Sand: Thorpe's primary Edwardian resource

In the summer of 1913 there was a flurry of reports in the national and local press about the inauguration of ‘Thorpness Meare’ as a prime example of the latest development of a garden village by the sea.

The Daily Telegraph reported it as follows:

New East Coast Resort
Town-planning inland has been very popular of late, but the designing of an ideal seaside village has not been attempted hitherto. If such a holiday resource could be created it would surely be on the East coast, where there are unlimited sea breezes and sunshine as all-important accessories, and a wealth of yellow beaches and vacant land to experiment with………… Thorpeness, a little fishing village a mile-and-a-half on the Southwold side of Aldeburgh, is, in fact, a combination of cottages and bunaglows, pitched here and there among the sand dunes. Situated on the outskirts of lovely heathland, it is an excellent spot for an unconventional holiday……
Now a veritable Suffolk broad has been created……… Its many islands and miniature fijords have received names dear to the traditions of every nursery, and this must make it still more attractive. Together with its breezy sands, quaint but convenient bungalows, and fine air, Thorpeness ought to have its full share of popularity in common with the other nineteen kindred towns served by the Great Eastern Railway on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts.

In fact, the vacant land was a tract of sand dunes and a small hill bounded by a 5 metre high cliff, belonging to the Seaside Bungalows Company, Ltd, at Thorpe, a small coastal hamlet of Leiston. The manorial rights to the seashore had been purchased from Lord Huntingfield, lord of Leiston manor, and the commercial project was driven forward by the Ogilvie family who owned most of the coastal land between Aldeburgh and Dunwich. The prime mover was G. Stuart Ogilvie who sought to apply arts and craft principles to the scientific design of houses that demonstrate the pleasing effects of the Tudor style which he regarded as the most picturesque expression of English domestic architecture.

In fact, Thorpe was not the first such development from scratch. As early as 1860, Saltburn-by-Sea on the north Yorkshire coast had been created by the Victorian entrepreneur Henry Pease, apparently after having seen a vision of a heavenly city reminiscent of the description of Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. Thorpe and Saltburn have in common the new railway links essential at that time to bring a stream of summer visitors to the coast. Leiston was the nearest station to Thorpe, which meant special arrangements had to be made to transport visitors the additional few miles to the new resort's amenities. This took the form of a powerful Daimler tractor station wagon towing an a small omnibus. Fortnightly and week-end tickets from London and suburban stations to Leiston by the GER cost thirteen shillings and ten shilling respectively.

The Leiston to Thorpeness 'station wagon'

The poor transport connections (there was not even a made-up road from Aldeburgh) determined Thorpe's niche in the East Coast's tourist facilities. From the outset it had been promoted as being ', yet unconventional. She is not- nor ever will be- vulgarised by a pier or espanade or- minstrels or ''nosebag trippers''. Secluded, yet fairly easy of access, gave Thorpeness a unique ambience, which still survives today.

Thorpe, which was deliberately re-branded as Thorpeness to distinguish it from a plethora of undistinguished Thorpes, had actually opened for business in May of the previous year, 1812, when its architectural centrepiece situated at the highest point of the sand dunes, The Kursaal, had been inaugurated by Sir William Bull, the local M.P. Kursaals were a German invention to meet the needs of its tourist industry, which had begun through the European health spa movement. The word literally means 'cure-room', but had come to define a building which provided special holiday facilities for leisure and amusement. The Kursaal at Thorpe was described as a Club-house offering a social and athletic rendezvous for the first arrivals. From its interior furnishings The Kursaal seems to have had a strong air of colonialism about it. The recreation facilites were assembled in a specially laid out area of playing fields where rounders, clock golf, cricket and kite flying were zoned. A hard tennis court had been constructed by En-Tout-Cas, the pioneers in bringing this recent innovation to Britain, and a full golf course was planned.

A corner of The Kursaal

In this first year of its opening 90% of the newly built bungalows had been taken, furnished or unfurnished on lease. To meet the growing demand, another 20 bungalows were constructed the following year.

