Paul walks along the beach in front of the huts, and talks to Jack of the Lobster Pot. Just like we did when we visited the site. In fact, just like lots of other people have since Jack is a friendly guy who strikes up conversations with passersby, and is a mine of information about the huts and life right on the edge of the land.
Alen McFadzean has written blogs in 2013 and in 2014 about the South Gare at the mouth of the River Tees and its huts. The South Gare is a little spit of land following the river out into the North Sea, with a road, sand dunes and remnants of wartime defences. The ground is artificial land built with slag from the furnaces of Middlesbrough in the nineteenth century to protect the port from storms and better channel the flow of the river. In the distance, you can still see the towers of the steel works.
Set back from the shoreline, behind the dunes, is a cluster of a hundred “South Gare Fishermen’s Association” huts in a grid that stands out in this Google aerial view. If you zoom out with the “-” icon you can see the wider context and how isolated the South Gare is.
Looking closer you can see the huts are all painted the same green, but they’re not all identical. Some are windowless sheds with double doors, but others have a single door and windows – even net curtains. A lot of them have metal chimneys and stoves. Inside they have chairs, and sometimes even sofas, beds and little kitchens. It seems as if the huts are a bit like an allotment but for part-time fishermen: somewhere for men (mostly men) to go and tend to their gear, or to head out in boats from, or just to get out of the house for a while. Some of the replies on Alen’s blogs suggest they were also a well-loved playground, where children and grandchildren first properly encountered the surrounding nature on the beaches and dunes. The last of these six photos shows some of the other huts on the shoreline in one of the sheltered habours.
All of these photos were taken by Alen, who generously offered them when he came across the Hutters.uk blog.
Last month we visited Braystones on the Cumbrian coast, within sight of the mountains of the Lake District and near to the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site. There have been huts on the beach here since before the First World War and two or three dozen remain. Locally they are referred to as “beach bungalows” but they are clearly part of the tradition of wooden huts and chalets we see across this island.
I found out about these huts from this striking photo on Flickr taken by Gordon Edgar (which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce here.) You can see the beach bungalows in the foreground on the shore, a train on the single-line coastal railway, some of the Tarnside caravan park behind, then the industrial buildings of Sellafield, and then finally the high ground that eventually becomes the mountains of the Lake District.
Behind the huts is Braystones railway station, and there is another cluster of them a bit further along the coast at Nethertown.
While we were photographing the huts, we got talking to Jack, the owner of The Lobster Pot and Summerville semi-detached huts. You can rent Summerville during the summer and it’s very nicely fitted out and comfortable. Definitely a bungalow rather than an unfurnished hut now! Jack has lived here for decades and in the short time we were there he told us lots of stories about living on the beach, including being able to take his boat out to catch fish and lobsters whenever he felt like it. He also has a collection of photographs of the huts in the past, some of which you can see in the Henson Collection on PastPresented.
There first picture in this blog might give the impression the beach bungalows are rather precarious and might be swept away, but sand and pebbles are banked up to create a breakwater and they are well above the high water mark. Behind the breakwater is a roadway that was good enough for Royal Mail to make deliveries while we were there.
Even so, there was one ruined hut at the end that was in the process of being destroyed by the elements. The front wall had come off and the foundations were being eroded, leaving some of the wall posts hanging from the remains of the roof and gently swaying in the sea breeze.
Braystones is definitely the harshest hutting environment I’ve visited, but if you compare my pictures with the historical photos on PastPresented you can see much of the original structures have survived.
There are other styles of hut elsewhere on the Cumbrian coast. One community I’ve yet to visit has been blogged about by Alen McFadzean: the Black Huts on dunes further south near Barrow in Furness.
One of the features of this whole subject is the number of names there are for very similar types of buildings. Last week I visited the beach bungalows in Braystones (blog and pictures coming next week) and so added a fifth word to my growing list even if “bungalow” is more normally associated in Britain with conventional brick buildings.
