Tonight we’ve created Hutters, a new group on Facebook for people interested in huts, cabins, sheds, and chalets!
The Humberston Fitties in North Lincolnshire are the best preserved pre-war plotland site on the North Sea coast, but there are further pockets of plotlands and huts on the coast of East Yorkshire to the north. I’ve taken some pictures at three sites, on Flamborough Head, Wilshorpe, and Hornsea.
The Marine Valley Estate on Flamborough Head consists of three roads laid out like a conventional development of bungalows, but instead the buildings are wooden chalets and and substantial huts.
Google Maps view of the estate and the adjacent North Landing cove:
Many these developments that began as makeshift holiday homes are in very picturesque, even dramatic locations. The Marine Valley Estate is no exception, as you can see in this photo of North Landing:
Further south, the South Shore Holiday Village in Wilsthorpe is mostly neat and rather uniform modern chalets. It has the feel of a modern static caravan park, with mowed lawns between chalets that are placed on pitches rather than occupying their own plots. However, here and there are signs of some a bit different and a bit older:
The numeric naming of the roads (“1st Avenue” etc) is often a sign of some kind of underlying plotland development in the past:
Finally, in Hornsea there are scattered huts and chalets still:
These chalets are along Hornsea Burton Road, Graingers Road, and off Pasture Road beside the playing fields which go down to the promenade on the sea front:
Jaywick in Essex has been in the news recently with the by-election in Clacton on Thursday. It began as a 1920s plotland development, and as recently as 1984 its huts and chalets were being held up as a “charming example of English vernacular makeshift architecture”. But now it’s the poster-child for anti-plotlanders and a handy source of filler stories for the Daily Mail on a slow news day as England’s “most deprived neighbourhood”. So how did it get to this?
Jaywick Sands was started as a new development by the sea front by Frank Stedman in 1928, with freehold plots of land sold off one by one to Londoners and Essex residents looking for holiday homes to use at weekends or in the summer. They plotlanders mostly put up wooden chalets and huts, often built by the families themselves. Looking at the early photographs it was quite dense from the start, compared to more spread out sites like the Humberston Fitties.
Before the war there was some hostility to the site from Clacton Council, and development of new plotland buildings across the country was largely halted by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Along with other east coast sites, it received another blow from the North Sea flood of 1953 when 37 of the total UK death toll of 307 were in Jaywick.
During the 1950s and 1960s the Jaywick Ratepayers’ Association campaigned for Clacton Council to provide road maintenance and the water and sewerage services that other parts of the borough received in return for their rates. In tandem, Stedman’s original Jaywick Freeholders’ Association lobbied for better flood defences. During this period the demographics shifted from holiday and weekend occupation to residential use, with an increasing number of people retiring to Jaywick as a seaside area they had visited during their working life.
At the start of 1971, the council decided to eliminate the Brooklands and Grasslands areas of chalet development in Jaywick using its compulsory purchase powers. In the end, this move was blocked by an appeal to the Department of the Environment, whose inspector criticised the council’s failure to provide basic services. In 1975, a sympathetic councillor felt that the “Council were still sulking over the inquiry decision and don’t want to know about Jaywick”.
In their 1984 book “Arcadia for all”, Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy summarised outsiders views of the area:
Jaywick especially has been seized upon by architectural writers to illustrate, not the horrors of uncontrolled development, but the charm of an indigenous vernacular of makeshift design. Thus for the teachers of architecture at Oxford Polytechnic, it is an example of ‘structuring one’s own environment in defiance of external authority’ and for the architectural critic Sutherland Lyall, it represents ‘not shanty town jerry building but an indigenous British paradigm of the way twentieth-century “bricoleurs” respond directly to their exigent circumstances.’
So how did it become “Misery by the Sea” as the Daily Mail puts it?
The council played its part. The continuing hostility from the council placed the area under Article 4 directives requiring full planning permission for even minor alterations and improvements or even garden sheds. Rebuilding was prevented when decaying chalets were pulled down, or if one burnt down. The council appears to have objected to the idea of buildings that weren’t “proper” houses, but simultaneously dragged its heels over providing the proper roads and services that go with “proper” housing streets. Deliberately blighting an area has consequences for the future.
