The road to utopia was never going to be smooth. That’s what I told myself as I hitchhiked down a puddle-strewn alleyway in East Anglia, the rain pouring in sideways. Nobody stopped, so I ducked into the Aldringham Tea Room, which was warm and smelled like soup. I told the staff about my situation, how I made the mistake of relying on rural buses. “Buses are a joke,” was the consensus.
After serving scones to two pensioners, Hannah, the tearoom’s heaven-sent manager, offered me a lift to Thorpeness, three miles further on. “I couldn’t let you walk through this,” she said, tossing her brother’s Civic Type R down lanes, which cut through woods and fields. “You may have been lost, found by a dog walker – I would have heard about it on the radio. Still a dog walker, right?
Nothing lifts your spirits like the kindness of strangers, and as I greeted Hannah from the Thorpeness village green, I had a springy step. Even the rain had stopped; blue skies were coming, the low autumn sun was pushing the clouds away.
It was just me and the geese on the lawn. Not a soul in sight. I looked around and thought of the Netherlands; something about the steeply sloping roofs of the houses, the windmill in the distance. And the water. Not a canal, it is true, but a vast artificial lake – or meare – dotted with islands.
At the seaside I saw an alligator. The geese stood unfazed by the fiberglass beast, seemingly unaware of its literary symbolism. Thorpeness Meare was, you see, inspired by JM Barrie’s fantasy novel Peter Pan and other fantastical realms of children’s literature. There’s a Blue Lagoon, a Dragon’s Lair, Crusoe’s Isle. It’s a Neverland built specifically for the unbridled imagination.
In the summer, children explore the waterway on boats, often unaccompanied by adults, as they have done for generations. And if they fall? They get up and go back inside: the lake is no more than a meter deep.
An East Anglian utopia
Like Thorpeness, the meare was designed to be a utopian destination for families. It’s wise to be wary of companies created in one man’s vision – you don’t need to look far for examples of how this can go wrong – but Stuart Ogilvie, the man behind Thorpeness, was no megalomaniac dictator. He was, by all accounts, as benevolent as they were.
A Scottish-born playwright, Ogilvie inherited his wealthy parents’ Suffolk estate in 1908 and promised to turn it into a fantastic holiday destination for the middle class. Or in the words of a first holiday brochure: “Who doesn’t want walks and cinema… who knows how to appreciate a beautiful village located between the sea and the lake”.
He commissioned a Dutch architect to design the houses (some in the Tudor Revival style), had a golf course and tennis courts built, and hired men to dig a boating lake inspired by his friend JM Barrie’s novel.
A man with a vision
Stuart Ogilvie’s name is never far from anyone’s lips in Thorpeness. “He was ahead of his time,” said Craig Block, the 50-year-old meare boatman, whom I found at the boathouse. “He had a vision to basically build what Center Parcs offers today.”
Block was on his lunch break. At a nearby workshop he was fixing up the lake’s fleet of 140 boats after a busy summer season. He took over from his father as a boatman in 1990 and works for the great-grandson of Stuart Ogilvie, Glen, and his wife Jennifer.
“[Stuart] he practically owned the entire village. He employed about 100 men. If you worked for him you got a house with your work, or at friend’s prices,” said Block, who, delightfully, has a swallow tattooed on each hand.
‘When you retired you moved into almshouses,’ he added, referring to the pretty Tudor cottages conveniently located opposite the town’s only pub, The Dolphin. “I remember going there to visit my grandfather.”
Watching Block as he gazed across the prairie, I sensed his love for the place. He and his friends used to “borrow” boats on moonlit nights as children, play soccer on the icy water when the winters were cold. “Old school fun,” he said. “The old school fun is over.”
There is still the annual regatta, though, which has been the highlight of the Thorpeness calendar for more than a century. There are fireworks, flotillas, families enjoying themselves.
Block told me how he once asked his father if they could go on vacation. “He said: ‘boy, you’re always on vacation, what more do you want?’ He was right.”
But tragedy struck in 1972. Stuart Ogilvie’s grandson Alexander Stuart, heir to the Thorpeness estate, died one day on the golf course, overlooked by the ‘House in the Clouds’, a water tower converted into an eccentric house for the holidays which had become a landmark in her village, a Thorpeness legend like her grandfather.
Death duties forced the family to surrender their piece of paradise to market forces. They sold the golf club and most of the houses, keeping the farm and some farmland.
“Much of the village is now a second home,” said Tracy Maynes, who sells clothes and furniture at nearby Thorpeness Emporium, which sells antiques, vintage clothes, everything from Duran Duran CDs to old maps. It’s still a “nice little town,” she added, “quirky” with a “sense of community.”
Embodying that quirk is Maynes herself, who wore leopard-print trousers and thought the covered market was haunted. “From an old man,” she told me, squeezing her vaporizer. “It smells like cigar smoke and pee. Some people who worked here left because they were afraid.”
Maynes’ grandfather knew Stuart Ogilvie. “He drove a white Rolls Royce,” he said. “They called it the white rat. When he passed you had to take your hat off like he was a king or something.
Maynes sent me on the closing day with a gift: a book, called More East Anglian Humour. I flipped through it for a laugh in The Dolphin which was busy for a Wednesday afternoon. A few were forthcoming, but this tickled me as I tucked into my braised pheasant:
A Suffolk farmer was helping one of his men fill out a government form. “How old are you?” he asked. “Oh, I’m 91,” the man said. “Nonsense,” said the farmer. “Your father is still alive. How old is he?” “He’s a rowdy old man,” said the man. “Over 80”.
You had to be there.
After lunch, I walked through a forest of silver birch, past the windmill and the House in the Clouds and the golf course, finally ending up on the pebble beach. In the distance, I could see Sizewell Nuclear Power Station, offering its utopian vision: low-carbon energy for millions of homes. Radioactive waste is the reward. There is always a reward.
Neither Sizewell, nor Beeching’s railway cuts (which cut it off the grid), nor the availability of cheap overseas holidays appear to have dimmed enthusiasm for Thorpeness. Beachfront properties go into the hundreds a night on Airbnb, though some homes further up the coast are falling into the sea, cursed by erosion.
I walked along the beach, between grassy dunes and moorland. The sea was roaring, a kestrel was hovering above me, the sky was a painting by Constable, and at that moment I thought how refreshing it was, in a world that is changing so rapidly and so confusingly, to look around and see a landscape that is barely changed for centuries. Constant and reassuring, he sent me into a utopia in my mind. And then I remembered that I had to get back on the bus.
Getting there: Thanks to Beeching it is difficult by train. The nearest railway station is Saxmundham, from there there is a bus (not very regular) which takes half an hour.
Where stay: The House in the Clouds is a private house periodically available for rent. Once a water tower, it has been transformed into an extravagant house and offers incredible views over East Anglia.
Where to eat: A locals hangout that’s no clique, The Dolphin has excellent food and is the only pub in town. Meare Tearooms and Thorpeness Emporium also do breakfast and lunch.
More information: visituffolk.com/destination/thorpeness