We are in the east of England, on the Suffolk coast. The town of Aldeburgh was once a thriving Tudor port; that’s where we’ll find the fort. And Thorpeness, well – Thorpeness was purpose-built in the 20th century – and that’s where we’ll find our house in the clouds.
Few people now will have heard of Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie, who has been variously described as a barrister, playwright and architect; sometimes all three. Son of a highly successful Scottish railway engineer, in 1908 G Stuart Ogilvie inherited the large Sizewell estate. This included, on its southern coastal edge, a clutch of houses that hadn’t yet been swallowed by the North Sea, called Thorpe. And there, Ogilvie developed a fantasy holiday village, which he renamed Thorpeness, complete with country club, golf course, tennis courts, pub – and, a stroke of idealistic genius, a 65-acre artificial lake called the Meare. Apparently much-inspired by Peter Pan creator J M Barrie, who was a friend, the Meare was designed to be a watery paradise for children, with islands, a Wendy House, crocodile’s lair, boats – and a relatively safe maximum depth of two feet six inches.
You do not need to know any of this to sense a whimsical, pre-war middle-class, feel to Thorpeness. We stumbled in from Aldeburgh – you can walk between the two along the vegetated shingle beach or via a nature reserve – in search of our house in the clouds (no, I haven’t forgotten) and wondered whether we’d ambled into an Arthur Ransome novel. The architecture is largely English nostalgic mock-Tudor, with lots of weatherboarding thrown in for good measure, and quirky little, attractive, features. Many of the roads are unadopted and, apart from the cars, you could imagine yourself back a generation or three.
Aside from Portmeirion, I can’t think of any other purpose-built holiday village in Britain. Do holiday camps count? Thorpeness has more permanence, a place to visit and live, peacefully and playfully, an alternative idealised community; rather than somewhere to go with huts for a short, sharp dose of tawdry temptation and entertainment. Ogilvie wasn’t keen on what he perceived as over-commercialised seaside resorts – there is nothing brash about Thorpeness, neither a redcoat nor a ride in sight – not even a promenade; though it did once have its own railway station. Today, Thorpeness is still primarily a holiday village.
Anyway, A Bit About Britain likes eccentric places. So we went in search of the house in the clouds, which is actually a disguised water tower. Of course it is. G Stuart Ogilvie built it in 1923, initially calling it, The Home of Peter Pan. It was a Mrs Mason who wrote a poem, The House in the Clouds
The fairies really own this house – or so the children say –
In fact they all of them moved in upon the self same day…
… and the name stuck. The house in the clouds is on an unmade road lined with small, but pretty, holiday homes, some of them little more than small shacks of a largely extinct variety. Is that a corrugated asbestos roof? It is a timeless kind of place and I liked it very much. The water tank became redundant when a larger one was needed (the new one disguised as a sort of kitsch medieval tower called Westgate) and was removed in the 1970s. It has subsequently been converted into a games room. And, yes, you can stay in the house in the clouds if you want to. There’s a story that an anti-aircraft shell, aimed at a V1 flying bomb, blasted through the house in the clouds In 1943, not disturbing the two Humphreys sisters who were asleep below; nice story – though V1s weren’t launched against Britain until 1944.
So what about this fort, then? We’ll move a couple of miles south, down the coast to Aldeburgh. Aldeburgh literally means old fort or stronghold – though that one has long gone, vanished into the sea (don’t worry, we’ll find you another). Given that Aldeburgh is an Anglo-Saxon name, however, the chances are that this ‘old fort’ may have actually been Roman.
Though mostly known now as a tourist and yachting town, as well as for its famous festival of music and arts, in the 16th century Aldeburgh was an important port on the River Alde, with thriving fishing and boat building industries. Some say that Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind, originally named the Pelican, was built at Aldeburgh.
It must have been a pretty wealthy community, because sometime around 1550 Aldeburgh could afford to build itself a neat little Moot Hall, a cross between a Town Hall and Tudor shopping mall, in the middle of town. The prosperity didn’t last, though: storms and erosion swept away coast and buildings and silted up the river. A map of 1594 shows at least two rows of houses between the Moot Hall and the beach; by 1790, the houses had gone. Today, the Moot Hall is more or less on the beach.
By the 19th century, fortunes revived somewhat as Aldeburgh became a fashionable place to take the sea air, and it developed into a pleasant, modest, Victorian resort. Apparently the novelist Wilkie Collins used to holiday there; I suppose that’s some kind of commendation. Many of the present buildings date from the 19th century and fishermen still haul their catches up the beach each day, as they did then, selling their freshly-caught produce from timber huts along the sea-front.
Aldeburgh’s Festival was founded in 1948 by the composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, along with librettist (is that the same as a lyricist?) Eric Crozier. Some of the performances take place in town, and at other nearby venues like Orford church, but it is mostly focussed up the road at Snape Maltings now, a shopping, eating and concert complex developed from disused malt houses. Aldeburgh is proud of its association with Britten, who used to live in the town with Pears, at the Red House.
Aldeburgh’s also well-known for its controversial steel scallop, sculpted by Maggi Hambling.
To be fair, there are better beaches in Britain than the one at Aldeburgh – though it’s an exhilarating place to walk. The town is justifiably famous for its fish and chips and I can also recommend the Mill Inn on Market Place, opposite the Moot Hall. It was near here that we discovered Snooks, a statue of a dog by that name, sculpted in honour of its owners, local doctors ‘Robin’ PM and Nora Acheson. But, should you visit the town, do be wary of locals receiving preferential service in some places; overall, Aldeburgh is agreeable, but slightly frayed round the edges, if you see what I mean.
You’re still waiting for the fort, aren’t you? We’ll find it if we keep walking south to the vanished village of Slaughden, North Sea on your left, marsh and river Alde on your right. The only thing that divides the sea from the river is the narrow spit you’re walking on. Even on a fine evening, the air is dominated by the sound of lanyards slapping against masts in the wind. Slaughden was a Saxon settlement that survived as a port and fishing village into the 20th century. Local author and journalist William Alfred Dutt, writing in 1909, described Slaughden as “a small, sea-threatened cluster of cottages bordering a primitive quay and grouped around an ancient inn with a huge bone of a whale suspended over its front door”. By 1936, all the houses and infrastructure had gone, taken by the sea; in 1953, the remaining boatsheds went too.
After a while, you come to the fort, which is a Martello tower, the largest and northernmost of 103 defensive towers built along the south and east coasts of England between 1808 and 1812 to help counter the threat of Napoleon’s invasion. Aldeburgh’s Martello tower is a unique quatrefoil shape, designed for four heavy guns.
The inspiration for Martello towers, which were built all over the world, not just in Britain, came from a defensive tower that stood on Mortella Point in Corsica, and which, in 1796, with a small force resisted attack by two Royal Navy warships.
Aldeburgh’s Martello tower has been refurbished by the Landmark Trust and is just waiting for you to book it for your holiday. I’m sure it’s insured against flood and storm damage.
So there you are: from a house in the clouds to a fort.