It started with a chance comment from York hotelier Simon Cowton during an interview. “I was getting depressed in lockdown,” he said. “I realised I had to have a project.” Simon’s solution was to start a building project. He set about redesigning his hotel garden as a magical support bubble-friendly outdoor restaurant.
When I got off the phone, Simon’s words were still in my head. His enthusiasm and energy had fired me up. I, too, needed a project and knew what I wanted for my lockdown sanity … I wanted to build a beach hut.
I live nowhere near the sea. And I have never built any freestanding living quarters since I bodged together a treehouse when I was 12. But why let unsuitable geography and lack of experience hold me back? To me, a beach hut means escape. It means travel, in wide-open spaces, without restrictions. It was precisely what I needed.
Only then did I pause and consider. What makes the ideal beach hut? Thinking back, I recalled a few classics: the bar on the beach at Ao Nang in Thailand that had been constructed from driftwood tied together with broken nets (an architectural triumph long since bulldozed to make way for larger, less imaginative, establishments). There was my friend Sean’s hut on the North Yorkshire coast with its collection of fishing rods, fossils and driftwood. There were the wooden huts on stilts built by the inhabitants of the Bismarck Islands in Papua New Guinea. And there was the boatbuilder’s cabin on Chesterman Beach, Vancouver Island.
But best of all was a hut I had come across on Airbnb near Hirtshals in Denmark: a single-storey cabin on the dunes with a hot tub out front. Despite being a sturdy and well-built home, it had that feeling of a place flung together on a whimsical weekend, furnished with an ad hoc assembly of the scrounged, swapped and swiped, decorated with beach treasures, and a yard of well-thumbed paperbacks.
Beach huts, I reckon, should avoid contact with architects. They wither when drawings are made, but thrive on opportunistic discoveries. A giant whale bone or part of a shipwreck might suggest a starting point, and then the project grows, swelling as other finds trigger ideas. A beach hut is a serendipitous creation and, at its best, a work of primitive art, as well as a shelter. However, I needed an object to start me off. I examined my collection of animal skulls, many recovered from the high tide line, but no inspiration came. Then I remembered the brass lizard.
I’d found it in a box of objects sitting outside a metalwork shop in Kathmandu. Since then it had sat, unremarked and dusty, on a shelf in my living room. Now I picked it up and saw how it might become the handle on a door – the door to my beach hut. I had my beginning.
Of course, a commercially let beach cabin does require more professionalism than I had to offer. Out on the Isle of Harris, I found that Rob English started his build by quickly throwing up a “department croft house” to accommodate himself and a joiner.
“It was just to live in while we built the cabin,” he said. But he liked the temporary hut so much he discarded his architect-drawn plans and adopted the traditional croft design for his two award-winning beach cabins (both sleep 2). The original “temporary” croft is now home to Rob’s tweed-weaving business.
“All the furniture in the cabins is reclaimed vintage pieces that we restored. There’s driftwood, too,” he says. “I tell people it’s mangrove that floated over from the Caribbean.”
At the other end of the British Isles are two fine examples of beach building: The Beach House (sleeps 4) and Sandy Toes (sleeps 5) – both on Shellbeach in Kent – are impressive pieces of construction, full of that essential wind-worn woodwork, plus salty hanks of hemp and sweeping coastal vistas.
Frances Lea and John Bramble, owners of Sandy Toes, have the kind of attitude I love, hauling an eight-metre length of driftwood up to their cabin. “It now proudly spans the complete front timber deck of Sandy Toes,” says Frances.
For some, the entire cabin is what was found: Janet Lamb discovered a 1905 London & South Western Railway sleeper carriage (sleeps 5) that had somehow, in 1936, ended its travelling days on a very attractive section of the Ceredigion coast path near Aberporth. When Janet bought it, the essential element for any self-respecting beach cabin – namely a beach – was already in position. All that was required was the addition of period furniture and some serious polishing of the oak panelling.
A similar, but more rustic, alternative is Matthew and Carole Short’s off-grid railway carriage, the Coastal Carriage (sleeps 2), on their large coastal farm near Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire. Carole’s ideas about beach huts chime with my own: “It has to be quirky and nothing like what you’re used to at home.” Everything in their reclaimed freight wagon has had a previous life. “My granda’s comfy chair is in there,” says Matthew, who built the sea-view outdoor shower out of a giant cable reel. Guests can beachcomb on pebble strands that few people ever see.
Almost immediately, I reconnect with the boyhood excitement of den building
Jason Clark, who runs the website Cool Cottages Scotland, spends his time looking for perfect beach accommodation. “An all-time favourite is the Blue Cabin by the Sea (sleeps 4) on the east coast an hour from Edinburgh, where access is through a smugglers’ cave and across a beach,” he says.
Looking at Jason’s website, I’m jealous. My own cabin will never match any of these. Weeks of assiduous beachcombing (actually skip-surfing) and scrounging has resulted in about 10 wooden packing pallets, a fine Victorian glass door and sheets of antique corrugated roofing. I realise I will wait forever before I stumble across any decent timber, so buy several lengths of two-by-four, bolt them together as corner posts and begin construction. Almost immediately I reconnect with the excitement of boyhood den-building. Maybe I’ll make it large enough to sleep in, or turn it into a bird hide, or a sauna. Maybe I’ll grow a long beard and live here as a hermit.
One thing the construction process soon reveals is that my hut will never be perfect: there will be gaps, and mess. I seem incapable of cutting a piece of wood along a straight line or hammering a nail without bending it and bruising my thumb. Some of the tools I’m using belonged to my dad, a carpenter, and my grandfather’s best friend, a clockmaker. Their names, Rushby and Brewin, are stamped into the chisel handles. I feel their presence. I start to wish I was working in metal and glass, anything but wood.
Greg Stevenson, owner of the booking site Under the Thatch, must have had similar thoughts. He got hold of a shipping container (sleeps 2), spliced in several sections of glass, then cantilevered it over the water in a bold, modernistic statement. “You certainly never miss any of the wildlife,” he says.
Beach huts should avoid contact with architects. They wither when drawings are made
Despite my clunky woodworking skills, I yearn for those natural materials. Greg’s shipping container is incredible, but I hammer on. The truth is that awkward, ill-fitting wood-based clutter is what I am. There is no escape. I rip the old nails from yet another wooden pallet. Greg’s other project is much more my kind of thing. He rescued a derelict cottage – Teach Mhicí (Mickey’s Cottage, sleeps 4) – by the Donegal coast, whitewashed its knobbly stone walls and added some old religious pictures and restored furniture.
Old gnarly cottages built by hand are the stock in trade of mountain bothies, some of which can provide inspiration for a beach cabin. Straithchailleach Bothy, near Sandwood Bay in the far north-west of Scotland, is still haunted by the spirit of its erstwhile eremitic inhabitant, James McRory Smith, who furnished the place with flotsam and painted frescoes on the walls during the 32 years he squatted in this lonely spot.
On the Isle of Jura, two more bothies, Cruib and Ruantallain, have communal rooms filled with old books, bottles and rug, and exemplify the style that every beach hut should aspire to: cosy, cluttered and filled with memory objects. (For more info, see Scottish Bothy Walks by Geoff Allan.)
I’ve got the roof on mine now, and although I’ve been told by experts that I’ve done it wrong and it will leak, at least the sound of dripping will evoke the sea. As for that serendipitous creative input, the grain in one section of timber suggests the face of a mandrill staring at me, and I think some McRory Smith-style fresco painting will begin soon. Finally, there will be the task of dragging the coast up to the front door. When the builders’ merchant is open, I’m going to buy a bag of sand. Then my illusion of escape will be ready.