Ipswich Icons - Why the Gothic-looking Oak Hill was built in Belstead Road

oak hill - icons oct 15

oak hill - icons oct 15 - Credit: Archant

The wind in the UK typically blows in from the south-west. Therefore, during the industrious reign of Queen Victoria, the prominent businessmen of most towns would choose to build their big houses upwind of the belching smoking chimneys, writes John Norman, of The Ipswich Society.

In Ipswich, Belstead Road met this criteria. It was south-west of the town and the land was owned by Peter Burrell of Stoke Park, who was willing to sell. Burrell had taken possession of the mansion at Stoke Park on the death of his father in 1848. He married Sophia in St Mary’s in 1849 and set about rebuilding the mansion for the incredible (for the 1850s) sum of £60,000. To recover some of the money he decided to sell housing plots in Belstead Road, and Oak Hill in Oak Hill Lane was probably the first.

Sophia was the daughter of Count Linsingen, a Hanoverian nobleman who settled in Ipswich after the Napoleonic Wars and built Birkfield, then known as Birkfield Lodge. (It could be said that he married the girl next door).

Peter Burrell was responsible for Burrell Road, 1860, between Stoke Bridge (the only river crossing) and the new station, making up the track that led to Gippeswyk Hall further along the valley. Willoughby Road, named after his only son, was built about the same time to provide a swift route to the station from the new houses in Belstead Road.

The suburb of Stoke was confined to the low-lying ground close to the river (and bridge) with St Mary Stoke and Stoke Hall on the outskirts of the built-up area. Stoke Hall, which stood adjacent to the church, is not to be confused with Burrell’s Stoke Park (mansion) which was 2km over the hill.

One hundred yards or more up the hill is the first of the plots on which the new houses were built – Oak Hill in 1860 for Ebenezer Goddard, a director of the Ipswich Gas Light Company. Oak Hill is probably the only property in Ipswich built in a Victorian Gothic style and is listed grade II. The gas works had been established to produce coke for Ransome’s foundry, gas being a by-product that was used, from 1821, to provide street-lighting in Ipswich town centre.

When Oak Hill was built, there were outstanding views over the River Orwell, with Hog Highland in the distance. The belvedere, a single room high above the rest of the house, provides an excellent vantage point to survey the grounds and the estuary. Today, mature trees hide most of the vista and Cliff Quay, electricity pylons and the Orwell Bridge divert attention away from the river. Incidentally, the belvedere has a superb copper-covered ogee dome roof, terminating in a central finial.

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Oak Hill was purchased in 1937 by the de la Salle Brothers for use as a school but was commandeered as a recuperation hospital during the Second World War, tending injured servicemen brought back from France. After the hostilities it was returned to the brothers and became the junior school to St Joseph’s College.

When it was built, the grounds of Oak Hill ran down to the railway line and to a farm at Maiden Hall at the bottom of Oak Hill Lane. Maidenhall became a housing estate: homes fit for heroes immediately after the Second World War.

Oak Hill is today an unusual and outstanding private residence but what makes it truly different is the rockery. Like other valley sides in Ipswich, a spring surfaces just below the house, where the gravel subsoil meets the underlying clay (the brickworks was further down the hill in Hartley Street). The resulting stream cascades down the slope through a series of rock pools, eventually into a pond close to Maiden Hall Farm. Delightful... except Suffolk doesn’t have any rock?

The rocks are Pulhamite, an anthropic (man-made) rock invented and made by James Pulham of Broxbourne, and are extensively used as a rock cliff at Bawdsey Manor on the coast. Pulhamite is moulded to resemble gritty sandstone and is an effective substitute where real rocks are not available. What makes Oak Hill’s collection worthy of listing is that the “glen” is more than 100 yards of cascades and pools.