The shape of things to come with the impact of the motor car was already emerging as a planning issue. In its first year of opening an unexpectedly large number of visitors came in motor cars and horse-drawn carriages. It is reported that these vehicles caused considerable inconvenience and annoyance to the residents by being left standing in the various open places and public approaches to the sea. To provide proper parking accommodation, lock-up garages and stabling were quickly built. The garage also provided petrol and carbide, the latter was used, with added water, to make the acetylene gas that was the recommended fuel for lighting and cooking. The larger bungalows were actually linked up to a central acetylene plant furnished with the first shilling-in-the-slot gas metering devices. The other centralised service was the cesspool drainage system which was designed to that it would not have to be emptied more than once in two years. The Company prided itself on its motto 'no extra charges', there was one annual charge covering everything from club subscriptions to landscape maintenance.

If the sands of Thorpeness, comprising an unusual expanse on an otherwise shingley Suffolk coastline, were its primary tourist resource, The Meare came a close second. The original idea was to reopen Thorpe Haven, which was the old mouth of the Hundred River first mapped in Tudor times when it was a storm haven for Dutch boats engaged in fishing and coastal trade. This haven was eventually silted up with a sand and shingle bar. In the end, the idea to create a fresh-water 'Suffolk Broad' was adopted. This was constructed by excavating about 60 acres to provide an ornamental lake about 2ft deep, connected to the Hundred River by sluices, primarily as a playground for the young and young at heart. It was provided with its own Club House serving teas by a landing stage. Here family parties could embark in rowing boats and small sailing dingies to explore a deliberately planned literary water-world with built in topographical references to Peter Pan, Treasure Island, Water Babies and Peggotty's Yarmouth. The necessary paraphernalia for these excursions into the unknown were described in the official guide book of 1912 as an.....'important collection, which can be hired for a small sum from the waterman at the Club', comprising...'an iron tripod, a kettle, a bundle of fuel, and, if we are wise, a small packet of potatoes which we intend to roast'. Part of the Chart to the Children's Paradise of 1912 is shown below.

The Meare: part of 'Children's Paradise'

Much has been written about the integration of the bungalow into British suburban culture as an escape from the jam-packed terrace blocks of early industrial housing. Originally used to denote a peasant dwelling in the villages of India, with a raised plinth and a thatched roof structure with two sloping sides, the bungalow was later adapted when the Raj took root and used to house British army officers and colonial administrators. Built in small compounds, the bungalow design, open and well-ventilated with a verandah (also Hindi, veranda) all the way around, proved well-suited to fair-skinned Europeans who needed shelter from the fierce heat of the sub-continent.

In the context of the development of Thorpeness the bungalow as a holiday retreat dominated the initial planning model. This was diversified with architectural devices culled from the yeoman vernacular styles of Suffolk (black boarding and curved tiles), The Netherlands and Switzerland (high-pitched gabled roofs and balconies) all diversified with some spectacular one-off architectural confections disguising water towers and a church. Today, an overriding impact is the dominance of Tudor black-and-white cladding, which has had a strong general influence on the outward appearance of British domestic architecture down to the present time.

Looking back from the present, with our pre-occupation with global warming and rising sea levels, it is remarkable how the Thorpeness planners dismissed the possibility of sea erosion sweeping away their efforts. Large three-storied buildings were erected right on the edge of the soft cliff with no wave protection apart from clumps of brushwood inserted on the foreshore. It is true that this small segment of the Suffolk coast, as indicated by its sandy beach, is the most stable section between Lowestoft and Orford. The Company was so confident in this that it placed a clause in all of its leases providing for the ipso facto determination of such leases in the event of damage by the sea. Also, in case the worst happened the bungalows in the dunes were prefabricated so that they could easily be dismantled and moved further inland. So far their confidence has been justified.

Over the years, the Ogilvie family have sold off most of their interest in the vast coastal estate which spawned Thorpeness but its development has continued albeit not always in keeping with its founder's idiosyncratic dream. This dream together with the realisation of many other dreams of 'garden estates' in the first decade of the 20th century, is a monument to a shift in the Arts and Crafts Movement from a world dominated by a few highly innovative architects building expensive country houses, such as Voysey and Lutyens, who were excited by the aesthetic ideas of Ruskin and Morris. Aldringham illustrates the work of a new group of individuals and planners with the aims of satisfying a growing population of middle class suburban home owners for mass-produced homes in cottage/yeoman styles, from which they could drive out in their cheap mass-produced cars.

Photostudy; 2008
Community perspective

References to the history of Thorpeness, particularly the role of the Ogilvie family, local landowners, in creating the 'Garden Village'.

Parkes, W.H. (1912) Thorpeness, Meare Publicatons
Ogilvie de Mille, A (1996) One Man's Dream, Nostalgia Publications