AS GLAD AS A HUTTER

Mudeford Spit, an idyllic 350-strong beach-hut community had barely changed since the Fifties. Then chalet prices started to soar, mobile phones arrived and council tax was introduced. And now there's talk of turning it into a nature reserve
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Librarian Tim Baber's Mudeford Sandspit beach hut has been in his family for over 50 years. Three generations of Babers have spent their summers camping in a wooden shed on the "the Spit" - a long, thin sliver of powdery white sand, jutting into the water, between Bournemouth bay and the Solent. His seaside bolthole is part of a close-knit community of 350 chalets which form a straggly line of stained and varnished timbers, dashed with bright colours, stretching from one end of the beach to the other.

With whimsical names like Holiday Inn, Floody Place, Offspray, Lazy Days, Salad Days, Saitaire, Heaven, Riverdance and the inevitable Baywatch, they are among the few privately owned beach huts in the country. And, unlike those at Southwold, Frinton, Bournemouth or Wells-next-the-Sea, the owners at Mudeford are allowed to sleep in theirs from March until October.

These days, they are even obliged to pay council tax for the privilege - an issue which has been fought, won and finally lost in a series of High Court appeals. "They should now be classified as habitable dwellings," says Tim. "But of course, they are nothing of the sort." They are temporary homes, nonetheless, and in the summer, Mudeford is crowded with live-in hutters, their doors thrown open to reveal neat and, largely nautical, interiors that put the average holiday cottage to shame.

Tim, is a die-hard traditionalist, and his white-painted hut is a modest affair. The one-room bungalow, barely 10ft-wide and 15ft-long, has built- in bunk beds, a fitted kitchen made from an old mahogany laboratory bench (filched from a skip), shelves lined with tinned food, a small library of books, pictures on the walls and a room-dividing curtain which provides a modicum of privacy for overnight guests. There is no mains water supply, no telephone and no loo, but while his parents cooked on an oily Primus by candlelight, he has Calor Gas lamps and a stove. A small solar-panel fitted on the asphalt roof, provides enough power to run some mood lights and a sound-system ("I only listen to classical music"). It's still basic, but who cares? The views are terrific.

The front window of Tim's hut looks out over a watery stretch of protected salt marsh towards the boat-busy riverside harbour at Christchurch. From his rear verandah-on-stilts, you can see across 50 yards of grassy dunes to the open sea and the white-cliffed coast of the Isle of Wight. Deck chairs and sunbeds spill out onto the beach. Children fish for crabs and build castles in the sand. The air is scented with salt, seaweed, sun- tan lotion and barbecued sausages. "It's an idyllic spot," says Tim. "When I'm sitting in my hut, I feel totally free from the hassles of life and cut off from the rest of the world."

Indeed, the Spit is a car-free zone and it's not an easy place to reach. Aside from tramping through one-and-a-half miles of Dorset nature reserve - trailing kids and laden with beach baggage - there are only two ways of getting there. Either take the "noddy" land train (Tim Baber is one of the part-time drivers) from Hengistbury Head car park, or queue up for the ferry at Christchurch's Mudeford Quay. The spit is only a short hop across a narrow stretch of tidal seawater, but for the residents who spend their weekends and holidays here, it might as well be an island. When the "grockles" (that's you and me) leave on the last return ferry, they have the place to themselves.

"There wasn't even a ferry when I was a boy," says London-based beach- hut owner, David Limebear. "You had to rely on an inebriated sailor in a rowing boat to get you across to the shore." David, a personnel management consultant, inherited the hut from his parents. Since 1946, he's spent at least a month of every summer bunking in his hut and reckons he's the oldest serving resident on the Spit. "Mudeford is unique. There's nowhere like it on the whole of the south coast. And the beauty of the place, is that it hasn't changed a bit since the Fifties."

Tim Baber disagrees. A Mudeford beach hut has become a valued piece of seaside real estate. Prices and overheads have escalated. Twenty-five years ago, one of his neighbours paid pounds 290 for their blue-painted hut - and the price included a year's ground rent. Today they fetch anything from pounds 10,000 upwards. One owner has just sold their small river-facing hut for pounds 24,000. And last year, a hut that is no bigger than Tim's, exchanged hands for a staggering pounds 27,000.

"lt's a joke," says the owner of the blue-painted hut. "People even put estate agents' site boards outside their chalets, but they are only glorified sheds after all." Not only that, but the land is owned by Bournemouth Borough Council in Dorset (which leases it to Christchurch in Hampshire). You can buy a hut (although sales are rare, as most are handed down through successive generations of hut-owning families) but you can't use it without paying a licence fee, and ground rents have soared. Maintenance costs are high, too. The council insists that huts are kept "in order" and most of the structures need repainting after a wet, windy winter by the sea.

"Over the years, the huts have undergone a gradual process of yuppification," says Tim. "People call it gentrification, but if you are on a low, fixed income you feel threatened by it. People stick notes on your door saying 'we want to buy your hut' and they are prepared to pay silly prices. If the day comes when I can't afford to stay here any more, these people will have squeezed me out. It's already happened to people I know."

