“Huts: a Place Beyond” by Lesley Riddoch

Lesley Riddoch has been a long standing supporter of the Thousand Huts campaign in Scotland, and an advocate for a resurgence of hutting. For the past decade she was working towards a PhD from the University of Strathclyde on hutting, and her new book, “Huts: a place beyond”, is her thesis reworked into a more popular format. I think the book will be a very helpful contribution to the movement, but there are some significant problems with it.

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Hill Farm chalets near Bewdley

Back in July 2014 when I started this blog, one of my first posts was about Jonathan Meades documentary “Severn Heaven” from 1990, in which he visited the Hill Farm chalet field next to the River Severn near Bewdley. Almost six years to the day I went there myself and it’s still much as it was when Meades filmed it.

There are bits of the film on YouTube and here’s one of the clips, showing the river and the chalets from the air, with Howard Davidson’s rather rousing music.

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Plotlands story in the Independent

“A last hurrah for plotlanders, Britain’s interwar guerrilla housebuilders.
In the chaos and poverty of interwar Britain sprang up a hardy breed of guerrilla homebuilder: plotlanders. Foreshadowing both trailer parks and modern squatters, they constructed semi-permanent dwellings on land not needed for agriculture – near motorways, in woodland, on cliff edges. Godfrey Holmes celebrates the spirit and ingenuity of true property pioneers” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/a-last-hurrah-for-plotlanders-britains-interwar-guerrilla-housebuilders-a7715176.html

The return of the plotlands and prefabs?

Interesting article by Geoff Beacon on the possible return of plotlands and prefabs, and the background to how we got into the current house price mess stoked by the planning system:

Just imagine, as we do in the York Plotlands Association, that individuals could buy a plot of land for, say, three or four times its a agricultural value (e.g. £2,000), be given planning permission for that plot and put a home of their choice on it. For the individual that would cut out the £50,000 to £100,000 planning gain that ends up on the price of their new home.

Urgent request to help Humberston Fitties

In 2014 I made one of the most popular posts here: “Humberston Fitties: magical but under threat“, describing one of Britain’s few remaining plotland sites on the north east coast of Lincolnshire. It was under threat from the continuing uncertainty surrounding the council’s intentions, and the possibility it might be sold to the adjacent commercial caravan park. Since then, things have just got worse and some of the chalet owners have put out a request for help.

The chalet owners have formed the Humberston Fitties Community Interest Company and have offered £1.5 million to the council, who are determined to sell the long lease for the whole site. The adjacent caravan site (Thorpe Park) had first refusal but declined to buy it. Problem solved? No, the council don’t want to sell the long lease to the chalet owners. (Who are voters and council tax payers and people who spend money in the local economy remember.) Instead they are in secret negotiations with an undisclosed company, believed to be another commercial caravan site company.

This seems unbelievably bloody minded and high handed by the council.

I had this email from the C.I.C. yesterday and wrote this blog in response:

NELC put the leasehold up for sale in Oct 2016, inviting expressions of interest. Our Community Interest Company submitted an offer to buy at the asking price of £1.5 million. NELC have very regrettably rejected our offer, in favour of their ‘preferred bidder’, who is believed to be a commercial static caravan site company.

Given the bizarre secretive way in which our landlord NELC are going about things, we as a community really do fear the worse. As such, and given that we feel that we may well be about to loose this much loved piece of Utopia that happens to be a Designated Heritage Asset, we are trying to increase awareness of what is going on across the length and breadth of this land, by whatever means (and media) possible.

We have formed an online petition that I hope you will sign. See link :- https://www.change.org/p/north-east-lincolnshire-council-petition-opposing-north-east-lincolnshire-council-s-proposed-disposal-of-the-fitties

Feel free to circulate this message and spread the word generally, to your friends, family, associates and colleagues!

So, please consider signing the petition and telling your friends. If you have media connections and might be able to help, please get in contact with the C.I.C. via their website.

(The site also has a really interesting page about the Fitties history too.)

