Kent’s Hidden Coastal Heritage

Hythe Fisherman's Beach Fishing Boat

Isn’t it time we valued Folkestone and Hythe’s social history?

We all know about the Leas, Royal Military Canal, Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway and other local heritage stalwarts, but what about the stories of the real people who have lived in and passed through our towns for centuries?

Over the years I’d forgotten about my love of history, what with all the working, gadding about and starting a family. Lately I’ve been lucky enough to indulge my history geekery and help out at three heritage organisations in Kent. As well as being top class material for sitcom writers, the last six months as a volunteer have been quite an education.

Firstly, I’ve discovered what an amazing and broad range of community and cultural ‘stuff’ is going on all the time across our villages, towns and cities. Stuff, that if you’re working hard at the 9 to 5 and/or family life, you’ve probably missed. Much of this is powered by supreme, super-motivated community-minded people – some employed in this capacity and many of them volunteers who have a bit of time and care enough to get stuck in for free.

Step Short Visitor Centre board

Stepping Short down to the Harbour

One of the projects I’ve been involved in is Step Short, a First World War charity devoted to remembering the soldiers and nurses who passed through Folkestone between 1914 and 1918.

As far as I can tell, until recently the seaside town’s role in the Great War was largely ignored, aside from a few military historians and the annual Remembrance Day services. However this began to change when community groups started gearing up for the 1914 centenary commemorations.

Step Short was established in 2008 when members of the Go Folkestone Action Group decided that improvement of the historic Road of Remembrance area should be a focus for the First World War’s 100th anniversary.

Mole Cafe Visitor Books Step Short
Image: Step Short

A nice cup of tea

A real turning point was the discovery of some old visitors’ books in the East Kent Archives Centre in Dover in the same year, by historian Charles Fair. Books which just happened to contain the signatures, comments and poetry of thousands of WW1 servicemen and nurses, written as they tried to savour a final cup of tea and slice of cake in the Harbour Canteen (also known as the Mole Cafe) before sailing across the Channel from Folkestone to the Western Front. Wow!

These eight volumes of precious wartime history were carefully bound after the war, catalogued and then forgotten. Within their leather covers are an estimated 42,000 names, including normal soldiers, sailors, nurses, generals, politicians and even King George V; and perhaps the key to unlocking thousands of untold Great War stories.

Step Short realised the significance of this find for Folkestone and by January 2014 they had successfully transferred the Mole Cafe books online, finally making them accessible to millions. This took years of scanning (by Kent County Council) and transcribing by volunteers. At the time the charity’s chairman, Damian Collins MP, noted that digitisation of the visitors’ books had taken longer than the First World War itself!

I grew up in the area but somehow had missed this powerful and poignant piece of local history. Step Short has a staggering amount of unique WW1 material and resources, having worked with local and military historians including Michael George, Charles Fair and Alan Taylor. How many local people, let alone those from further afield, know about this?

Folkestone Harbour Arm Kids' Music Event 2016

The Harbour Arm Revived

Despite the Mole Cafe books and all the charity’s hard work to install the stunning Memorial Arch on the Leas in time for August 2014, the first I’d heard of Step Short was when the newly restored Folkestone Harbour Arm opened in the summer of 2015.

Along with all the brilliantly cool events, restaurants, food trucks and lighthouse champagne bar, the modest Mole Cafe was given its rightful place in its original wartime home on the railway pier. Volunteers in period dress sell mugs of tea and coffee and slabs of cake every weekend during the summer season, and have been going down a storm.

It’s heartening that the big bosses value this little historical gem, despite it not being a money-spinning hipster hangout. Originally Step Short had ambitious plans for a visitor centre, a fantastic glass construction emerging from the cliffside. Somehow over the years this vision has been lost (or reluctantly packed away) and since 2011, Step Short’s hub has been the uninspiring old tourist information office in the Harbour car park. An interim location long past its sell-by date.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Step Short was given more space on the Harbour Arm as the old railway station is restored? Imagine the moving tales that could be told here in a real visitor centre, right where it all happened?

