:
A short drive or pleasant cycle from Thorpeness and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is Maple Farm in Kelsale, where Pinch Suffolk can be found. Owner Alice arrived back to Suffolk a couple of years ago after working in London as a head chef and set up her kitchen right next door to the organic farm shop, whose ingredients she uses extensively. Her handmade pasta consists of eggs and flour grown and milled on the farm and is outstanding, but it's her coffee and crullers (deep-fried rings of choux pastry and iced in flavours inspired by Suffolk) at the weekend that you should go for - a treat that would be lovely on the beach, but frankly with us don't usually last that long!
Between Aldeburgh and Thorpeness lies RSPB's North Warren reserve, a remarkable collection of diverse habitats, including heathland, mature woodland, reed beds, lowland grazing and scrapes. We've been lucky enough to see marsh harriers, fox cubs, weasels, bitterns, hobbies and otters here over the years.
Where to eat in Thorpeness:
The Dolphin Inn is rightfully popular with visitors and locals alike, for both its great food and lovely garden. David and the team work hard to make this the heart of the village and we doubt many come to Thorpeness without popping in for a drink or meal.
Where to shop in Thorpeness:
Discreetly found to the rear of the Kitchen, near the Meare, is the Emporium, a fabulous selection of antiques, collectables and vintage finds from local dealers.
To tell a tale of a seaside village, where there are only two shops, one selling antiques and the other a print shop printing on Victorian presses all sounds a bit fantastical, but then that's Thorpeness all over really, isn't it?