Holtsfield and Owensfield on the Gower Peninsula

Holtsfield chaletHoltsfield and Owensfield are two of the chalet fields of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, originally dating back to the decades before the Second World War that saw similar “hutting” and “plotlands” developments across Britain. The chalets were holiday homes and weekend retreats for “weekenders” from south Wales including the nearby city of Swansea, but over time they have become people’s full time homes. Both chalet fields are adjacent to Bishop’s Wood Nature Reserve which leads down to the coast at Caswell Bay and its beach, and the area has the caravan parks that are often a tell-tale sign of pre-war coastal plotland areas.

In Holtsfield’s case, as you can see from this photo from the early years of the site, the progression was from camping to weekend huts, to a refuge from wartime bombing, and eventually to residential use – and to a much more wooded site as a by-product.

The 14-acre site passed from the ownership of Mr Holt in the 1990s but the new landowner has sought to evict the owners of the 27 chalets to develop the land for much more expensive conventional houses. The Undercurrents.org and The Land Is Ours websites have more about the protests and legal steps the residents took in the late 1990s which has helped they survive there to the present day, although not without some remaining threats to their situation.

Here are two films made around the time of the eviction dispute in the 1990s, first by Undercurrents and then by BBC Countryfile:



The last film is from BBC Wales’ The Slate arts programme:


Last year Holtsfield and Owensfield were in the news after Royal Mail deliveries were suspended due to access problems.

These four photos of Owensfield are from the Gower chalet fields album in Stefan Szczelkun’s Plotlands UK Flickr group, which also has images of the Hareslade and Sandy Lane sites:

This Google map shows the two chalet fields, with Holtsfield to the northwest of Owensfield. Holtsfield is at the end of a roadway from Mansfield Road, and Owensfield is at the end of Summerland Lane. If you zoom in, the chalets are quite distinctive in their size and layout when compared to the conventional houses nearby.

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!1m13!1m11!1m3!1d2987.807234495165!2d-4.031303999999994!3d51.5756049!2m2!1f0!2f0!3m2!1i1024!2i768!4f13.1!5e1!3m2!1sen!2sus!4v1434885852287&w=600&h=450]

Oxwich Bay chalets in the news

Oxwich Leisure Park has one of the chalet communities of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, and they had the result of their appeal to the Supreme Court yesterday and unfortunately it was bad news. Their service charges will continue to increase by 10% a year, and whereas currently they pay £3000, by the time the leases expire they will each need to pay over £1,000,000 every year. On hearing the outcome, residents were describing their chalets as now worthless.

The court sympathised with the residents but upheld their annual service charge contracts which were signed in 1974. These contracts  agreed to an increase of 10% per year, when inflation was 16% and when 10% looked attractive.  However, the various measures of inflation have been much less for almost all of the intervening years and in 2015 the CPI measure of the cost of living is actually falling. Against that background, 10% per year leads to eye watering increases: £90 per year in 1974 has now become £3000 and will be £1,025,004 each by the end of the leases in 2073.

Despite the harshness of their situation, the judges observed that signing a fixed rate of increase amounted to placing a bet about inflation which could equally well have benefitted the tenants rather than the landowner if things had been different. Nevertheless, there is the possibility of a better outcome, as the landowner repeated her offer to renegotiate the terms of the contract in the tenants’ favour.

The Gower Peninsula has several “chalet field” communities, and the Oxwich chalets appear to be quite modern in style and (re)built in brick rather than the wooden huts I’ve blogged about elsewhere and that are well represented on other Gower sites which I’m planning to blog about in the future.

Hut, cabins, chalets, or sheds?

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.




The Haven and Dunton plotlands

The HavenLast autumn I was able to visit the Langdon Nature Reserve near Basildon in Essex, and took the collection of photos at the end of this post. The site was a plotlands community of chalets on plots of land owned by “residents” and “weekenders”. Originally it was largely occupied by weekenders who had bought their plots as places to escape to from London on days off work, and often built their chalets and huts themselves. Gradually the fraction of residents increased, helped along by wartime bombing of London homes and people retiring to their holiday chalets.

