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Beach Hut Heaven on the beaches of Dorset

PUBLISHED: 09:24 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Beach Hut

Beach Hut

The humble beach hut has become the epitome of coastal chic and no more so than on the beaches of Dorset. Words and pictures by Chris Chapleo

Beach huts have become cool again - we have once more fallen under their charms, their timeless appeal seducing us as it did the Edwardians who were the pioneers of beach hutting in the early part of the 20th century. The beach hut has held a special place in the British holiday psyche ever since, though in more recent times the beach huts have evolved into something more fashionable - a desirable and much sought-after retreat for the middle classes rather than a staple of the good old-fashioned British beach holiday.

Dorset is blessed with more than its fair share of beach huts - from the chic designer huts at Mudeford or Boscombe Surf Reef, through to traditional day huts along Bournemouth and Poole's beaches or the maze of huts clustered around the lighthouse at Portland Bill.

Beach huts have long been an intrinsic part of the British coastal scene; in fact, many were once simple fishermen's huts. The earliest purpose-built British beach huts, rather quaintly referred to as 'bathing bungalows', were erected just over a hundred years ago either side of Bournemouth Pier. The basic design of many of these huts has hardly changed a century later, although the original rental of 12.10s per year has increased somewhat! Many of Bournemouth's huts were renewed in the '60s and today Bournemouth boasts around 520 council-owned and 1,200 privately owned huts.

The beach hut's origins can be traced back to the bathing machines of the Regency era when the craze for sea bathing as a tonic took off. Bathing machines, which were essentially beach huts on wheels, were pulled by horse down the beach, allowing the patient to descend with graceful modesty into the briny waves and they soon became an established feature of any would-be seaside resort. In 1789 George III gave his royal approval to the new fashion when he took a medicinal bath in the waters of Weymouth to the musical accompaniment of God Save the King!

By the 19th century no trip to the seaside was complete without a dip in the sea from a bathing machine, though Victorian morality ensured there was no mixed bathing. Queen Victoria had her own personal bathing machine built at Osbourne House, her seaside retreat on the Isle of Wight.

By the beginning of the 20th century bathing machines were starting to 'lose their wheels' as pressure from Europe to be a little more liberal in attitudes to bathing crept in. The birth of the beach hut was a moral and social evolution rather than an architectural one. The love affair between the British and their beach huts grew steadily, although wartime restrictions put much of the southern English coastline out of bounds because of coastal defences.

After the war there was a surge in interest in beach huts as beaches opened up once more, but our love of the British seaside began to wane with the advent of cheap foreign holidays and the beach hut suffered a reversal of fortunes. Fortunately, however, a hardcore of 'hutters' kept the tradition going and in recent years the beach hut has enjoyed something of a renaissance, as people seek to reconnect with the joys of coastal living.

Indeed, some beach huts have enjoyed something of a 21st-century makeover, becoming the very epitome of coastal chic. This is certainly true of the 350 or so huts clustered along Mudeford sandspit in Christchurch Harbour. Many of these have been refurbished and modernised, with two levels, solar panels and double-glazing. They are amongst the most expensive beach huts in the country and before the credit crunch changed hands for up to 145,000. It's a far cry from the late 1920s, when there were just a few wooden shacks scattered on the sand, often erected for the summer only. Gradually this group of huts has evolved into the charming beach hut metropolis it is today.

Aside from the desirable shabby-chic summer retreats at Mudeford, you'll find beach huts in a more traditional mould along the beaches at Boscombe and Bournemouth. These are largely council-owned day huts, used as a base for a bucket-and-spade holiday or for simply watching the world go by. However, the stylish hut is creeping in here too. The sea off Boscombe is the site of a purpose-built surf reef, so 48 stylish surf pods, with all the mod cons required by the 21st-century surfing dude or beach lover, have been created within the Overstrand complex. Designed by Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway, founders of the Red or Dead fashion brand, the pods are adorned with retro images inspired by the buildings '50s heritage.

As a classic Dorset seaside town, Swanage would not be complete without its quota of beach huts and it has an eclectic mix - from simple concrete day huts and shabby-chic pastel wooden ones to a row of eye-catching primary coloured huts, all hugging the curve of Swanage beach to the east of the town.

Portland has huts in several areas. Those around the Bill, clustered near the lighthouse, have been described as a 'holiday home shanty town', part of their charm lying in their random layout, orientation and design. The council here, in common with many others, is at pains to preserve this character and not allow overdevelopment.

Further west still, at West Bexington, beach huts have again attracted big money. In November 2007 one hut there - really more of a chalet - went on sale with a 280,000 price tag!

Whether it's a solar-panelled two-storey construction or a simple day hut to sit in with a mug of tea and read the paper, it seems that the British have a deep and lasting fondness for the beach hut. This affinity is summed up beautifully by a quote I found in the Mudeford Sandbank News - a beach hut is 'a sacred place where food and drink taste better, where music sounds brighter, where evenings with loved ones linger longer into pleasure, where sleep is deep and dawn is fresh with wonders we've forgotten elsewhere'. I couldn't have put it better myself!

Thanks to Tim Barber of www.msbnews.co.uk and Dr Kathryn Ferry of

www.beach-huts.com.

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