The economy had a role too. The wider recession in the early 1980s hit Jaywick particularly hard. Well in to the 1970s, Jaywick had been a seaside destination for day trips and holidays, with fairground rides and seafront shops and stalls. These businesses gradually ran down, and in 1983 the Butlin’s holiday camp, which had been a significant local employer, finally closed.
By the 1990s, Jaywick had a bad reputation. It had become the kind of place local taxi drivers were reluctant to take fares to, and people with Jaywick addresses didn’t get short-listed when going for jobs.
Gradually the freehold owners of the chalet plots sold up, or they or their families just abandoned the plots and forgot about them. Over time, more and more chalets fell into the hands of a small number of absentee landlords who let them out on short tenancies to people who could claim housing benefit and who came in from other areas. In 2011, the Guardian reported landlords were able to get £450 per month even for chalets in very poor condition.
How could this have been avoided? Many areas of conventional housing in cities arrive at the same situation, and this downward spiral can be hard or impossible to prevent. But it strikes me that when Jaywick was thriving, the people who visited or lived there owned their own chalets and plots, and had the freedom to improve them. As more control was exerted from outside, the worse the situation got. Treating people like children doesn’t lead to a thriving community. You want people to take pride in their neighbourhood, and the way to do that is let them have a sense of ownership. Part of that is having the ability to make choices to shape their environment. Living at the mercy of a “We Know Best” state bureaucracy or beholden to a slum landlord doesn’t do that.
Here is an aerial view of Jaywick’s Grasslands and Brooklands areas. (The full Google Maps version has Streetview pictures of all the roads so you can explore from eye level too):
In 2012 Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope made a documentary, Jaywick Escapes, about the area which shows many of its problems and the community spirit which prevents some of the solutions (like mass demolition) proposed by the council over the years.
Postscript (23 October 2014): I had a chance to visit Jaywick after the by-election. There are some homes which are well looked after but the area, especially Brooklands, is genuinely run down and the Daily Mail pictures aren’t misleading. I saw some houses being rebuilt and it looks as if the process of cladding wooden chalets in pebble dash and replacing wood with concrete blocks and tiles is still ongoing. Here are a couple of pictures of houses that still betray their chalet origins:
The Humberston Fitties are a colony of about 300 chalets, huts, and cabins on former salt marshes (“fitties”) on the Lincolnshire coast near Cleethorpes. The site began after the First World War and the freehold was acquired by the local council in 1938, with the chalet owners holding leases on their plots. North East Lincolnshire Council (NELC) has attempted to retain the character of the site using a mixture of planning control and conditions in the leases. There are currently two disputes between the chalet owners and the council: about the rule that they cannot sleep in the chalets in January and February; and the council’s plans to lease the site to the adjacent (massive) static caravan park run by Haven. At the end of this post is a gallery of 80 photos I’ve taken while walking around the site.
The site has made up tarmac roads, mains water, sewerage, electricity, and BT phone lines. There’s no gas supply but many residents use bottled gas, and a lot of the wooden chalets have external brick chimney stacks originally built for wood or coal fires and stoves, as you can see in the above photo. That chalet also has the distinctive “broken ridge” roof style, that usually comes from building a gabled roof, then adding a verandah with a shallower roof pitch, and then enclosing the verandah to add more space. Site rules can mean that this profile may survive major repairs or even a rebuild of the original wooden walls.
There does seem to be a community feel at the Fitties, with people talking over fences and charity fund raising events being organised and advertised in people’s windows. And then there’s the political activism due to the council’s behaviour.
There are two broad classes of plotlands development: freehold, of the type seen in the areas like Dunton in Essex, in which people buy their plot as well as the building they have on it; and leasehold, where they only rent the plot for a few years (or even months) at a time. The Fitties fall into the leasehold category and this has allowed the council to put stringent rules in place to keep a vaguely pre-war character to the site. Their Design Guide for instance puts “individuality” as a requirement, which is not the kind of thing you normally see councils enforcing. The length of lease allowed depends on the score of the building against the criteria in the guide, varying from 1 to 15 years.