Salt Festival Folkestone Trawlermen Exhibition 2016

Folkestone’s Trawlermen

And the centuries-old Folkestone fishing community would be right at home here too. The seasonal Fishing and Heritage Museum is currently housed in the tatty Old Booking Hall near the Harbour Arm car park. Yet a spot on the restored Harbour Arm would be so fitting, and appealing to visitors. The recent Salt Festival Folkestone Trawlermen exhibition by photographer Andy Aitchison was a good start; and the very exciting new Folkestone Museum will feature the town’s fishing heritage.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has thought about this over the last few years, and naturally I am completely clueless about any discussions and negotiations that have taken place between the powers-that-be. I’m just a volunteer after all.

Folkestone Harbour 2016

People’s History

Let’s invest in Folkestone’s often undervalued heritage. It’s not only the likes of Whitstable, Margate and Hastings that have a local culture worth celebrating. And why not also pay a little more respect to Hythe’s social history? This little town owes much to generations of fishing families too; and is so much more than a canal, a light railway and some old skulls.

Advertisements

Folkestone’s Beacon of Hope

The little harbour lighthouse

Before this summer, who knew that Folkestone had a lighthouse? Stuck at the end of an abandoned railway line in the town’s less than glamourous harbour area, many of us had just never noticed. That all changed in August of this year though when the season’s runaway success, the newly restored Harbour Arm, brought the chunky polished granite beacon to our full attention.

Despite years of investment and regeneration in the Creative Quarter, it has been the Harbour Arm with its stylish lighthouse that has finally drawn the crowds to Folkestone. All kinds of people (local and visitors) enjoying food, music, film, the vibrant atmosphere and fantastic views together – in a place that once epitomised the town’s hopelessness. Who’d have imagined this 20 years ago? Ten, even? Mr de Haan certainly has vision.

Folkestone Lighthouse, Harbour Arm

Gateway to Europe

The lighthouse itself was built around the turn of the 20th century on the railway pier, replacing an earlier construction. In a very different age, trains including the Orient Express would board ferries at Folkestone Harbour Station and depart for the continent. It was also, less romantically and more poignantly, the gateway to the trenches in World War I.

Troops were given their last cup of tea here in the Mole Cafe before heading across the Channel and over the top. The cafe was run by sisters Florence and Margaret Jeffrey who kept eight volumes of visitors’ books between 1915 and 1919. Those pages can now be read on the Step Short website. What an amazing piece of local history.

Old rowing boats, Folkestone Harbour

End of an Era

By 2001 the war was long gone, the British seaside was in a depressing state, ferry services had ceased and the station was closed to regular passengers – though the Venice Simplon Orient Express continued using Folkestone Harbour Station as a drop-off point for passengers transferring to the Channel Tunnel until 2009.

Almost forgotten at the end of the derelict pier, and unseen by most visitors, the lighthouse stood firm and bided its time. The building was Grade II listed in 2008 and completely refurbished by the Folkestone Harbour Company in 2011. A new era was just around the corner.

Folkestone's Old High St, Creative Quarter

Creativity and the Revival of the Kent Coast

During the noughties the Creative Foundation had set about transforming the Old High Street, Tontine Street and the harbour with grim determination, and a lot of cash. The Harbour Arm’s lighthouse became a piece of art in 2014, featuring in the Folkestone Triennial when it was inscribed with the words of the late artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. ‘Weather is a Third to Place and Time’ refers to the importance of the weather to all who work at sea, and also to its relationship with place and time for us.

After much debate about the harbour railway line’s future (with some campaigners lobbying for a rather fusty sounding heritage train attraction), it was formally closed in July 2014. Now creative and ambitious redevelopment plans for the harbour and seafront are moving full steam ahead. And they are definitely not fusty.

Folkestone Harbour Lighthouse, Angus Willson

Image: Angus Willson

A New Lease of Life

As anyone who lives in the Folkestone area knows, the Harbour Arm reopened in August 2015 after a £3.5 million refurbishment. In a relatively short season (opening on Friday, Saturday and Sundays until the end of October) the Harbour Arm has really taken off. People love it, and it feels like something is finally happening in Folkestone.

Live music, open air cinema, art and cultural events, pop-up food stalls from the town’s growing community of fantastic restauranteurs…it’s positively buzzing. I can’t wait to see how it evolves in 2016.

