Seaside scramble: Britain's beach hut love affair

Keith Richards is stumping up £60,000 for a seaside shelter, now the must-have accessory for our middle classes. Martin Hickman reports on a national phenomenon

Even the notion that Keith Richards has bought a beach hut on the south coast near Chichester may bring a smirk to the faces of survivors of the Sixties.

"Keef", the hellraising, rock 'n' rolling, one-time gun-toting guitarist reputed once to have had a prodigious appetite for heroin - buying a shack at West Wittering? For £60,000?

Picture for a moment Richards and Mick Jagger, his Rolling Stones sidekick, stepping out from the hut clutching a cup of tea and admiring the view of the Isle of Wight. Or pointing backwards at the rolling hills of the South Downs, sheltering their faces from the wind.

Yet if Richards has bought a beach hut (and yesterday the Rolling Stones management could not be sure), he will confirm in the public mind a seemingly contradictory image of both a 60-something man and a trend-setter.

For during the past five years the perception of the colourful beach hut has resolutely shifted from an unglamorous reminder of summering by England's cold shores, to a valuable and fashionable asset. Owning one marries the nostalgic appeal of lolling by the English seaside with the potential financial returns from investing in a holiday home.

Prices for Britain's 20,000-odd beach huts have leaped in the past five years, helped by soaring house prices, international terrorism and sunnier summers.

A swish of glamour is not out of the question either. The worlds of celebrity and hutting are acquainted. The artist Tracey Emin decorated her beach hut at Whitstable with two pictures of herself naked, and the title "The Last Thing I Said To You Is Don't Leave Me Here". She sold the artwork, later destroyed in a warehouse fire, to Charles Saatchi for £75,000.

The hut Keef is thought to have bought is near his manorial home in the village of West Wittering in West Sussex. As in resorts around much of the country, there is a list of buyers waiting to purchase one of Wittering's 156 weather-beaten huts.

Whether for storing the miscellany of beach-going (deckchairs, towels, buckets and spades and so on) or for use as a changing room, demand for a sanctuary by the sea is robust.

"What attracts him [Richards] to a beach hut is what attracts other people," said David Piper of West Wittering Estate, which manages the beach.

"You get all sorts of people here. Elderly couples, people who have had a beach hut in the family for generations, DFLs." (DFL - down from London.) He added: "We have used one for a summer before and you can go down and have a barbecue there and have a Pimms and gin and tonics, watch the sea and take photographs. You can people-watch. It's like sitting at a café on a busy street and watching the world go by."

Many people love the idea of owning a hut, and they range from brick versions with glazed doors, to wooden ones with archetypal pastel shades.

Barely a month goes by without a newspaper aghast at the prices generated by the scramble for a seaside chalet. This month, 85 buyers expressed an interest in a brick beach hut at Poole, priced at £100,000 despite having no toilet, running water of electricity, and measuring 14ft by 7ft.

Last summer, Welsh nationalists protested that the sale of a hut on Porthmawr beach at Abersoch, north Wales, was evidence of "dangerously uncontrolled" market for second homes by "Chester-on-Sea" that was putting pressure on Welsh-speaking local communities.

Beach huts at Gun Hill in the Suffolk town of Southwold (" Hampstead-on-Sea") routinely fetch between £40,000 and £50,000 ,while £100,000 was paid for a hut at Mudeford, Dorset - though planning rules allow only overnight stays.

Visitors pay £175 a night to kip down at the wooden fishermen's huts at Whitstable.

Most of the beach huts in Britain are on the south and eastern coast of England (a few are in Wales and Scotland) and sell for between £5,000 and £20,000.

An architectural historian, Dr Kathryn Ferry of Cambridge University, counted 19,000 huts between Durham and Somerset while researching a new book, Sheds on the Seashore: From Bathing Machines to Beach Huts.

"Bathing machines" were small huts on wheels, designed to allow bathers in Victorian times access to the sea without being seen in their (extremely modest) bathing suits.

Dr Ferry recounts: "As it became more acceptable for people to walk across the beach in their bathing costumes, villages of stripy changing tents were erected on the Edwardian sands. Around the same time, some of the bathing machines began to lose their wheels and other, purpose-built day huts appeared.

"In the inter-war period, sunbathing was the new fashion and bathing machines, though still lingering on, were outdated and antiquated. New modern-looking blocks of beach huts or chalets were built."

These days, although some of Britain's beach huts are privately owned, many are leased from the local council for up to a decade.

Huts are often passed down the generations, becoming something of a hub for a family, a permanent landmark among the ups and downs of individual life. A sense of community crops up regularly in any discussion of the appeal of the beachside shack.

