Beach huts

PUBLISHED: 10:54 22 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:08 20 February 2013

Beach hut

Beach hut

A lifelong love of the Great British beach hut began in Kent for author Dr Kathryn Ferry, who reveals why these simple wooden structures have become seaside icons...

A lifelong love of the Great British beach hut began in Kent for author Dr Kathryn Ferry, who reveals why these simple wooden structures have become seaside icons

It was during a visit to Kent, on a chilly November day in Herne Bay, that Dr Kathryn Ferry's lifetime love affair with the Great British beach hut began. Although she has viewed countless other huts around England's coastline since that winter's day in 1998, the moment still sticks vividly in her mind.

Kathryn says: "I've taken thousands of photographs of beach huts since then, but that day still stands out for me. There is something about the sunlight on the beach huts and across the shingle in that image that brings the day rushing back to me."

It was a moment that changed the course of her life, and, today, finds her gaining widespread acclaim as the country's leading expert on these shoreline sheds - our very own Dr Beach Hut.

Recollections of her own childhood trips to the seaside give no hint that, years later, she would become nothing short of obsessed with the simple wooden structures. "I grew up in North Devon and, as a child, thought beach huts were rather parochial, I didn't get the attraction," she admits.

"My parents also liked visiting the seaside out of season, so my interest in beach huts didn't really happen until that day at Herne Bay."

Since then, she has travelled thousands of miles in her quest to explore, research and document the history of these humble huts. Indeed, she has just published her second book on the subject, Sheds on the Seashore: a Tour Through Beach Hut History, and with our renewed enthusiasm for the British seaside and its various attractions, the book is well timed to tap into this renaissance in our coastal resorts.

So, why does Kathryn believe beach huts have held us in their thrall for all these years? "Beach huts are simple wooden structures, but they've come to stand for so much more than that. They've become seaside icons," she says. Kent can claim an unassailable position in the beach hut's meteoric rise to modern-day icon, and, indeed, its invention centuries earlier.

As Kathryn says: "When Charles Saatchi bought an unassuming Whitstable beach hut in 1999 for £75,000, it was more than a humble shed or prime seafront plot, but the weekend retreat of Tracey Emin and, therefore, a work of art!"

At the Whitstable Tourist Information Centre, Kathryn recalls that the lady behind the desk was proud of her town's association with the one-time doyenne of BritArt. "She didn't think it was a coincidence that people were putting up more and more new huts on Tankerton Slopes," she says.

While more traditionalist beach hut-owners must have choked on their packed sandwiches and dropped Thermos flasks upon hearing the news of Mr Saatchi's largesse, Kathryn believes "it made the beach hut cool". And it also marked another point on the hut's elevation to national treasure.

It is a journey that, Kathryn's research reveals, began back in 18th-century Margate. "Margate is where the term 'machine' was first used to describe a bathing vehicle that was pioneered by a local Quaker, Benjamin Beale," she explains. While there may be rival claims about the hut's nascent development, Kathryn's research backs the inventive Mr Beale, whose invention became ubiquitous in Kentish resorts.

She says the horse-drawn contraption would have boasted four wheels, with a larger pair at the rear, and a barrel roof with a canvas canopy at the back. "Its invention in the town was very important to Margate," adds Kathryn. "The town's guidebook from the time even went as far as including in-depth information about its construction and how it worked."

However, despite being sturdy structures, the wheeled huts could still fall prey to the vagaries of the English coastal weather, sometimes with red-faced results. "In 1801 at Ramsgate, a bathing machine was blown over and demolished. The Morning Chronicle recorded the event and how the machine's two male occupants were left naked and had to resort to climbing into another bathing room, which was filled with ladies!"

For Kathryn, it is the richly entertaining history behind these unassuming sheds that makes their story so fascinating. As a student at Cambridge University studying for a PhD in Architectural History, an unexpected break in her course during 2002 gave her the perfect opportunity to immerse herself further in their story.

Travelling by public transport, she set out on a two-month journey around England's beach hut hotspots, from County Durham to the Bristol Channel. It was a sun-soaked odyssey that has resulted in her latest book, which takes readers along on Kathryn's contemporary tour and also back in history.

Kent, of course, features prominently in the work, and Kathryn recalls an enjoyable time in the county, starting in Whitstable and taking in such resorts as Herne Bay, Margate, Broadstairs and St Margaret's Bay.

"I had a great time in Kent and met some wonderful people, like Peter and Joanna Kemp who run the Folkestone huts and invited me to spend the day with them. They had loads of great stories to tell as we relaxed in the sunshine outside their pale yellow hut. I'll always remember their hut because it's on the cover of my book!"

This laid-back seaside experience is shared by owners of the 23,000 beach huts that line the English coast each summer, explaining some of their appeal and giving a tantalising glimpse of our national psyche.

"It's not a rational thing, but one of those English eccentricities that makes us want to be in a shed on the seashore."

Kathryn adds: "It's a place to sit, brew up a pot of tea and watch the world go by. There's something particularly charming about that."

It's also an escape that is growing in popularity, driving up the cost of huts into the tens of thousands of pounds.

"For all that I love them, I think the prices are silly," admits the author, who also believes the current economic tide may bring some sense back to the beach hut market.

However, she says the popularity of the seaside sheds looks set to continue growing. "I did meet some people who said they would rather give up their home before their beach hut!" she laughs.

Reader offer

The rrp for Sheds on the Seashore: a Tour Through Beach Hut History, by Dr Kathryn Ferry, is £12.99. Kent Life readers can get £1 off, plus free p&p, by visiting shop and entering the code 'Kent.'

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