The Harbour Arm closes for the 2015 season on Sunday 25 October. Make sure you take a stroll along the old pier and look at Folkestone with a new perspective. Sip champagne in the lighthouse bar and raise a glass to everyone who has passed by this beautiful beacon in its 100-or-so years. Things are looking up.

Hythe: Hipster Haven?

Hythe, Kent white clapboard house

Something in the sea air

I think I may smell something fresh and exciting in Hythe. Let’s not get silly, but could it be the heady scent of hip wafting in from cooler climes nearby?

Whitstable, Margate, Ramsgate and Rye have been rocking the creative, vintage and boho vibe for some years now, attracting dudes who settle and spread their cool. Even Hastings and Folkestone are doing away with their faded tacky seaside personas and getting seriously with it, thanks to regeneration projects and cultural tourism. But these things take time.

Hythe has always been a bit different to its coastal neighbours: smaller, slightly more upmarket, more conservative and resistant to change. For many, it’s too quiet, full of charity shops and hairdressers, and a lot of mobility scooters. A bit rubbish if you’re looking for more from life, to be honest.

Hythe, Kent springtime hillside view

The Good Life

Yet, if you have actually chosen to live in Hythe, or return after many years away as I did, you can appreciate much more of the good stuff. The pretty seafront and beach; that invigorating, chilly, choppy sea; green spaces like South Rd, Oaklands, the Green and Brockhill Country Park; a fantastically eclectic high street; handy proximity to both London and Europe; and the relaxed family life you can enjoy here. Surely Hythe has the potential to match the best of Cornwall or Suffolk’s classy coastal towns?

The downside has always been the general fustiness, the reluctance to embrace the here and now, and a lack of culture and entertainment for anyone not drawing their pension. But maybe things are changing? Nobody wants the town’s historic charm to be dented, but steady, responsible, creative change has got to be good, hasn’t it?

Big Boys Fine Burger Co, Kent

A Breath of Fresh Air

As creative types and more families finally notice the rather nice life available on the Kent coast and decamp from London, new businesses pop up in Hythe and existing ones reinvent themselves, broadening their appeal and evolving with the times. This is decidedly cool!

High Street shops like Elysian Treasures, the Flower Shop, the Sewing Space, Shoreline Vintage, the Dolls’ House and WOW have been adding style, creativity and vintage appeal to the traditional high street for a few years now. We even had a pop-up restaurant for a while! Big Boys Fine Burger Co has opened permanently on Folkestone’s Old High Street after a popular evening stint at the Nutmeg Cafe. Successful designer and illustrator Andy Tuohy, often inspired by the Kent coast, is also based in Hythe. And below you’ll find other local businesses boosting Hythe’s cool-factor, making it more fun to live in and attracting visitors to the town.

Fisherman's Beach, Hythe, Kent

Hythe Businesses Doing it Right

Griggs of Hythe
Long-time residents of the Fisherman’s Beach, now serving up fresh and delicious fishy snacks at benches right on the pebbles.
Saltwood on the Green
Stylish eatery on Saltwood’s picturesque village green, delivering local produce in simple seasonal dishes and a very fine atmosphere. Established by renowned American chef, Jeff Kipp.
Shepherd Hut Studios
Artist Andrea Stoneman’s dinky gallery/store on Marine Walk Street, showcasing her distinctive beach-inspired prints.
118 The High Street
Richard Amos’ beautifully curated collection of antiques and architectural salvage, in a gorgeous building at the west end of the High Street.
Hopfuzz Brewery
Innovative green microbrewery in West Hythe set up by two young university buddies, Daryl Stanford and Martyn Playford. They promise that at least one of their 25 or so beers will tickle your fancy.
Debonair Tea Company
Purveyors of quality loose leaf tea online, also regulars at farmers’ markets and food festivals around the county.
Romney Marsh Brewery
Alright, not strictly Hythe, but very local! And found in the White Hart on the High Street. Another extremely on-trend craft brewery based out on the marsh, set up by London media exile, Matt Calais (yes, he has a beard). Branding provided by Dungeness artist Paddy Hamilton.

Hythe Kent seafront ramp

Maybe the Daily Mail is right for once and Hythe is an up-and-coming property hotspot. One day perhaps there will be more hipsters than hip replacements on the seafront. Whatever happens, let’s make the most of all this creative enterprise and enjoy our lovely town.

