At the sign of the Barking lion...

St Mary, Thorpeness

At the sign of the Barking lion... - a journey through the churches of Suffolk


Hover to read captions, click to see enlarged images:

Crossing tower.

Crossing tower.

Steps from the road to the west door.

The west door.

South transept.

Blind arcades of the south side.

View from the west door.



Not the Suffolk coast's finest moment.

We are actually in the parish of Aldringham here. It stretches from the coast for several miles inland; Aldringham village centre is hard up against the western border of the parish, and is pretty much a suburb of the town of Leiston these days. Out here in centuries past there was a fishing hamlet called Thorpe. It had its own church, dedicated to St Mary, which may or may not have been parochial at some time. Certainly, by the 17th century it had disappeared. White's Directory of 1844 showed 142 people living in the hamlet, making up about a quarter of the population of the parish. There was an inn and a shop, but it was the poorest part of what was a poor parish, even by 19th century Suffolk standards.

Even poorer, perhaps, was the tiny settlement to the north at Sizewell, just over the border in Leiston parish. Today, Britain's biggest nuclear reactor stands here, looking like something out of Dr Who, but in the late 19th and early 20th century Sizewell Hall was home to the Ogilvie family. In Suffolk, the Ogilvies are most famous for killing birds; their stuffed collection is now kept at Ipswich Museum, and like the power station it is Britain's biggest.

The Ogilvies owned much of the land in and around the hamlet of Thorpe, and in 1903 the inheritance came to Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, a man of vision. He did something entirely unexpected, and wholly un-Suffolk-like - he built a fantasy holiday village on the site. It was designed very much in the Tudor style that was fashionable at the time, but at some point the architect, W G Wilson, seems to have consumed large quantities of hallucinogenics. So we find, for example, the 'house in the clouds' set high at the top of a pillar disguising a water tower, another water tower in the style of an oversize Tudor gateway, almshouses that build to another oversize gateway; it is as if Salvador Dali had been let loose on Hampton Court.

Although there are roads, the village was not really designed for cars, which is a mercy, and the whole piece enfolds a large artificial lake called the Meare. This is one of Suffolk's finest assets, a vast and thoroughly democratic boating lake, with fantasy islands populated by characters from Peter Pan. It is at once kitschy and surreal, wholly entrancing and compelling. I love it. The splendidly old-fashioned guidebook, Concerning Thorpeness by Moira Coleman, records the legend that, in 1910, it was created by extensive flooding in what was then open fields: Mr Ogilvie came to survey the floods... he is reputed to have said, on a foggy November afternoon in 1910, "let's keep it, and build a holiday village around it". I reflected that this would make a great Hollywood movie, with Kevin Costner playing Mr Ogilvie, of course.

To get a feel for what the village is like, check out Ian Davey's excellent photos.

Also from another age is the idea that people would come and spend two weeks of their summer on the North Sea coast. I am told that, in the 1930s, it was very popular with Empire colonial civil servants back home on leave, but the Second World War rang the death knell on its life as a destination of this kind. Gradually, all the cottages fell into private ownership, and although many of them are holiday homes, this is now just another Suffolk residential community, albeit an extraordinary one.

The church is perhaps the least entrancing feature of Thorpeness. No, drop that word 'perhaps'. It is a mean, ugly thing, way oversized. Some people have compared it to an electricity substation. I think it looks like a vast public lavatory complex with a hint of the Romanesque. Another architect, Forbes Glennie, seems to have taken over the design of the village at some point, but the church was built to the designs of W G Wilson, and was the very last piece of the planned village to be built. Perhaps it was his revenge.

Although much more was planned, including a Venetian-style piazza, no less, the Second World War put the village, and Sizewell Hall, in a restricted area. After that, the Ogilvie family had fallen on hard times, and sold off the rest of the land as building plots. This may explain why the site of St Mary is so hemmed in.

St Mary replaced the earlier wooden church that Arthur Mee saw here in the early 1930s (or at least, his researchers did; I always imagine him lying on a vast bed being fed grapes, while an army of young girls runs around answering telephones and collating reports). It isn't clear to me if this is the surviving low building just off the road to Aldeburgh.

St Mary was built in the style of a southern French fortress church, with a hefty crossing tower connecting the tall, wide nave and token crossings and chancel. Blind brick arcading led Mortlock to surmise that later aisles were intended; I think that this was just an affectation of the age, however; you can see something similar at the contemporary Ipswich All Hallows. Here, the arcades appear rather neurotic, distracting from the monumentalist architecture that contains more than a hint of Nuremberg triumphalism. Perhaps the rendering wasn't the colour of cold porridge back then.

There is something I haven't mentioned; St Mary is now redundant. For fifty years, it served as a chapel of ease to St Andrew, Aldringham, a couple of miles away; the Vicar there was Chaplain here. By the 1980s, it was only being used in the summer. Perhaps it was universal car ownership that did for St Mary; less than a mile away is the town of Aldeburgh, home to Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Baptist churches.

The church has now been sold to property developers. I know that they applied for permission to demolish it; I'm not sure if this permission was ever granted, or if they merely intend to convert it into holiday flats. The site is now surrounded by high security fences - or, not quite; you'll be pleased to learn that I managed to get inside them for the photographs.

Well, the old place is a sorry sight now, I'm afraid; a decade of abandonment has been enough to allow it to start falling to pieces. The boiler house has been wrecked by vandals, but the church itself is boarded up. You come up a stairway to the great west door (or, at least, you did before the security fences) and on this spring day the plants were shooting again in the tubs either side of the door, which I thought rather poignant. Small pieces of burnt paper were scattered across the overgrown yard; on closer examination, they proved to be fragments of hymnbooks that had obviously met their fate on a bonfire.

I am told that the inside had a west gallery, and a small baptistery; I'd wondered if anyone was ever baptised here, but Richard Bennett contacted me to assure me that they were, among them his wife Sarah. Soon, it will all be gone. St Mary was always the least successful part of Mr Ogilvie's dream, but I can't help thinking that this lovely little village will be diminished without a church.

A hint of the Romanesque.

St Mary, Thorpeness, remains for now at the centre of the smaller houses to the east of the Meare. It is all locked up for ever.

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