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Orwell Park School and Observatory

A Grade II Listed Building in Nacton, Suffolk

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Latitude: 52.0098 / 52°0'35"N

Longitude: 1.2304 / 1°13'49"E

OS Eastings: 621792

OS Northings: 239525

OS Grid: TM217395

Mapcode National: GBR VPP.ZVV

Mapcode Global: VHLC1.8RS4

Entry Name: Orwell Park School and Observatory

Listing Date: 16 March 1966

Last Amended: 8 November 2012

Grade: II

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1198246

English Heritage Legacy ID: 286192

Location: Nacton, East Suffolk, Suffolk, IP10

County: Suffolk

District: Suffolk Coastal

Civil Parish: Nacton

Traditional County: Suffolk

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Suffolk

Church of England Parish: Nacton

Church of England Diocese: St.Edmundsbury and Ipswich

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Country House of approximately 1770, now an independent school, much enlarged in c.1854 and in 1873 for Colonel George Tomline MP. John MacVicar Anderson designed extensions and the Observatory added in 1873.


MATERIALS: red brick with limestone dressings. Slated roofs.

PLAN: the main range has a symmetrical plan with a central entrance leading to an axial corridor from which rooms are accessed.

EXTERIOR: the main range has seven bays and is of two and a half storeys. The north entrance front is in the neo-Classical style and has a projecting three-bay central pediment with three windows and flanking blocks of two windows each, and bearing a coat of arms. The quoins are of rusticated limestone, the projecting alternate stones having curved edges. The parapets have moulded stone cornices, and corner piers with obelisk finials in the Elizabethan manner. The hipped roofs have red brick chimneys with moulded limestone caps. The sash windows have flat, gauged brick arches and some have small panes. Along the entrance front is a set-forward, single-storey loggia of multiple bays with flat pilasters supporting a cornice, infilled to the left of the entrance with windows and to the right with brickwork and balustrading of pierced limestone. The projecting integral open entrance porch has Doric columns and a pair of four-panelled doors. To the left of the main range is a three-storey service wing.

The garden front presents a long facade of linked units, each having balustrading as on the entrance front. From the left to right, these comprise: a single-storey stone-faced conservatory of seven bays; a single-storey assembly hall with canted bay window; the three-storey, five-bay main block with windows framed and linked vertically by stone pilasters and panels and a seven-bay, two-storey block with canted stone - faced bay windows. To the east is the octagonal observatory (see below) and the service range beyond that. Above each of the upper windows along the garden front is pierced strapwork enrichment in the C17 manner.

Observatory Exterior: the Observatory tower has three storeys; it stands on a concrete base 1.2 m thick in the basement, extending 75 cm beyond the outer walls. The octagonal brick-built tower has stone dressings. At the garden elevation, the sash windows are arched on the ground floor and rectangular on the first floor with scroll decoration at the heads. At the second floor, the tower is reduced in diameter and has an external stone balustrade, buttressed at the corners by massive ramped scrolls of limestone. At the third floor is the domed equatorial room. There are 5 arched windows with splayed cills and stone pediments, surmounted by the dome constructed with a wrought-iron framework, covered in deal and clad with copper. On the north elevation there is the external stair tower to the west and additional rooms to the east; in between is Tomline's added lift shaft.

INTERIOR: a full inspection of the interior of the main school building was not undertaken. The colonnaded entrance hall has a cornice with triglyphs interspersed with oak leaves and supported on caprine heads and roundels. The chimney piece has a plastered overmantle with foliate and acanthus motifs. There are niches on the right-hand and rear walls. The panelled dining room is said to have rich plasterwork. The headteacher's room has a classical, marble fireplace with carved mythological creatures, shutters to the windows and egg and dart cornices.