Do you think Hythe is becoming more cool and creative? Which Hythe businesses do you admire? Let me know below or via Twitter!

Beach Love: Five Reasons to be by the Sea

Why Living on the Coast is Good for You

Forget California or Cornwall, even less than idyllic stretches of the British coastline will do you the world of good. My bored 15-year-old self would have rolled her bored, blue-eye-linered eyes at that, but our grandparents knew it and the scientific research is finally catching up.

Find Your Inner Calm

When you’re trying to appreciate the here and now, not many things beat a stomp along the seafront, wind in your chops and the best sound in the world filling your ears…those wonderful crashing waves. There’s something about the repetitive and rhythmic noise and movement that calms and comforts us. Mindfulness goes very nicely with the beach.

Camber sand dunes

Soak Up the Seaside Scenery

Big skies, seascapes and miles of shoreline really help us to reconnect with the natural world. Studies show that city life can affect our mental and physical health and wellbeing, so you might want to head to the beach and do some of the following, sharpish:

  • Run and roll like a maniac over sand dunes.
  • Search for special shells, stones, driftwood, fossils – whatever tickles your fancy.
  • Clamber, slide and play hide and seek amongst the rocks.
  • Throw yourself into the choppy brown waves and get knocked sideways (probably one for the summer).
  • Take a blanket and cushions, then snooze or get stuck into a great book.
  • Savour a fishy brunch or tea and cake in the fresh sea air.

Coast, Hastings fresh fish hut

Get Healthier

Not only does our mental health benefit from being beside the seaside, our bods love it too. Living near to the sea we’re much more likely to get out and about and be physical. With all that good old fashioned fresh air, there’s less pollution, and more sunshine increasing our vitamin D levels and production of the happy chemical serotonin. And don’t forget tasty and nutritious fresh fish which you can munch on daily if you so wish.

beach-houses-hythe

Take a Break From Uber-Cool

Night-time food truck markets, hipster bars and coffee shops, brunch bingo, urban farmers’ markets, pop up this and thats, community street art…isn’t it sometimes a bit exhausting? London and other cities are fantastic, and comfortingly close when you’re craving an injection of city culture, but occasionally they just need to take a few deep breaths and stop being so relentlessly, in-your-face cool. It’s enough to see you fleeing east London for the Kent coast as fast as the high speed train can carry you.

seaside-gate

Discover Coastal Cool Instead

Yep, admittedly there are a lot of dull and dingy days in Britain’s less fashionable seaside towns. Too many senior coach trips, rubbish tea shops, depressing high streets, greedy seagulls, Daily Mail attitudes, and not as much sunshine as you’d like. Yet you will also find refreshing little pockets of creativity and individual spirit.

Down in Kent and Sussex, we’re very lucky to have truly original shops like Merchant & Mills in Rye, Butler’s Emporium in Hastings and Rennies in Folkestone; vintage havens 13 Marine and Elysian Treasures in Hythe; or the now well-established art scenes in Kent coastal towns like Whitstable and Margate, and Dungeness providing unique creative inspiration for many.

Regeneration projects mean that even the most rundown and forgotten areas of our seaside are getting another chance to thrive and attract the visitors they deserve. And when you want a taste of that hipster vibe, you’ve got it, just in more diverse, less concentrated style: beards and bikes aplenty, vintage markets attracting people from every generation, independent coffee shops, quirky galleries, hardworking makers, craft breweries and new restaurants run by young friends, or micro pubs run by old fellas. Now that’s cool.

The Tin Church: Humble and Heartwarming

Tin church Hythe, details

Standing Strong

Where once there was lots of rust and peeling brown paint, the church of St Michael and All Angels now wears a smart coat of blue and white. The noticeboard displays upcoming events and the garden is looking pretty. Just how things should be.

There has always been something reassuring about Hythe’s tin church, even during its most ramshackle days. As a child growing up here in the 1980s, it makes me think of harvest festivals, clanking tea cups and saucers, local arts and crafts and unruly if not totally wild flowers. My memory may have added a touch of Instagram-style retro filtering, to match my Mivvi lolly, t-bar sandals and white knee socks of the period.

I loved St Michael’s then and still do now. This comforting vision in corrugated iron standing firmly, despite its temporary origins, between Stade Street, Portland Road and the canal was made for the people.

