Model Villages!

Nicola here. A couple of months ago I stayed in a model village. It wasn’t the sort I used to love as a child and still find quite charming, the miniature houses and tiny streets. This was a full-sized village built by a wealthy landowner for fun. And it was very interesting but also quite odd.

There are a number of different sorts of model villages in the UK and I’m interested to know if it’s the same in other countries, so perhaps someone can tell me if you have them where you are. As I mentioned, when I was small, I adored the tiny reproduction villages such as the ones at Blackpool and Bekonscot, loving the little houses, castles, shops and people. Almost always they would have a working train set, which made it even more fun. And of course, because the miniature village is so small, even as a child you feel like a giant! On one memorable holiday in Holland, we also went to Madurodam, the Dutch model village in The Hague built in 1952, which was so exciting I remember it to this day! And in the photo here you can see our old dog, Angus, enjoying the miniature village just up the road from us at Faringdon.

But not all model villages are miniature sized. From the 18th century onwards a number of landowners and businessmen built villages to house their workers, sometimes because they had moved the original cottages because they spoiled the view from their stately pile! I imagine the rural poor were expected to be grateful for a new house even if they had no choice over moving out of their old one. This was what happened at Milton Abbas in Dorset. In 1780 the Earl of Dorchester decided that the nearby town of Middleton disturbed his vision of rural bliss from Milton Abbey so he commissioned an architect to design a new village of thirty-six almost identical thatched cottages in a different location and demolished the original town. A similar thing happened at Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire. The poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote The Deserted Village in 1770 about the demolition of a medieval village and destruction of its farms to clear land to become a wealthy man’s garden. People speculated as to where he had got the idea from!

In the Victorian era a number of paternalistic businessmen saw it as their duty to create improved living conditions for their factory workers by building model villages in places such as Saltaire, in Yorkshire, and Bournville near Birmingham. Bournville was famously created by the Cadbury family of chocolate fame and to this day there is a still a chocolate bar called Bournville! These villages were expressly created to provide more pleasant and spacious homes for families: “of a class superior in size and arrangement, and in conveniences attached, to those of working classes.” They had four rooms and a pantry, and outside a small garden and pig sty.

The model village where I stayed, Thorpeness in Suffolk, was a very different sort of place with a different purpose. The original settlement was a 19th century fishing village with links to smuggling, but in 1910, local landowner Glencairn Stuart Ogilvie decided to develop it into an elite private fantasy holiday village, with the purpose of inviting the families of his friends and colleagues for the summer holidays. This was no building programme to improve the lot of the working classes but an exclusive resort with tennis courts, a swimming pool, golf club, and holiday homes in a mock Tudor and Jacobean style. Best of all there was a boating lake known as The Meere, which had originally been an Elizabethan harbour. This was excavated to create an artificial lake with islands and landing places inspired by the book Peter Pan; the author JM Barrie was a friend of the family and the lake featured the original Wendy House and a pirate’s lair.

Eventually, tourists were permitted to stay in Thorpeness but only the “right sort.” It was hailed as ‘The New Suffolk Seaside Resort’ and 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”. It was considered a very high-class resort indeed.

Evidently the idea caught on, as in 1925, Clough William Ellis created something along similar lines at Portmeirion in Wales – a gorgeous Italian-inspired holiday village!

Staying in Thorpeness was rather like living in a film set for a few days. The place is picture postcard perfect with pretty timbered cottages and other grand buildings like the famous House in the Clouds, a water tower converted into a cottage that appears to float about the trees! We did a self-guided walking tour, taking in all the different sights and their history, which was great and we also had a wonderful time on the beach. The oddest thing about it, though, was the sense that no one actually lived there. I’m sure this isn’t true, but something about being in a perfectly-designed village felt completely unreal!

Have you ever visited a miniature village or even a full-scale one like Thorpeness?



12 thoughts on “Model Villages!”

  1. I have never visited a miniature village. If I remember correctly, I read that the man who owned Leaver Brothers built a town for his employees. Bettering the lives of other is quite a noble concept.
    I think it does sound like quite an interesting idea. But, it also sounds rather sterile.
    But, I live in a town house community. And there are a very limited number of different homes. In short, they all look pretty much alike… I live in a pretty sterile place too. But, this place is old enough that the live oak trees are huge and those trees alone make it seem more like a small treasure. When I first looked for a house here, I thought it reminded me of Mayberry. But, no Barney, no Opie and no Andy.

    • I had never thought of community living as being like a model village, Annette, but I do see the comparison. As you say, though, everywhere has something different and special about it which makes it a living environment.

  2. What a fun post, Nicola. Like you, I visited Madurodam with my (Dutch) parents; I was probably about twelve. They had left the Netherlands in the mid-fifties, but I’m not sure if they had had the opportunity to visit themselves as young people.

    • Thanks, Kareni! How fun that you visited Madurodam as well. I found a photo the other day of me at five, looking huge in the tiny town! I think it was the first model village I ever saw.

  3. I would consider Williamsburg VA to be a model village. It’s pretty commercialized now but I was there as a kid when it was really a replica early American recreation. Your blog also brought to mind the Philadelphia row houses. Most of them were built with the factory workers in mind. Walk down to the factory for work in the morning & walk to the tavern at the other end of the block after work. Of course the factories are long gone but a lot of the taverns are still there.

    • So interesting, Jeanne, thank you! I have looked both of them up – model villages in their different ways.

  4. I’ve never been to a model village, but it sounds similar to visiting a ghost town. Some buildings are original and others replicas to replace or fill spots that burned down. They all have a surreal feeling of emptiness, not like visiting a museum. You really get the feeling no one lives there…….
    Loved your pictures and story!

  5. Loved this post! I don’t think we have anything like it here in Ireland, I’ve certainly never heard of one anyway. It’s something I’d love to visit!!
    Bourneville chocolate is a favourite of mine. Nice to hear that the family looked after their workers.
    (Nice to see a picture of Angus)

  6. We lived in Suffolk for 20 years and visited Thorpeness to see friends who were on holiday there. It is definitely unusual. One particular friend of mine’s family owned a house there and she has many lovely memories of summers learning to sail on the Meere, amongst other family friendly activities. I think it could be pretty idyllic and they saw the same people holidaying there every year. I suppose some of the Garden cities would have had a similar sameness to them when they were started.

    • How interesting, Alice! I wonder whether it feels the same to live there now or whether like so many places, it’s largely holiday lets and so doesn’t feel as “real”? I can see how it could be completely charming for an old-fashioned holiday experience, and you could make lots of friends if the same people visited each year. Personally I love places like that and just hope they maintain their popularity.


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