The council also uses planning law to enforce their design rules and to exert control, and has declared the site to be a Conservation Area and put in place an Article 4(2) directive which restricts the permitted development rights that residential property normally has. So you can find yourself needing planning permission to put up small garden sheds etc, or to build porches or extensions which would normally be below the threshold for a planning permission application.
I think it’s particularly ironic that the council is trying to keep the Fitties almost frozen in time because it’s something worth having, but at the same time would crush any attempt to build a similar site elsewhere. This is the mentality of the museum rather than the way to have more of the real magic here that people value. The magic you can feel just walking round the place comes from that individuality and freedom that the original plotlanders created and then bequeathed to the current chalet owners. It’s not something you can create and nurture with regulations. It happens despite government and in defiance of attempts at creating manufactured, controlled environments.
The most controversial aspect of the council’s rules seems to be the enforced closed season during January and February when owners are not allowed in their own chalets between 4pm and 10am. Supposedly this is because of the risk of flooding but that’s transparent dishonesty by the council as winter flooding could happen in November and December too. One group of owners are actively campaigning to have this enforced absence limited to two weeks a year: the “50 weeks” a year campaign that has posters in some of the chalets’ windows.
Chris Shaw, the Labour council leader, has made multiple threats in his attempts to enforce the council’s chosen rules. He has threatened turning off electricity and mains water to the site during the closed season to discourage overnight stays; and he has deployed “security” guard patrols to try to catch people on site and promised to evict anyone caught during the nights of the forbidden months. This is “the State knows best” variant of socialism which Colin Ward argued against in “Arcadia for All” from a pragmatic anarchist perspective: the danger that government will decide what is best for people and then use the great power it has to enforce those decisions about people’s lives, crushing opposition by whatever means are available (control of electricity supply, deploying security patrols, etc.)
Bizarrely, the other dispute is the council’s proposal to sell or lease the site to a commercial owner. Haven Holidays, which owns the adjacent Thorpe Park static caravan site, seems to be their preferred option. Many chalet owners are naturally concerned about this, as the Fitties forms a strip between Thorpe Park and the beaches, and Haven’s business is putting static caravans on land they acquire, not being landlord to a few hundred individualists living in a unique community.
I did drive and walk around Thorpe Park during my visit. The caravans do look comfortable, the site is carefully landscaped and provided with lakes, trees, and activities, and it’s all a very “turn key” experience with things taken care of so you don’t need to worry about sorting it all out. But the rows of caravans were a soulless, regimented place compared to the Fitties. It would be a tragedy if a commercial owner was given the chance to spend 20 years running the Fitties down, driving out chalet owners, and then being able to convince a sympathetic council that the Fitties’ time had passed and it was necessary to clear away the mess and put in yet more rows and rows of identical, factory-built static caravans.
The next stage of this process is due to be formally discussed by the council later on October 13th (agenda and council leader’s report for the meeting). To me, a Carbeth style buyout of the freehold by an association run by the chalet owners would seem the safest option. People coming together to mutually help themselves, free of interference by (local) government puts the control in their own hands. Direct freehold ownership by individuals might be another option, but raising the money for that isn’t practical for everyone. Either way, we’d still have planning control to safeguard the needs of the wider community, rather than just enforce the council’s preferences.
The Fitties occupy the long strip of land with roads just to the west of the sea in this Google aerial view. Google Streetview is available for most of the roads, so you can wander around the site at ground level yourself too:
Hardy and Ward’s “Arcadia for all” is probably the most detailed account of 20th century plotland developments in Britain – a landscape divided up into small plots of land, on which their owners built makeshift huts, cabins, shanties, and chalets as weekend and holiday retreats in the countryside. Written in 1984, the authors were able to interview current and former plotlanders who remembered the peak of the movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The focus is very much on the areas around London, but the wider context of changes to planning law and similar developments in other countries are also surveyed. The book ends with a call for some freedom to begin it again, which echoes today’s movements like the campaign for Scottish hutting and even the sale of woodplots.
One of the authors, Colin Ward, was a leading British anarchist who viewed anarchism in a very pragmatic way as something that is always present at the grassroots level of people making their lives better and organising themselves into mutual agreements, associations, and institutions:
Many years of attempting to be an anarchist propagandist have convinced me that we win over our fellow citizens to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organising networks of relationships that in fact make the human community possible, rather than through the rejecting of existing society as a whole in favour of some future society where some different kind of humanity will live in perfect harmony.