Tin church Hythe, clouds behind

A Church for the People

As the town’s working class population south of the canal grew during the late 19th century, up on the hill St Leonard’s church began to bulge at the seams, with the congregation “packed like herrings in a box” according to the local paper in 1892. So the vicar decided to buy another box, or tin.

Prefabricated iron churches, chapels and mission halls were manufactured by a number of companies at the time and could be ordered from a catalogue for a few hundred pounds. The Church of England was particularly keen to see off competition from other types of Christianity and flat-packed churches started springing up all over the country.

So within a few months during 1893, our tin tabernacle was ordered from Humphries of Croydon, paid for by a former vicar (Reverend Scott coughed up a very reasonable £300), and assembled on a plot of land donated by the Watts family.

Today, its simple structure of timber frame, corrugated galvanised iron walls and wooden window frames along with a wood panel interior survive pretty much as they were. So too does the altar, gifted by a local man from oak grown on his own land. By September 1893 the tin church was dedicated to St Michael and All Angels and ready for 280 worshippers.

Tin tabernacle, Chiltern Open Air Museum
Tin tabernacle at the Chiltern Open Air Museum. Image: Snapshooter46.

Tin Tabernacles Across the Globe

This was a common story in Victorian Britain: prefab churches rapidly erected in new industrial areas, pit villages and remote rural or coastal spots to serve the spiritual needs of the country’s worker bees following the Industrial Revolution. Landowners or employers often donated plots of land, the churches themselves paid for by a benefactor or public subscription.

And this quirky iron army advanced across the colonies as Christians travelled the world on their missions. No one is quite sure how many were built or how many survive today. One of the largest and grandest is the Bulgarian St Stephen Church in Istanbul. Around the UK, some are still welcoming congregations while others are now listed buildings, have been converted for other uses or moved to museums. Not bad for a mass-produced flat-pack.

Tin tabernacles, Bulgarian St Stephen Istanbul
Not your average tin tabernacle: Bulgarian St Stephen Church, Istanbul. Image: Valix.

A New Beginning

The tin church in Hythe was rescued from an uncertain fate a few years ago by a couple new to the town. Given a Grade II listing by English Heritage in September 2010 after a local campaign, then finding itself on the market for £75,000 a year later, Kay and John Keesing bought St Michael’s in January 2012.

They use it for private office space alongside community events and hire, all the while working on its restoration. The worshipping may have stopped, but the exhibitions, birthday parties, local meetings and neighbourhood gatherings continue.

Tin church party, Hythe, Kent

We held our youngest son’s birthday party in the tin church a few years ago, before it had officially re-opened. The bunting was up, the kettle was on and the cake was in abundance, as it should be.

The tale of St Michael and All Angels church is a lovely little piece of Hythe’s social history. An off-the-shelf, metal shell that could have been soulless and temporary became instead a cherished and permanent part of the community.

For more information on St Michael’s and other tin tabernacles, take a look at:

 The Tin Tabernacle, Hythe

St Michael’s, In Praise of Tin Tabernacles, The Guardian

Tin Tabernacles, Liz Induni

Tin Tabernacles & Others, Alasdair Ogilvie

What’s Next for Hythe’s Triangle?

Lush foliage at the Triangle in Hythe

The Wake-Up Call

Some things are worth fighting for. There’s a little wedge of land where Windmill Street, Albert Road and St Leonards Road meet in Hythe that’s definitely one of them.

Until a few years ago, most of us passed it by and never gave it a thought. It has been part of the town’s landscape for centuries. You may have occasionally noticed a pretty wild flower or a tree rustling in the breeze within its ragstone walls. It had at times been used by community groups.

After many years of neglect, the land changed hands in 2011 and it soon became clear that the new owner had no interest in what this small slice of Hythe meant to the local community.

The previous owner claims to have sold the land on the understanding that it would remain as a garden. But in recent years it had looked unloved and unused. And it was up for grabs.

Work began to clear the area, with overgrown plants and trees ripped out – one a memorial to a long-gone town resident. This was enough to galvanise the troops.

A Good Old-Fashioned Community Campaign

Hythe is a conservative and sedate coastal town, where locals quite often oppose development, sometimes out of habit or as a matter of course it seems. Yet the need to protect this particular pocket of greenery has been felt beyond the usual circles of protest.

