Braystones beach chalets, Cumbria

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.

Beach bungalows at Braystones

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.

This whole area is called Lowside Quarter and PastPresented has an excellent archive of historical photos and documents about the beach bungalows.


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.


Update: in 2016, Paul Merton visited Braystones for Channel 4. Naturally, he talked to Jack at the Lobster Pot.

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.

Essex beach huts

westmersea_021This 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.

westmersea_046Back 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.

thorpebay_39Further 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.


West Mersea

Thorpe Bay, Southend-on-Sea

What went wrong with Jaywick?

jaywick-sidebysideJaywick 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.


jaywick3Before 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: magical but under threat

humberston075The 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.

humberston018There 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.

humberston112The 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.

windowThe 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.

thorpeI 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:


Swiss allotment chalets

geneva01Last month I posted about allotment huts in Hamburg and here are some even larger allotment sites from Geneva in Switzerland. They have more uniformity as most of the buildings are neat and tidy log cabins arranged along straight paths and roadways, but they do seem to be built by the owners so there is some variety too. Again they are social as well as gardening spaces, and have verandas, outdoor seating, barbeques, and even pizza ovens which testify to their purpose as places for families and groups of friends to go in the long summer.

I took this first set of pictures at Les Jardins Familiaux des Villars in a northwest suburb of the city, which is one of the larger allotment sites. As you can see, it presents a sea of chalet roofs:

geneva04More pictures from the same site:


There are a couple of dozen sites in the city and its suburbs, and the remaining pictures are from a new one, Les Jardians Familiaux de Champ Bossu, where chalets are still being built this summer:


One plot, showing the concrete base supplied by the site management, the water standpipe to the left and the start of this person’s efforts to cultivate a garden:


Two chalets being built, including pink jablite-style foam insulation sheeting under the floor:

geneva08 geneva09

Finally, the process of nailing the available planking boards to the walls of the chalet itself, the storage shed at the back and the covered veranda at the front and cutting them to length in situ:geneva10

The style of these chalets is strongly influenced by the traditional Swiss alpine chalet, and there’s a good example in the Jardin Alpin park in the city:


Huts and chalets near Farndon, Cheshire


There’s a chalet field colony of about 50 huts on the banks of the River Dee where it forms the border between Wales and England near Farndon in Cheshire. Last month I walked along part of the river  and took some pictures. Many of the huts look like survivors from the pre-War (pre Town and Country Planning Act) boom in plotland developments, including the Thames-side examples described in “Arcadia for All” that I reviewed in my last post. There are also some modern styles, including Scandinavian squared-log cabins and a scattering of static caravans.

Continue reading “Huts and chalets near Farndon, Cheshire”

Allotment huts in Hamburg

hamburg3I took these pictures in one of the pockets of allotment plots that are dotted around Hamburg. This one is in woods on the edge of the Altonaer Volkspark. As you can see there are flags and a noticeboard for the committee that runs it, and it’s surrounded by neat hedges and paths. But each plot is very individual and the wooden huts vary widely in style and size.

All the huts are really chalets or cabins, and much larger than the 8×6′ sheds for story tools that are pretty much all you’re allowed in UK allotments.  As is common with European allotments, people are allowed to stay in them overnight and so they can become second homes during the summer weekends and holidays. This encourages new generations of gardeners and growers, and has an important social benefit to families and groups of friends. The paranoia from UK planning authorities about allowing people to stay overnight or put up substantial huts means we don’t get those benefits from having allotment land.