He saw these self-organising instincts as being frequently suppressed by the socialist or capitalist state, but always ready to flourish when chances appear, “like a seed beneath the snow”, and like his other books “Arcadia” documents instances of this struggle between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual.
Near the start of the book, it discusses nineteenth century forerunners of plotland settlements, including those near Nottingham in the 1830s described by William Howitt:
There are on the outskirts of Nottingham upwards of 5000 gardens, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class … Every garden has a summer-house and these are of all scales and grades, from the erection of a few tub staves, with an attempt to train a pumpkin or a wild-hop over it, to substantial brick houses with glass windows, good cellars for a deposit of choice wines, a kitchen and all necessary apparatus, and a good pump to supply them with water. Many are very picturesque rustic huts, built with great taste, and hidden by tall hedges in a perfect little paradise of lawn and shrubbery – most delightful spots to go and read in with a pleasant party of friends.
Mid-twentieth century planning laws have made plotland development illegal, but in the decades before the Second World War they spread across England, as catalogued in a two-page survey in the first chapter. They existed on the banks of the Rivers Thames and Lea near London; in North Downs woodlands; on the Chilterns; in Marple and Mottram on the edges of the Pennines near Manchester; on the banks of the River Severn in Shropshire and Worcestershire; by the River Dee in Cheshire; by the River Wye on the Welsh border; on the shores of lakes in Cheshire and Rudyard Reservoir in Staffordshire; in Charnwood Forest in the East Midlands; in Hardwick Wood and Sutton Spring Wood near Chesterfield; in Holmhouse Wood near Middlesbrough; on the Lancashire coast near Cockersand Abbey; in former fisherman’s huts along Dungeness in Kent; on coasts in the South West at Severn Beach, Redcliffe Bay, Croyde, Hayle Towan, Whitsand Bay, Exmouth, and Beer; on the South Coast at Shoreham Beach, Peacehaven, Camber Sands; on the East Coast at Flamborough Head, much of the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts, Jaywick and Canvey Island; at Cranmore on the Isle of Wight; at St Leonards in Dorset; at Laindon-Pitsea in South Essex.
(Similar settlement appeared in Scotland and Wales, but often without the security of land ownership or long leaseholds, and so developed and were largely extinguished in different ways to the plotlands documented in the book.)
In the years before and after the First World War some very large areas of plotland on the coasts were laid out with thousands of plots, which were usually sold by auction in a marquee on site during the summer months, with free or subsidised trains put on from London. These larger, planned plotland developments were intended to be occupied by conventional houses or hotels as part of new seaside resorts and had restrictions on the minimum value of house that could be built. But in practice they were bought for a few pounds by people without the means to spend hundreds on a house. Instead, they put up self-built huts or chalets or even adapted retired railway carriages and trucks, and used them as weekend and holiday retreats.
The book quotes a report by Lord Mayo, and Professors Adshead, and Abercrombie on the process by which land went from tents to huts by the Thames:
At first a simple hut is erected behind the tents for cooking and other purposes; the next stage is for the family to take its meals in the shed in wet weather; a dining room follows; possibly a bedroom is added for a maid or for someone who does not care to sleep under canvas; and so gradually is built up a rambling series of shacks.
The authors note that the assumption of having maids is probably inaccurate, and that part of the motivation of the plotlanders was to escape the social conformity of urban life. One of the individuals they interviewed plainly stated that “we wanted a place which was primitive, where the children could do what they liked. They could play pirates, build rafts, fall in the river and get covered in mud, and nobody minded.”
Because the land and buildings were owned outright rather than rented for a week or two in the summer, the same families occupied them for decades and built up lasting relationships with the surrounding owners, and eventually a sense of community. Often extended families would come down during the summer and camp out on floorspace, or in a tent or caravan. Family and friends might go on to buy nearby plots themselves if they came back onto the market. As the owners aged, some of the buildings became permanently occupied, either as cheap housing, or as a substitute for homes bombed during the War, or as homes to retire to.
