One of the features of life in Sussex is that every so often a friend will announce that they have a beach hut. This news is invariably delivered with great excitement, as if the person had just acquired a beach-house in Santa Monica rather than a small shed in St. Leonards. They are thrilled and can’t wait to tell you about the luxury of being able to make a cup of tea down at the shore.
I find myself a little reluctant though. Perhaps this is something to do with being from Scotland. There the beach scene mainly involves running out of the freezing waves while a sandy gale whips your goose bumps. Actually the main beach activities in Scotland are putting on a woolly jumper and hitting a golf ball, but you get the idea. The beach isn’t really somewhere you hang out. Can it be so different down south? The troubles with beach huts are obvious. Not only are they diminutive, they are usually located on a stretch of stony ground in a locality whose summer climate is a byword for unreliable weather. For the rush of making your cuppa in such an environment you will pay a truly eye-watering sum.
In Notes From a Small Island Bill Bryson made much of the tentative pleasures beloved of the English. Tea-cakes and the like. Nothing too fancy or over-stimulating. Of course the adoption of racier grub and brassy Aussie wines over the last couple of decades does suggest a change in tastes. Yet the beach hut sails on, perhaps even literally during especially high tides.
Clearly, fathoming the appeal of this enduring institution required rigorous investigation. Accordingly I posed a question to all the beach hut owners of my acquaintance (five in total): what are the main benefits of owning one? Though this was a small sample I’d say that the results nonetheless capture something of the English soul.
Responses clustered into four main themes:
1) Community. Not just a community but as one respondent put it “being part of an eccentric subculture” (her hut is in Hastings). Love of others was however, accompanied by an equal desire to pretend that no-one else is actually there with you. An Englishman’s windbreak is his castle after all.
2) Escape. From teenage spliff-smoking to getting away from relatives on Christmas day. A beach hut is near enough to get to but far enough to distance you from your loved ones.
3) Being at home in the wild. All respondents cited this, as befits a nation of campers. Enjoy the elements for five minutes then retreat back for a cup of, well... tea. A subsidiary benefit cited under this heading was having all your stuff there. I would note though that on occasions when I’ve been invited to partake of the beach hut experience, my hosts have never minded filling their cars to bursting with a load more gear to supplement their store of coastal essentials. Clearly the emphasis is on home rather than wild.
4) A receptacle for the projection of fantasy. Unlikely as it sounds this seems to be the key benefit. From recreating childhood idylls to fantasising about a simpler life, beach huts are the place for it all. At its best a beach hut seems is play house for grown-ups to fulfill their more low-key aspirations.
Perhaps it is this modesty that appeals to something in the English character. Let’s face it, announcing you had that house in Malibu would strain friendships with excessive envy. Inviting friends down to Bexhill for the day is a far more agreeable exchange. Of course the comfy chairs already being there when you arrive helps. And did I mention you can make a cup of tea?
With thanks to my respondents for all their help.