By Helen Butcher
Brightly colored beach huts are an essential part of the British coast, alongside ice creams, sandcastles, and the unreliable British weather. Nestled in the sand dunes and dotted along promenades, these Edwardian changing cubicles have become quirky seaside boltholes.
In the 1700s, doctors began to prescribe cold sea bathing as the ultimate cure-all remedy. The sick flocked to the coast, taking their families and the modern concept of the seaside holiday had begun. Scarborough, on the East Yorkshire coast became the modern world’s first seaside resort. The bathing machine was soon invented to offer modest bathers greater privacy for their therapeutic dips.
In the 19th century, no trip to the seaside was complete without a dip in the sea from a bathing machine. These cumbersome contraptions looked like beach huts on wheels, with collapsible hoods and were rented for a half-hour period. One person at a time would climb in at the top of the beach and change out of their clothes, as a horse pulled the contraption towards the sea. Once at a suitable depth they could then submerge straight into the water, naked, assisted by attendants called “dippers.” For 150 years this is how most bathers experienced the sea. Queen Victoria even had her own personal bathing machine built on the Isle of Wight.
Initially there were rules to keep male bathing machines a set distance from female bathing machines (or often on separate beaches). These rules quickly became unpopular, were often flouted, and didn’t last long. By the 1890s, mixed bathing was popular, already normal in many European and American resorts. It became acceptable to walk down to the water in bathing costumes and bathing machines were no longer required. However, changing in public was still frowned upon and could result in a fine. Local authorities quickly realized the lucrative opportunity to provide and charge for beach tents to change in.
Early Beach Huts
Villages of stripy tents were erected on the Edwardian sands and soon after purpose-built day huts began to appear, arranged in ranks along the top of the beach. Many beach huts were former fishermen’s huts, boat sheds, or the former bathing machines, which had lost their wheels. Some of the earliest purpose-built beach huts in the U.K. were erected at Bournemouth, on either side of the pier, in 1909.
Sunbathing become fashionable in the period between the wars, and lidos and sun terraces competed with the beach huts for space in the most popular seaside resorts.
Beach Hut Heyday
The reopening of beaches after World War II led to the resurgence of the British beach holiday and sea swimming. The 1950s and 60s were the true heyday of the beach hut.
Beach hut popularity began to wane in the 1970s and 80s thanks to the arrival of package holidays. Many huts fell into disrepair and were demolished as people headed for guaranteed sunshine in Spain.
Modern huts can vary from small 10 x 6-foot changing sheds to double-story accommodation with beds, showers, toilets, and full kitchens. They come in two main styles: a traditional wooden shed-like construction or the 1950s concrete terrace style. When they come up for sale in upmarket locations they command exorbitant prices, which often make the news.
Local authorities usually have strict rules on color schemes—opting for a muted pastel or primary color palette. Huts are traditionally numbered, but many people like to name them, too.
Bude Beach Huts
Beach huts have long been a feature of the North Cornwall seaside town and are managed and maintained by the local council. There are several patches of huts sited around the two main beaches and the sea pool.
The front rows, with unobstructed views and private terraces, are much coveted and demand is high—they have long waiting lists and can stay in the same family for many years. Several of the less well-positioned ones do change hands annually. The annual tenancy runs from April 1st to March 31st, and you are then invited to renew your hut each year if you wish. Currently, small huts are £900 a year and medium ones are £1,235. There are some huts that are retained for daily and weekly rentals in the summer season for holidaymakers; deluxe huts come with deck chairs, tea and coffee, mugs, and a gas stove! Two really big huts at the back of Summerleaze Beach are available for parties and wedding receptions. Daily rental charges range between £15-£25 depending on size, dates, and location. Beach huts in Bude are for day use only, and you are not allowed to sleep in the huts here.
The color scheme is alternating brights for the fronts—red, blue, turquoise and yellow, with whitewashed sides and interiors.
The interiors are basic—they only have a drop down counter and a few hooks, but people quickly personalize them and make them their own with curtains, furniture, shelving, and decorations. Bunting is essential! They are sturdy and watertight and perfect to store your belongings, prepare lunch, and shelter from the weather. There is no electricity or water supply, but many people have a gas burner to make hot drinks and heat basic lunches. The bigger huts do have space for deck chairs inside, but the smaller ones are mostly used for storage and changing into wetsuits.
People definitely use the huts as an expression of their personalities—they are lovingly decorated, often with a theme and carefully named. Doors are often left open to attract the admiring glances of passers-by who are curious and keen to chat. They are certainly a luxury, especially considering the long winter season we have in Cornwall, but a worthwhile one as they allow a much more comfortable day at the seaside. Some people treat themselves to the annual rental of a hut instead of a foreign holiday.
It is lovely to be able to get to know your hut neighbors and socializing with them late into the warm summer evenings, around a BBQ, is a appealing side of beach hut life. They are excellent places to gather for parties and celebrations and children particularly love the freedom a beach hut day offers.
Bude Beach Pastors are a welcome presence on Summerleaze beach, with around 20 volunteers from a local church working on a rota system from their own beach hut base. They offer free craft activities and games for kids and hot drinks for grateful parents. Bodyboards, buckets, and spades are loaned for free, and games of volleyball or badminton are set up if the volunteers are feeling energetic. Set up by a local deacon, they are keen to share some kindness to locals and holidaymakers alike. In 2019, Bude held a Christmas market in a row of the beach huts. The huts looked so beautiful with their festive decorations and fairy lights and were full of local art and crafts and treats.
While these tiny seaside retreats may have started out as a way to protect Victorian modesty, beach huts today are a fun part of a trip to the British shore. If you’re lucky, you may be able to make one your home for a day!
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2020 issue.
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