However, major changes to the law on land use and land ownership were taking place. Already in the 1930s, there were objections to the plotlands from the new planning professionals and writers. The 1945 Labour government’s manifesto had promised to nationalise rural land, and their first step was the Town and Country Planning Acts in England and Wales and Scotland, which set out to give the state control of land through a national planning system administered by local councils, who also acquired the right to compulsorily purchase land to enforce their decisions about its purpose. Over time these powers were used to blight and destroy most of the existing plotlands, and prevent the creation of replacements.
One of the most striking examples is the once thriving settlement of Laindon near the modern town of Basildon in Essex. In the 1940s, the decision to create the new town was taken, and the opportunity was taken to gradual eradicate the plotlands. The plotlanders were notified that compulsory purchase would be used in the future. This blighted the area and caused people to sell up one by one or abandon their properties. Article 4 planning restrictions hastened this process by requiring owners to get full planning permission for even trivial alterations. By the 1980s it was all over, and all that is now left is one cottage, the Haven in Dunton, which has been retained as a museum of plotland life set in roads and plots that have now become a nature reserve rather than the streets and houses of the new town.
Colin Ward’s anarchist criticism of the state comes to the fore when discussing why all this happened, and how mass, planned housing has come to be viewed as the norm:
In practice of course it only became the norm for those ideologists … who confused society with the State, and assumed that the activities of central government were to be equated with socialism. The norm, statistically, is owner-occupation as we have mentioned, in this and in many other countries, East and West, and this is just as well, or the public cost of housing an inert community would absorb the whole national budget. It is only in the capitalist West that people who regard their views as progressive have ideological difficulties about owner-occupation. In the countries of Eastern Europe, by the simple device of regarding a home as ‘personal’ rather than ‘real’ property, they have avoided this sterile blind alley. Several of the communist countries have a higher proportion of owner-occupation than Britain.
Those words, written in 1984 when communist regimes in Eastern Europe still believed they would continue indefinitely, explain how so many Russian families had dachas in the countryside, but why families in Britain had been robbed of their former right to similar properties by Labour’s planning restrictions, which Conservative governments did nothing to reverse.
As well as Russian dachas, the book surveys other similar developments around the world, drawing parallels with what we used to have. The European chalet gardens are particularly interesting, as they sound so like the 1830s Nottingham allotments with buildings quoted earlier, and yet so dissimilar to modern allotments in the UK with their tiny tool sheds and lack of social use by families and friends.
The authors close with suggestions about the future, and how planning rules could be varied to protect some landscapes and city green belts still, but allow plotland style development in other areas. They suggest that building regulations are too all-or-nothing, and do not give scope for self-built housing to be gradually brought up to standard, or even not at all in the case of recreational homes. One of the grounds councils have used for refusing new plotlands and working to destroy existing ones is the cost of providing roads and services like sewers and running water. But this too is a result of overly uniform thinking: rough roadways of the type put in by farmers, water from a standpipe, and composting toilets are all the plotlanders wanted:
But the same difficulty, and the same absence of those services taken for granted in urban areas, is found everywhere in rural England. People who have always lived in sparsely populated districts accept this as the norm. People who move to such places must expect it. The plotland areas of other countries exhibit this assumption. In the Norwegian mountains, there is a hytta zone, where people build holiday huts or second homes, which for some become first homes because they have chosen a simple way of life. The normal urban services are neither provided nor expected.
Thirty years on from the book’s publication in 1984, the Scottish Hutting campaign’s recent success in having a hut definition included in the Scottish Planning Policy to accommodate low impact buildings may be a start, and Wales has a low impact development framework (One Planet) which is also moving in some of the same directions. The situation in England at a national level seems to be little improved though.
In parallel with this is the growth of woodlotting, in which larger woods are subdivided and sold for recreational use or ‘family forestry’, often including camping. Some of the impulse of this movement is shared with the plotlanders desire to own a part of the countryside to go to on weekends and holidays. With the largely forgotten history of plotlands now in mind, it seems natural to refer to these woodlands as ‘woodplots’. Some of these woodplots are even acquiring buildings via the forestry permitted development route, which is easier to access than for agricultural land.
