The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Barn Hall, Thorpeness

Have you ever been to Thorpeness? It is a unique place. We have argued that it is the first fantasy holiday village, the forerunner of themed resorts around the world today such as Disney Land. It’s great fun, and surprisingly little known—on the Suffolk Coast just north of Aldeburgh.

The idea for the village was dreamt up by the Scottish landowner and playwright Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie who bought up the small fishing hamlet of Thorpe and founded his own resort in 1909. Thorpeness was mainly a place for expatriates to come “home” to. An idealised, almost surreal English village built in a whimsical Tudor style where everything was just as it should be and just a little bit more. The families could move right into their all-inclusive holiday house with modern facilities and fresh bed sheets as part of the package and the necessary serving staff was accommodated in the almshouses. But this is rural artifice: all is not as it appears—the House in the Clouds is actually a water tower; as is the tower part of what is called Westbar but looks deceptively like a mediaeval military style gatehouse. And when you scratch the surface you will discover that the half-timbered houses are really built of concrete.

While Thorpeness lies close to the beach just behind the dunes, it turns its back on the sea in favour of the all-inclusive experience it offered—and today’s visitors are still almost actively discouraged to venture outside village boundaries. The heart of Thorpeness is the Meare, an artificial lake that provides the focus of all entertainment even today. There is a club where the grownups could play and a full children’s activity programme was provided as well. But the Meare is not only a place for family sailing boats and punts, it is also a Neverland fantasy world complete with Peter Pan’s and Wendy’s hideouts and there are pirates’ cannons and even a concrete crocodile.

Casework has stumbled onto this amaz-ing little idyll because one of the buildings on the edge of the Meare is now seriously under threat. Barn Hall, the former estates office and now a café, is to be demolished and comprehensively rebuilt as a residential development. With the popularity of the holiday village growing (it’s been described as a property hot spot), this prime location is a very tempting one. The Barn Hall is not one of the really quirky buildings like the House in the Clouds (pictured left) or the Windmill (which was brought to the site from Aldringham where it had stood since 1824—it was refitted to pump water into the water tower and replaced an ugly wind pump) that are already individually listed, but it is a black and white half timbered structure—the same materials and style as all the private houses around the Meare—some of which are listed too. It certainly provides an important foil for the more extravagant and unusual designs. Technically Barn Hall should have been protected by being within the Thorpeness Conservation Area. But although the local authority should have sought to “preserve or enhance the character of the conservation area” when considering the application for planning permission to tear it down, they have granted consent to replace it with three “residential units”.

While for many decades the village had survived remarkably intact it is all of a sudden starting to change very fast—this is not the only example of consent being granted for the demolition of buildings that we feel definitely made an important contribution to the overall look and feel of the place. If Barn Hall comes down, there is nothing to stop this from happening over and over again. The integrity of Thorpeness as a whole is at risk.

This case illustrates clearly how inadequate the current heritage protection system is in terms of a holistic approach to such vulnerable settings. The new white paper by English Heritage may rectify this by forming Heritage Partnership Agreements (or HPAs) in which whole sites or groups of buildings are listed and acknowledged for the inter-relationship of the individual components that will obviously vary in their degree of significance. But the implementation of any such agreements is still a long way off, and will come too late for Thorpeness. Moreover, the Society has serious reservations about how well they will function in practice.

We have therefore asked English Heritage to seriously consider Barn Hall for listing, stressing its importance as a context building within this very magical setting. The decision is pending.

Eva Branscome