Mudeford's huts were built in the 1930s. Originally, the local council offered them for rent on a seasonal basis. Then, in the 1960s they sold them off. Since the majority of existing owners, bought their huts over 30 years ago for a few hundred pounds, they could be said to have made a very good investment but, the annual rents have risen in the last few years by around 80 per cent.

Bournemouth Council raised the council tax issue in 1993. Backed by Christchurch, the hutters fought for exemption and won their case. Bournemouth countered with an appeal and the decision was overturned. Christchurch was duly billed for the tax and was forced to pass on the extra costs to hut owners in increased fees. With recently added VAT and council tax, charged at 50 per cent of the usual domestic rate, the average hutter's overheads now amount to pounds 900 a year. Some have to pay up to pounds 1,100. Residents hope that the payments will eventually earn them the right to improved services.

"We don't want electricity, and we don't mind using the communal showers and toilets or the standpipes," says 77-year-old Peter Bath, who owns a Bournemouth travel agency, but spends most of his own holidays in a Mudeford hut. "But we could do with mains drainage."

Existing arrangements consist of a very noisy municiple "pooh lorry" which arrives on site twice a day to suck out the sewage from the lavatory blocks. "It's one of the biggest drawbacks of life on the Spit," says Peter.

The twice-daily stench of sewage lingers on, but the community has been freshened up in other ways. The beach has got bigger and sandier (supplies of Bournemouth sand get delivered to Mudeford by the tides). The richer owners are tearing down weather-battered huts and replacing them with spanking new ones. Some have upgraded their old ones by building on extensions and installing private water tanks or wind-powered energy systems. A replacement window salesman seems to have done the rounds. And the mobile phone has arrived.

"Those damn phones," says Winchester-based plumber Peter Dunning, who was sitting on a deck chair outside a sea-facing hut called No Rush. "We come here to get away from that sort of thing." In June, he and his wife Margaret celebrated 25 years of Mudeford Spit residency. The attraction, they say, is the chance to "get back to basics and enjoy a few quiet moments of reflection . . . we don't want mod cons and we wouldn't have a television."

The couple's hut is simply furnished and like many of their neighbours they have gone for a hint-of-marine theme decor. Nets, shells, nautical knots and stripes, starfish wall plaques and fish-shaped everything from doormats to mobiles are popular hut accessories.

A few doors down, Mary Jenkins has a hut with everything. Since she bought it nine years ago, she has decked out her seaside retreat in wall-to-wall red and white with a splash of fake sunflowers. White seagulls fly across her red window blinds, She has red kitchen tiles, matching upholstery, and even scarlet plastic patio furniture. Does she rent it out? "Not if I can help it," says Mary. "I like to spend as much time here as possible and if I couldn't afford the upkeep I'd try sleeping with my bank manager before I'd sell it."

When huts come up for sale, most vendors find buyers through word-of- mouth. None are advertised on the noticeboard in The Hut cafe, which is covered with "wanted signs" appealing for rented huts. Some owners do rent them out for a few weeks of the year, but the retired are more likely to let their proper houses and spend the summer in Mudeford. Teachers and university lecturers move in for six weeks of the year. Claire Bath (an air stewardess and relative of travel agent Peter) lives in Christchurch but takes her three children and one cat to Mudeford for most of the school holidays. "There's a very strong sense of community spirit here," says Claire. "Which makes it a wonderfully safe playground for kids."

Last year, she and her husband Steve demolished their harbour-facing hut and spent pounds 10,000 on a new timber cabin lined with natural pine, it has a small gallery bedroom under a pitched roof, a verandah, a kitchen- cum-studio-cum-bedroom dressed with soft furnishings in coordinating pastels. The family still have to wade through drifts of sand to get to the loo.

"You should talk to Bob Jones," suggested Claire. "He built ours and most of the other new huts." Bob proved elusive, though I glimpsed the rear of his battered 2CV - one of the Spit's few permitted vehicles - retreating in the distance. His mobile phone is permanently switched off but although I never talked to the man himself I saw plenty of evidence of his handiwork. One owner spent pounds 12,000 on a sea-blue stained, solar- powered, Jones hut when her pounds 17,000 model was burnt to the ground. "You can't insure them for anywhere near their worth," she says.

Their worth might be hotly debated in the year 2029, when Christchurch Council's 100-year lease runs out and, rumour has it, Bournemouth plans to demolish the huts and turn the Spit into a nature reserve. A shame, because Mudeford is a model of low-impact, eco-friendly living. And aside from the pooh lorry, the warble of mobile phones and what Tim Baber describes as "a sense of impending fragility brought about by market forces", the Spit's village remains an alluring place. "We call it the Mudeford Magic," said the lady from the blue-painted hut. "As soon as you board the ferry it starts to weave its spell. All the normal tensions and stresses just slip away."

When I left with a boat-load of daytrippers, the summer evening light was fading. The huts were glowing with gas light and flickering candles. Wine glasses clinked on verandahs. I was overcome with envy. Anyone get pounds 25,000 they can lead me?

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