However in 1948 local and national government decided to develop Basildon as a New Town, with “proper” houses owned by branches of the State rather than the people who lived in them. All the plotlands were designated for compulsory purchase, and Langdon was no exception. But in Langdon’s case the plotland community wasn’t destined to be levelled to make way for the next generation of people escaping London (into the Basildon Development Corporation’s houses) but to become the artificial nature reserve it now is. The site hasn’t been returned to its state before the plots were sold before the First World War: it had been grazing land for centuries, possibly thousands of years. Instead it has become fenced-off scrubland dotted with trees and bushes that can only persist in this form in the absence of wild grazing animals (that our ancestors killed off or domesticated.)

In this nature reserve the authorities allowed one plotland property to survive, and the one chosen was the “Haven”, and it was turned into a museum.

Despite its origins, the Haven museum of plot land life is excellent. It is not the equivalent of a stuffed buffalo kept in an American shopping mall with a sign saying: “Look at what we exterminated to bring you all this!” The worst that can be said is that it has an exterior that looks like a conventional brick building, and so by itself it can’t represent the variety and individuality of the plotlands. As Deanna Walker says “it is quite posh compared to our little wooden chalets!”

The nature reserve and its volunteers have done a sterling job with it though. It has been faithfully populated with 1940s furnishings and goods, right down to a  kitchen cupboard full of tins and boxes in 1940s packaging.

Kitchen cupboard in The HavenIt’s a small building but it’s not claustrophobic and the space works well. Maybe I would feel differently if I’d been cooped up in it for most of a rainy August? But there’s no attempt to hide the fact that it feels comfortable, and desirable, and above all viable, especially for weekenders and resourceful residents.

Walking from room to room reminded me of Mr Foster’s house in the BBC “Plotlands” TV series from the 1996 which was clearly based on the site, with its fictional name of “Langton Fields”.

In the back garden are outbuildings, including a wartime air raid shelter, and a workshop for fixing bikes and other plotlanders’ household machinery, and a hen house for eggs – illustrating the self-sufficiency the plotlanders often strove for, both out of necessity on a site with poor roads, and in following the unconventional spirit which brought them there in the first place.

That grid layout of poor roads has now become gravel paths tended by the nature reserve and you can still follow them up the hillside and along the ridges, picking off the locations of individual properties. The leaflet and sign boards that are thoughtfully provided help with this, as would Deanne Walker and Peter Jacksons’ books which are available from the gift shop. Despite the encroaching trees, the more elevated trackways still have some dramatic views across towards London, with the Olympic park in the foreground.

HawthornAt first I dutifully ticked properties off the map, then visited the Haven, and then got near the top of the hill and stood in the brick foundations of “Hawthorn’s” bay window. This looks down over a large glade amongst the trees and bushes, almost like a lawn. I tried to imagine what the land must have been like as chalets on their plots.

Then I suddenly realised that I didn’t need to imagine. It would have looked very like Carbeth does now, just with straighter lanes and perhaps less trees. Furthermore I realised that’s what it would look like now if the plotlanders had just been allowed to keep their plots and their community.

And then I just felt angry at such vandalism by the State.

Two books about Basildon plotlands

Books about the plotlandsDeanne Walker has written two books about Essex plotland communities, first “Basildon Plotlands: The Londoners’ Rural Retreat” by herself and then “A Portrait of Basildon Plotlands: The Enduring Spirit” with Peter Jackson (who maintains a plotlands website.) The books are complementary pictures of plotland experiences and history and so I’m going to post about them together.

“Basildon Plotlands” is based on her own childhood experiences of her parents’ chalet in the 1960s to 1980s, and is primarily concerned with the “weekenders” who used huts as holiday homes in the countryside. “A Portrait” has more emphasis on the other group, the “residents”, who lived in their huts full time.

