In the late 19th century, the Thorpeness we know today was a tiny fishing hamlet on the east coast, buffeted by the merciless North Sea and home to only a few houses that had not been taken into the waves by erosion.
Just a couple of decades later, it would be transformed into a fantastical holiday village, with a beautiful boating lake, complete with Peter Pan islands, a 70ft fairy-tale cottage on stilts, mock-Tudor homes, and a luxury country club.
To experience this slice of holiday history, make sure you check out our Thorpeness holiday cottages.
Thorpeness in the early years
In 1859, Alexander Ogilvie, a civil engineer from Scotland, bought Sizewell House as a holiday home in Suffolk. Within 40 years he had expanded his estate to over 6,000 acres, stretching from Dunwich to the north, down the coast to Thorpe, and inland to Leiston and Aldringham.
In 1908, the estate passed into the hands of Alexander’s son, Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, an Edwardian architect, barrister and playwright. After severe flooding in November 1910 reduced Thorpe to a mere puddly field, Ogilvie purportedly looked out to the land at the southernmost point of his estate and declared, “Let’s keep it, and build a holiday village around it.”
In 1910, Thorpe became Thorpeness and Ogilvie’s plan to create a fantasy holiday haven for the upper-middle classes was put into action. Work promptly began and the beautiful Tudor and Jacobean-style homes we see today began to take form alongside the golf course and country club.
Thorpeness as a holiday destination
The village was hailed as ‘The New Suffolk Seaside Resort’. An early brochure proclaimed, “It will attract those who have no desire for promenades and cinemas ... those who can appreciate a beautiful little hamlet situated between sea and lake”.
Development continued in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, the village was thriving, with ornate architecture, a successful country club and even a railway station. It was regarded as a high-class holiday resort.
One of the most famous parts of the unique village is the famous Meare, the large, shallow boating lake at the heart of Thorpeness. The Meare was inspired by Peter Pan, whose author, JM Barrie, was an Ogilvie family friend and regularly visited the village. His characters inspired the magical little islands in the centre of the famous boating lake. The landings are still marked with names from the storybook, and you can find locations such as the Pirate's Lair and Wendy’s Home to play on.
Visitors to Thorpeness can hire boats to explore the lake, some of which have been in use since its opening in 1913, and its surroundings and have magical Swallows and Amazons-style adventures!
In August 1912, the first Regatta took place on the Meare and continues as an annual tradition in the village. During the day, boat races and other competitions take place in and on the water, which is lit at night by Chinese lanterns on boats, and a finale of fireworks ends the festivities as darkness falls.
There is also another famous landmark in Thorpeness – The House in The Clouds, a wooden house on a high, five-storey plinth, formerly a water tower built to provide adequate storage capacity for a basic water supply for the village. Years later it was converted into a house for Mrs Malcolm Mason, an author of children’s books and a close friend of Ogilvie's.
Due to careful preservation, Thorpeness is little changed today and continues to charm visitors, the way it has done for many generations. Throughout the year, holidaymakers join residents to explore, stay in, and fall in love with this unique little Suffolk village.
Visitors today can experience the history of staying in England’s only purpose-built holiday village, but in modern comfort with all you’d need for a fantastic holiday. The Dolphin Inn in Thorpeness offers great food, as does the tearoom on the Meare. The village store stocks plenty of local produce such as Olga’s homemade jams, and there is also a thriving deli counter with fresh croissants and pastries baked each morning.
Enjoy a holiday in Thorpeness
For your chance to stay in a unique piece of British history, take a look at our beautiful holiday homes.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.