“Hut” is the preferred term at Carbeth north of Glasgow, and is used by Reforesting Scotland’s “Thousand Huts” campaign and has a definition the Scottish planning policy:
Hut: A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.
Not all huts (even at sites like Carbeth) meet those conditions, but you get the idea. “Hut” also gives us “hutting” and “hutters”, and connects to the Norwegian “hytte” tradition and on to the wider northern European practice of owning huts or summerhouses for overnight stays in the countryside or even on allotments.
Beach huts, which are concentrated on the southeast coasts of England although not exclusive to them, are also huts but mostly on the shed end of the spectrum, often with no windows and just double doors on the beach side. Sheds in gardens and allotments are a world in themselves, with sites like Readers’ Sheds organising annual competitions which are covered by Channel4.
Along with “hut”, the name “log cabin” is naturally associated with woodland structures due to the traditional way of constructing buildings from whole trunks or sections of them.
Finally, “chalet” is a word borrowed from the Alps and suggests something a bit more sophisticated than a hut. The Plotlands preferred chalets to huts, and the Humberston Fitties still do.
Despite the name and the differences, there’s still a common “hutting” thread. When I visit these sites, so many of the buildings have a look to them. Here I’ve picked out some of the pictures from my blogs, showing huts in East Yorkshire, Cheshire, Humberston, West Midlands, and Cumbria – spread over hundreds of miles but all clearly part of the same tradition. I could have included pictures from Carbeth to extend this a hundred miles further north too.
This post has galleries of photos I took of stretches of Essex beach huts at West Mersea and at Thorpe Bay in Southend-on-Sea. This was the first time I’d had a good look at some beach huts and talked to people who own them, and there’s a lot of overlap with other types of huts, cabins, and chalets that also covered by the new Hutters Facebook group.
There are something like 20,000 beach huts in Britain but most of them are in the Southeast and Southwest of England. The most common model seems to be land the local council is prepared to rent to people in seaside resorts to put up a hut which the individual then owns, but in which they can’t stay overnight. People often own them for years or even decades, and the huts are another way of enjoying the seaside at weekends and during holidays etc. Huts like this, with the associated lease for the land, seem to resell for thousands or tens of thousands of pounds.
There are some beach huts where overnight stays are allowed, and high spec huts on those sites can go for over £100,000 or even £200,000. Huts in Mudeford in Dorset have being going for kind of money this decade, despite being on a relatively isolated strip of land.
Back in Essex, the first place I looked at was West Mersea. There are freehold plots and council administered stretches at the beginning and end of the gallery below, and in the middle a row of identical huts that are provided by the Seaview caravan park (shown here.) I took some pictures of the back of these huts and the only customisation from the owners was the type of padlock on the storage boxes at the back. However, since the huts are owned rather than rented, this may change over time.
One feature of the rest of the area is that the beach huts are often in rows, with grass in front of some of them rather than being straight onto the sand of the beach. The rows run along the often steep ground above the beach and so still have sea views over the roof tops of the ones in front. This steepness has prompted a built up decking in front of some huts and in turn people exploit the storage underneath, to the extent of enclosing it completely and fitting a door in some cases! In other places the rows are separated by wide, flat grassy lawns and must be a lot more private in summer than those straight on the beach.
I talked to some of the owners, including the ladies in Ellfin who asked if I wanted to take a picture of the inside, and their motivations are very similar to that of the weekend hutters, the woodland log cabineers, and what the plotlands buyers talked about in the 1930s: they wanted a place away from home, that was their own so they could keep coming back to it, that was in a more natural environment than a street, and that they could decorate and modify how they wanted.
Further south at Thorpe Bay in Southend-on-Sea, some of the beach huts sit on the tarmac of the esplanade and have pull-out wooden wind-breakers which I suspect function as tourist-breakers on sunny days to stop people continually brushing past owners sitting out in a deck chair. Thorpe Bay also has some huts with raised verandahs and decking, and probably a wider variation in size and style than West Mersea.