This division is still reflected in plotland communities that have survived into the 21st century such as Carbeth and the Humberston Fitties (where year-round occupation is the subject of a legal dispute with the council.) One of the strengths of the plotlands before the 1948 planning laws was the way in which boundaries between leisure and residential dwellings could be blurred to respond to the changing needs and wants of their owners.

“A Portrait” devotes a chapter to the plotlanders’ experiences during the Second World War when this flexibility allowed families to partially move out of their East End homes and occupy their huts to avoiding the bombing. For example by the mother and children moving permanently and the father joining them at weekends.

For some families the move became permanent if their home in London was bombed and when the housing shortage of wartime and its aftermath made their place in the country the most attractive option.

Both books describe some people’s transition from weekenders to residents when they retired, with familiarity of their chalet being more attractive (and cheaper) than a flat in the city. Again this is a testament to the flexibility of this kind of housing.

One of the important features of the plotlands was the ownership of their own plot of land by the individual chalet owners. This led to some very long periods of occupation, far longer than you might expect for a static caravan pitch for example. Many of the plots had stayed within generations of the same family since they were originally bought before the First World War. As “A Portrait” shows, this often led to groups of families being plotland neighbours for generations, even if only at weekends in many cases. The books’ co-author, Peter Jackson, is a graphic demonstration of this, as the son of parents who met as children on neighbouring plots.

Furthermore, the plotlands developed a strong community spirit including improvised entertainments, rudimentary services like water standpipes, and a supply of groceries by delivery boys (like Peter Jackson) who were willing to negotiate the unmade roads in all weathers. I’d not realised that the near universal practice of giving names to plotland chalets was needed to be able to receive the post in areas without properly laid out and numbered streets. This practice does seem to occur even in modern locations like the Humberston Fitties where the chalets are also officially numbered, so I suspect both the desire to name your property and the practicalities of receiving the mail are aligned.

The presence of residents helped sustain all this for both themselves and the weekenders, and they also appear to have significantly contributed to the security of the plotlands by their presence. As the efforts of the Basildon Development Corporation to destroy the plotlands came to their ultimate fruition in the 1980s, the last few owners experienced vandalism and break-ins at a level they were unprepared for.

“A Portrait” describes this process in its later chapters, although with less of the attention to the administrative and ideological background dissected in “Arcadia for all” by Hardy and Ward. One of the most chilling passages is a comment by the Labour minister for housing who revealed the government’s animosity to the mostly working class East Enders who had the audacity to own their own land. If the State decided they would be permitted to continue to occupy their plots after compulsory purchase, they would nevertheless be denied ownership on principle: “Freeholds should be in the hands of the community and transfer of land should be leasehold only.” As Walker and Jackson say “For the residents who had probably previously rented rooms or houses in London … and might therefore have been the first in their family to own their own piece of land, this edict from above constituted an intolerable outrage.”

Deanne Walker’s first book, “Basildon Plotlands”, touched on elements of this controversy, but also has more material about the weekenders that her own family represented. She begins with a vivid description of travelling out from London on a Friday night, opening up their chalet in the dark, settling in, and then waking up in the countryside with all the possibilities of a weekend stretching out before them.

It is the more personal of the two books, although both of them are well illustrated by photographs taken by the authors’ own families and friends. It also covers the practicalities in more detail, including experiences of constructing the chalets with “real DIY” (in a way which would have made Jonathan Meades proud.)

In my next blog post I will write about a visiting the preserved Haven Plotlands Museum in the one chalet the Basildon Development Corporation decided to keep as a historical record of what they had destroyed. But I’m going to end here with a comparison of the kinds of kits plotlanders were buying and building in the 1930s and today’s equivalent. The picture on the left is from Albert’s catalogue of chalet kits and one of the options was used to build the chalet “Eleanor” on the Berry Park Estate. On the right is a Lugarde log cabin you could buy today.

Lugarde log cabin

A page from "Albert's" catalogue of building kits from the 1930s. One of these kits was used to the build the plotland chalet "Eleanor" on the Berry Park Estate, Essex.