Gerry Saxony-Burton and his wife Sandra, who lease a hut at Southend-on-Sea, know every fellow hutter by name for 10 huts either side of their 12ft by 7ft structure. Speaking from his hut yesterday, Mr Saxony-Burton, 58, said it was a delight to sit beside his wooden box on the shingles. "We have a cooker where we can make a cup of tea. We bring lunch with us," he said.

"We come down in the evening to eat; you can pay a lot of money to eat dinner at a restaurant overlooking the sea. Last Sunday there were eight of us for dinner."

Although Mr Saxony-Burton commutes to London for his job as a company secretary, his wife travels from their home to the beach almost daily. The unwanted attention of vandals forced the couple to build a more secure, windowless hut this year.

So what do they consider the appeal of huts to their (mostly) middle-aged and elderly patrons? "I think that people are perhaps now worried about travelling abroad because of the terrorism," said Mr Saxony-Burton, a spokesman for the Southend Beach Hut Owners Association.

"For people with young children, what a great idea it is to have a beach hut where you can leave all their shoes and toys and buckets and spades. And for a couple who don't want to retire abroad, it's a good investment."

This week, Country Life is expected to name Wittering's mile of sand as Britain's best family beach. Evoking a more tranquil age (perhaps the 1950s), the beach huts at West Wittering are painted blue, green, ochre and pink. Keef, now 62 and a grandfather, could bring his clan down to enjoy the sandy beach. He may need to recuperate after the brain operation that followed his fall from a palm tree in Fiji earlier this year, which interrupted the Stones' world tour.

A quiet family appearance would contrast with the last newsworthy event in West Wittering, the infamous 1967 drugs bust at Richards' secluded thatched home, Redlands, that dumped him and Mick Jagger in prison.

"It's a pretty quiet family beach - 80 per cent of the people here are families," said Mr Piper, estate manager for the private beach. " The tide goes out for what seems like miles, exposing sandy pools in which children like to play."

Perhaps this explains the essence of the popularity of the English beach hut. In an ever-more complex modern world, with terrorism and climate change, the world wide web and mobile telephones, relaxing by the shore is one of the last uncomplicated pleasures.

Famous hutters

By Louise Jack

The Queen

The Queen enjoyed private family moments at her beach hut on Holkham Beach, part of the Royal Estate at Sandringham. But in 2003 an arsonist struck and, despite attempts to tackle the fire, the structure was reduced to a charred frame within an hour of the alarm being raised. Prince Charles and Camilla are said to have met for romantic picnics at the spot, used as a location for Shakespeare in Love. It was especially popular with the late Queen Mother and the royal corgis were a familiar sight on Holkham beach. The hut, described by a spokesman for the Sandringham Estate as "basically a private picnic hut", was given to the royal family by the fifth Earl of Leicester, who died in 1976. The Earl's daughter Anne, Lady Glenconner, said the Queen enjoyed visiting the chalet. In August 2003, eight firefighting crews arrived to deal with the fire, which spread to the surrounding pine forest. Norfolk Fire Services commander said at the time that it appeared that the fire had been started deliberately. the beach hut had been 'totally destroyed'.

P D James

When the octogenarian Baroness James pens crime books she is reputed to lose herself in the mystery of the Suffolk marshes at her beach hut in Southwold. She may have been inspired to create her popular police commander/poet Adam Dalgleish by the landscape. She says: "I don't think anything beats going to my seaside house in Southwold and walking in Suffolk. I love the marshes and the reed beds - those huge skies and the North Sea." She is not alone in her love of the area; close friend Ruth Rendell lives near by and regular visitors include Michael Palin, Stephen Fry and Griff Rhys Jones. The list of celebrities who visit is a long one, so it's easy to see why the town has earned the nickname "Hampstead-on-Sea". The ultra-conservative town may not offer liberal ambience but it clearly has its own attractions. PD James says: "It can't compare with the Dorset coast, for example - but for those of us who love it, it has its own magic. Part of that is the emptiness. To be in Southwold is my idea of a perfect holiday."

Tracey Emin

When Charles Saatchi, the multi-millionaire champion of Britart, paid £75,000 for Tracey Emin's beach hut in 2000, the beach-front structures officially became art. Emin had bought her hut eight years earlier with the artist Sarah Lucas, at a fraction of Saatchi's price. The badly weathered blue hut was entitled The Last Thing I Said To You Is Don't Leave Me Here and was removed from its seafront home to become a permanent part of the Saatchi collection. Its disappearance came as a surprise to the owner of the hut next door who, in a neighbourly gesture, had shored up the building with a plank as it looked to be in danger of falling down. It vanished forever in 2004 when it was destroyed in a fire at an art warehouse. As well as the hut, the fire also consumed Emin's embroidered tent Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. Emin was distraught when she heard her work had gone. She said: "When I heard the beach hut had been destroyed I was like, my cosy little hut! I can't replace them."

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