Observatory Interior: rising from the foundations in the basement of the tower is a circular brick pier, itself encircled by a brick wall, which extends 18 m above the foundations but is otherwise independent of the building. At the top of the pier is mounted a 2 m (6 feet) diameter, 30 cm (12 inch) thick York stone to provide the anchor point for the telescope mount. This arrangement isolates the telescope from vibrations associated with people moving around in the building.
The ground floor former Turkish Bath originally comprised two hot rooms to the east (heated by a furnace in the basement) and a central, octagonal 'frigidarium'. The space is now the Bursar's Office and most of the fixtures and fittings have been removed, apart from a marble seat in one of the former hot rooms and column supports in the frigidarium.
Above the ground floor, a winding, cantilevered concrete stair in an integral tower accesses the floors above. It is believed that the interior workings of the lift on the north elevation remain. There is a storage room at the first floor and the belevedere at the second floor. The latter is currently used as exhibition space, and has curved, timber doors and curved glass to the windows. On the third floor is the equatorial room where the telescope is mounted on top of the circular brick pier. The dome is lined on the inside with polished mahogany planking fixed with brass screws; it rotates on twelve removable wheel sets, inset within the external wall, and is opened with a wheeled mechanism. There is a small transit chamber off the equatorial room. It is equipped with a 75mm aperture Troughton and Simms transit instrument. Positioned for ease of reading against the wall of the transit chamber and in line with the two piers of the transit instrument, Airy installed a sidereal clock made by Dent & Co.

The Tomline Refractor is an equatorially mounted refractor with a clear aperture of 258 mm and a focal length of 3,890 mm (focal ratio f15). The mount is of an innovative design, in the form of a bent cone, which eliminated fouling the northernmost support column when tracking circumpolar stars, a common problem with mounted telescopes.The telescope was fitted with large setting circles, and periscopes were provided for the observer to read the declination setting circle from the eyepiece end of the telescope tube. The instrument was driven by a weight-driven clockwork mechanism, the counterweights hung on chains in the cavity between the brick pier supporting the telescope and the circular wall of the Observatory. The power source is now electrical.


The first mansion at Orwell Park was built by Admiral Edward Vernon who lived there between 1725 and 1757. Pevsner records that the existing building was constructed in c. 1770; the main red brick, north-facing range is likely to be of that date. The mansion stayed in the Vernon family until 1818, passing to Sir Robert Harland and then to Colonel George Tomline in 1848. Tomline had two major building campaigns. In 1854, the building was extended and altered, the garden front being remodelled in the Jacobean style with French Renaissance influence. In 1873, further extension took place, including the addition of many guest bedrooms and the construction of the Observatory at the south-east elevation of the building.

The architect of the Observatory was John MacVicar Anderson, later president of the RIBA. Wilfrid Airy, son of the 7th Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy, was responsible for the specification of the scientific instruments in the Observatory. The telescope was specified to be mounted 16m above ground, giving a clear horizon over surrounding roofs and minimising the loss of observing opportunities caused by mist rising from the nearby River Orwell. This constraint led MacVicar Anderson to design the Observatory Tower on four floors, incorporating many features not normally associated with an observatory including a ground floor Turkish Bath suite; a first floor muniment room for storing documents; a second floor Belvedere and the third floor equatorial room housing the 26cm refractor referred to as the Tomline Refractor. The Observatory was completed in early 1874 and soon after Tomline had a hydraulic lift installed to all levels of the tower.

After Tomline’s death in 1889, his heir, Captain Ernest Pretyman inherited Orwell Park and it continued in the family’s ownership until its purchase by Orwell Park School in 1936. In 1939, on the outbreak of World War II, the building was requisitioned by the army and considerable damage was done to the building. In 1946, the school returned to Orwell Park and the Observatory was in use again by the Ipswich and District Astronomy Society until 1957 when the Orwell Astronomical Society Ipswich was formed. The tower was in a state of disrepair, but some repairs have been undertaken and the Observatory is still used by the Society.

John MacVicar Anderson (1835-1915) was a Scottish architect who worked closely with his uncle, William Burn, particularly on country house commissions. MacVicar Anderson has extended or remodelled eight buildings on the statutory List including Crichel House, Dorset and Barrington Park, Gloucestershire, both listed at Grade I.

Reasons for Listing

Orwell Park School is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural Interest: the building retains a historic core of the C18, greatly remodelled in a confident eclectic design in the mid and late C19 when an observatory designed by John MacVicar Anderson was incorporated;
* Interior; the polite rooms of the school building have decorative plasterwork, fireplaces and other fixtures and fittings. The observatory retains the working equatorial telescope on its mount designed by Wilfrid Airy in 1874, other astronomical instruments and an operational dome;
* Group Value: the main school building has group value with the other individually listed structures in the Orwell Park ensemble.

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