It's a shore thing

The design generation has turned the humble beach hut into a summer status symbol
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The Independent Online

There was a time when we regarded beach huts as a bit of an embarrassing sideshow, rather like a dotty old relative - tolerated but largely ignored. They were seen in the same light as Spam sandwiches wrapped in crumpled foil, flasks of lukewarm tea, glorified garden sheds, Suburbia-on-Sea.

There was a time when we regarded beach huts as a bit of an embarrassing sideshow, rather like a dotty old relative - tolerated but largely ignored. They were seen in the same light as Spam sandwiches wrapped in crumpled foil, flasks of lukewarm tea, glorified garden sheds, Suburbia-on-Sea.

By one of those strange cultural twists that makes the invisible visible and the insignificant significant, beach huts are now sought-after dwellings and sell for as much as £8,000 each. Last summer, a stretch of colourful beach huts at Whitstable's West Beach were used as a location for a French Connection advertising campaign. This summer, Waitrose has used this "quintessentially British" location to flog its ice cream. "It's an image that appeals to people's emotions and makes a direct connection to the product," explains Louise Arnold, marketing manager at Waitrose.

Once sorry sights to symbols of chic, beach huts are now the ultimate in authenticity, steeped in an increasingly elusive, albeit nostalgic, British identity. Rather than despising them for what they are not, we have learnt to cherish them for what they are: utilitarian, simple, unaffected and charming. This is due to a generation for whom travel has become a norm. They've done Bangkok, New York and Goa. They've been there, seen that. Only to discover the simple delights on their own doorsteps.

There are pockets of beach huts scattered across the country, from Torbay in Devon and Poole in Dorset, to Frinton in north Essex and Southwold in Suffolk. As they are discovered by generations of style- and design-conscious couples and families, they are being redefined. It's amazing what you can do with a 10ft by 10ft box. "It's a bit like having a doll's house," says make-up artist Kim Jacobs, 36, who once a month travels to Whitstable from Streatham in south London with her partner and two children.

While her London home is a modern 1960s building that's kept strictly white and minimal, her double beach hut is a cute and cosy vision in pastels. Inside, there are Kath Kidston floral curtains, and pale green and blue vinyl tiles. The children's paintings and decorative bits of driftwood are scattered around. "You can do them up in any style," says Kim. "The light is magnificent, and you can really play with colour."

Further along the parade is the tangerine-coloured hut of Sue Bobbermein, 31, a marketing manager for a publishing firm, and her husband, Nathan Bird, 38, a research co-ordinator. The inside is pine cladded and they've even added a kitchenette. A shrine to seaside kitsch, they make a point of acquiring tasteless coastal knick-knacks: sea shell boxes, "I've been to Margate" tea towels, Kiss Me Quick hats.

"I'm from Sydney originally," says Sue. "This may not be Bondi beach but it's as near as I can get from London. I love nothing more than buying some fresh fish from the market and having a barbecue and a cold beer with friends. For some people, beach huts are quite nostalgic, but we don't have anything like them in Australia. For me, it's about a nice, easy lifestyle and chilling out."

Next door, a young Whitstable-based family are busy updating their beach hut, tacking sheets of rattan and bamboo to the walls, bought from a garden centre, and giving it an instant Thai feel. On a sunny day, it could be mistaken for a seaside shack in Ko Tao. "Although we live really near, coming to the beach hut always feels like coming to a different place," says Laetitia Gullet, 28. "I've been brought up with them," says her partner, Matthew, 30. "My uncle has owned that brown one over there for more than 20 years."

Over at Old Hunstanton on the north Norfolk coast, graphic designer, Vivien Young, 45, who recently re-located from Hackney in London's East End, says that her beach hut gives "a wonderful sense of freedom and privacy". Although her house, which she shares with her husband and son, is only five minutes away, she would rather relax in her little hut than spend time in her garden. "When friends visit, all we do is sit on the verandah. It looks straight out over the wash, where there are beautiful sunsets. It's incredibly peaceful."

Beach huts do have their disadvantages, however. As owners are not permitted to sleep in them overnight and so use them erratically, they can be prone to vandalism and theft. And, because of the salt water and other elements, they need regular upkeep and renovation - roofs can be blown off in high winds, and exteriors need to be painted every few years. But these disadvantages pale compared to the pleasures they bring. An accessible and economical love shack, beach-hut life is like having a little bit of England all to yourself.

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