As Hugh Pearman noted back in 1981, ‘The challenge to have a go at something really special proved irresistible when a council design team was faced with Castle Hill in the Suffolk town of Eye’. (1) What emerged, though largely unsung, is a unique estate, innovative and modern in design but exquisitely tailored to fit its ancient surrounds.

Eye was a small town with a population of just 1660 in the 1970s. Eye (its name derives from a Saxon word for ‘island’ that denoted its watery location) had once been more august; a borough since 1205 though, by 1832, when its parliamentary representation was reduced from two MPs to one, a pretty rotten one. (2) It remained the country’s smallest borough until 1974 when, as part of a larger reorganisation of local government, it was incorporated into the new Mid Suffolk District Council.

This 1947 Ordnance Survey map shows the castle motte and bailey with existing buildings at its centre. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

The castle, briefly significant in Norman times, was sacked in 1265 and largely obsolescent thereafter. A windmill was built on the motte (castle mound) in the sixteenth century which survived until 1844 when the Victorian folly ruins were built that constitute the present-day ‘castle’. Later in the century, a workhouse and school were built in the bailey (the castle yard) that ran to the west of the mound. By the 1920s, the workhouse was redundant and had been partly converted into the twelve homes that, deemed uneconomical to modernise, the council was given permission to demolish in 1978. The Church of England primary school on the site was deemed surplus to requirements at the same time.  

This presented an opportunity to build council housing – a few years later expectations would have been different and possibilities far more constrained – but, in the centre of town and within a conservation area declared in 1970, it was hardly a blank canvas.  ‘Something really special’ was therefore required both to fit the site and boost its location.

Architects’ site plans and elevations

In the words of Jonathon Wainwright, Principal Architect of Mid Suffolk District Council: (3)

The proposals for the redevelopment have been designed with two visual qualities in mind. The first is the necessity to maintain, indeed enhance, the visual statement by the castle earthworks. The second is to blend in with neighbouring buildings in the conservation area.

‘The proposed solution’, devised with his assistant Colin Hart, is, he continued:  

architecturally a very simple one: the twenty dwellings follow the perimeter of the inner bailey in a series of short, curved terraces, echoing the old castle walls. To reinforce this concept, division walls are enhanced to give a ‘buttress’ effect, which also has the advantage of enhancing privacy between dwellings.

Castle Hill, contemporary view (resident’s photograph)

Thus, as Hugh Pearman commented, ‘the scheme was given a fortified look, where dividing walls became buttresses and walls became ramparts’.

The commitment to a fitting and attractive appearance overall was matched by a concern with quality that won plaudits from the local parish council and the Suffolk Preservation Society. The houses were constructed by Stowmarket builders Haymills in traditional local russet brick. (The calibre of its work won the company a regional craftsmanship award.) It was also planned to re-use roofing slates from the former workhouse though, in the event, the tiles were in too poor condition and the cost constraints imposed by the Housing Cost Yardstick – a central government measure intended to cap construction costs – forced the use of factory-made grey slates.

Castle Hill, contemporary view (resident’s photograph)

Still, as Pearman noted:

The attention to detail [was] refreshing. Apart from humorous touches like the portcullis style garden gates, each house has an individually carved distinctive wood capping to the front doorway.

The gates have mostly disappeared though the wood capping above the doorways remains. Previously wooden doors and window frames on ground floors have been replaced by UPVC as is the way though the first floor wooden Velux windows remain. The tarmac of the original driveway has been replaced by brick; that perhaps is an improvement. The homes originally had solid fuel heating; high chimney stacks and tall terracotta chimneypots were made a design feature of the scheme and coal bunkers in the same russet brick were provided to the rear of the homes though most of the latter have now disappeared.

Individualised wood capping above the doorways

Council records provide evidence of the thought applied to landscaping too. Where it was impossible to retain existing trees, new semi-mature trees were planted. The planners preferred open front gardens and suggested a tenants’ planting scheme ‘that ‘would encourage awareness and involvement in creating the overall landscape of the site’. A selection of plants – six shrubs and two climbers – was proposed that interested tenants could order from the council. (4)  

Two-bed bungalow; architect’s plan

Most importantly, the scheme provided new homes – twenty in all (plus nine garages and 14 parking spaces): two six-room, four-bed homes ‘provided to cater for special needs in the area’; ten three-person, two-bed homes ‘in house form for the more active tenants’ and eight three-person, two-bed homes in bungalow form equipped for older tenants.  

The finished scheme, said to have cost £400,000, was officially opened on 13 March 1981. Roger and Mary Jones had already been resident in their two-bed chalet-style home for six weeks. ‘It is really so unusual’, they said, but they liked their well-insulated, double-glazed home with its Velux windows and smart fitted kitchen. The local press reporter noted its open beams ‘giving an impression of antiquity in a luxurious modern interior’. (5)

Jon Wainwright (left) and Colin Hart and their architectural model of Castle Hill © Building Design

Mid Suffolk’s Chief Technical Officer had complimented ‘the young and enthusiastic team’ behind the scheme and Castle Hill deserves wider recognition as a quite exceptional and unusually well and sensitively designed estate. It was, as the Mayor of Eye, John Lucas, expressed more trenchantly, a reminder that councils and public architects could provide housing of the highest order:

It is there but not obtrusive. Not like the usual monument to a brickworks that councils put up. This has proved that district council architects can rise to the challenge and produce something really good – it’s not just the private sector that wins prizes.

The estate can be a rather magical place at times as this image and image below testifies (resident’s photograph)


I’m very grateful to one of the current residents of Castle Hill for bringing the estate to my attention and supplying the sources and some of the photographs from which this post draws. My thanks to the Planning Department of Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils for supplying the records cited.


(1) Hugh Pearman, ‘Seeing Eye to Eye on Castle Hill; Architects: Mid Suffolk District Council. Department of Technical Services’, Building Design, no. 547, 29 May 1981

(2) The 1205 date is disputed; it is now believed that this early grant was intended for the then similarly named town of Hythe in Kent – the burgesses of Eye carried on regardless – and that the town’s first real charter dates to 1575. 

(3) Report by JR Wainwright, Principal Architect, 29 June 1978

(4) ‘Landscaping Proposals, Castle Hill, Eye’, Chief Planning Officer to Chief Technical Officer, Mid Suffolk District Council, 21 October 1980

(5) ‘Award-winning scheme opened’, The Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, 20 March, 1981

Resident’s photograph