The final chapter of “Arcadia for all” includes a comment from one of their interviews with a former senior planning officer which sums up a lot of my own feelings:
What is the point of outlawing people’s legitimate aspirations? In the absence of a proper oulet, this kind if development still happens, but is driven into the hands of the wrong people. We will be left with a situation where both buyers and sellers don’t give a damn for official attitudes, and until we have clear-cut policies so that people know what to expect and an approach that acknowledges the demand for a plotland way of life, we will go on having exploiters and exploited, and we will continue to bring the whole idea of planning into disrepute among enterprising people.
You may know Jonathan Meades for his quirky and often brutally frank documentaries about architecture, and in the first of his 1990 series “Abroad in Britain” he visits a then-surviving plotland community in Bewdley on the river Severn in the West Midlands. Early in the programme is this striking aerial scene showing the huts, cabins, and chalets along the riverbank and going back into the countryside, accompanied by Howard Davidson’s sweeping music:
Meades clearly loves the place, and sees it as part of the wider twentieth century struggle between planners, academic architecture, and commercial developers on one side and ordinary people wanting some rural land to build a weekend retreat on.
Where suburbs were so often filled up with fake versions of rural buildings that just yielded another form of urban uniformity, the huts, shanties, cottages, and chalets of the plotlands are an authentic vernacular architecture.
Central to this is the idea of bodging. That is turning the available components and materials into the thing you need:
The idea of DIY has been traduced by the ubiquity of places such as this. The letters DIY nowadays constitute a sort of lie. You do it certainly, but you don’t really do it yourself. You may perform the physical act of hammering … but all you actually do is assemble a kit of parts, which obviates the necessity of bodging, and it obviates too the necessity of thinking. Kits are agents of uniformity. The true bodging tradition depends on having the nouse to realise that everything under the sun is mutable. That every object is fit for transformation from its original purpose. So every railway carriage is a potential luxury shack.
Meades conducts the whole programme dressed in his trademark dark business suit, and where required by sunshine, dark glasses. Here he is rowing down the river Severn in this outfit. To be fair, he does have a pair of black wellies that he sports in the intro and where necessary when trudging across fields to examine abandoned huts.
The programme has lots more of images of the buildings themselves:
Looking today on the Google Maps aerial images and Streetview, it does appear as if many of the huts and chalets are still there, near the Northwood Halt station on the Severn Valley railway line.
After the Scottish Hutters Rally and the afternoon visit to the Carbeth hutting site which has survived since the 1920s, I did some digging around looking for similar sites in England and Wales. As soon as I found the word “plotlands”, I started finding these sites all over. There’s an overview of the breadth of their distribution in the early twentieth century in “Town and Country” by Barnett and Scruton:
By the end of that century another form of unofficial settlement had appeared, known first as ‘bungalow towns’ and later as the ‘plotlands’.
They hoped, on their plots costing between £5 and £50, to start a smallholding or chicken farm, or simply to build a holiday home or country retreat. The word evokes a landscape of a gridiron of grassy tracks, sparsely filled with army huts, old railway coaches, sheds, shanties and chalets, slowly evolving into ordinary suburban development.
In the south-east of England, the plotland landscape was to be found in pockets across the North and South Downs, along the Hampshire plain, and in the Thames Valley at riverside sites like Penton Hook, Marlow Bottom and Purley Park. It was interspersed among the established holiday resorts on the coasts of East and West Sussex at places like Shoreham Beach, Pett Level, Dungeness and Camber Sands, and most notoriously of all, at Peacehaven. It crept up the east coast, from Sheppey in Kent to Lincolnshire, by way of Canvey Island and the Jaywick Sands, and clustered inland all across south Essex.
Nor was the plotland phenomenon confined to the south-east. Every industrial conurbation in Britain once had these escape routes to the country, river or sea. For the West Midlands there were sites along the Severn Valley; for the Liverpool and Manchester conurbations, places in North Wales and the Wirral; for Glasgow, the Ayrshire coast and even the banks of Loch Lomond. Serving the West Yorkshire towns and cities there was the Yorkshire coast and the Humber estuary, and for those of Tyneside and Teesside, the coasts of Northumberland and Durham. It is as though a proportion of the population was obeying an instinct or a natural law in seeking out a place where they could build for themselves.
I’m going to keep posting references to the text, images, and video footage of this once widespread but now almost entirely forgotten way of connecting to the countryside.