The community rallied and put forward a successful case for the council to place preservation orders on two remaining trees. Andy Maguire, an artist who lives close by, applied to English Heritage for a Grade II listing for the Triangle, which was granted in 2012.

There was a collective sigh of relief and many of us took the time to actually notice the Triangle for the first time in a long while – and perhaps think about what it had been and what it could become.

Protecting the triangle, Hythe, Andy Maguire
Residents determined to protect the Triangle, January 2015. Photo: Andy Maguire

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Triangle was used as an animal pound for Hythe’s stray livestock and, later, as a watering station for military horses. It is one of only two known triangular animal enclosures in the country, bordered by three roads with historic buildings on each.

The 21st century Grade II listing and tree preservation orders did not provide blanket protection for the Triangle; and late in 2014 the owner submitted planning permission for two houses to be built on the land.

The community was having none of it and, led by Ashley Tanton (a local construction project manager), a petition was circulated and 58 local residents added their numerous and heartfelt objections to the planning application. On 29 January 2015, Shepway District Council refused to grant permission.

Rockdean, Hythe, Andy Maguire
Rockdean by local artist and campaigner, Andy Maguire

Hythe’s Heritage

Standing at this special junction, it’s hard to imagine that anyone truly believes sticking two contemporary homes here is the right thing to do. To the west is Rockdean, a distinctive leafy Grade II listed house. In the late 19th century the owners of this house bought the Triangle to prevent its development. But somehow after that the land was lost.

Albert Road is to the east, with its charming row of cottages constructed for workers digging the Royal Military Canal in 1804. Maybe they enjoyed a refreshing ale or two at the Three Mariners next door. The terrace of three larger 19th century houses to the south were homes for the military who kept their horses on the Triangle.

The Three Mariners, Hythe, Kent

The Future

So what now? There’s no doubt that a community garden was never in the owner’s grand scheme. They’re after cash. They’ve no interest in wild flowers, benches or local primary school projects. Will they sell it, or wait a few years and try again? It’s unlikely to be approved, so as it stands this little oasis is growing more and more unkempt, with its ragstone boundaries gradually crumbling.

I’m not a believer in preserving every piece of scrubland, just because it’s always been there or someone’s view is going to be ruined. But this is not a piece of scrubland. This is a valuable haven in the heart of Hythe.

Perhaps the community will get together once again and buy the Triangle for everyone’s benefit: a welcome burst of colour, nature and tranquility on a busy, or not so busy, day.

Red hot pokers, the Triangle, Andy Maguire
The Triangle looking good. Photo: Andy Maguire

Since writing this piece, Ashley, Andy and local supporters have successfully bid for the Triangle for use as a community garden. Hoorah! Anyone interested in the future of The Triangle can contact Ashley Tanton via email at hythetriangle@gmail.com.

Hythe’s Beach Huts

Hythe beach huts, pink

The British Coast Revival

We do like to be beside the seaside, don’t we? Fish and chips and a nice cup of tea, greedy seagulls, knobbly shingle or gritty sand between our toes, the choppy grey sea, a sticky 99 and squealing children, sunshine sometimes if we’re lucky.

The British love affair with the coast has had a few ups and downs over the years. We’ve been tempted by faraway shores at times; but there’s no doubt that our beaches have been enjoying a revival during the last 15 years or so.

We’ve seen new artistic communities emerging by the sea, and an insatiable love of all things vintage (thanks Cath). So too a general nostalgia, and a yearning for a more sustainable, natural way of life. Local and organic, mindfulness…21st century trends have all led to a renewed appreciation of what’s right on our doorstep. It’s painfully fashionable, but so what? Let’s enjoy it.

Simple Pleasures

My sons are (hopefully) experiencing the kind of childhoods you want for them when you decide to bring a little person into the world. That’s forgetting the everyday stresses and problems of family life you cannot foresee. Bunting and a rose print can only do so much, after all.

They go fossil-hunting at Folkestone and clamber over the rocks in Hythe, camp in a clunky old campervan in the country, play board games, explore the woods of Kent, and run wild at Camber. Don’t get me wrong, there’s also a lot of YouTube, Minecraft and Mario, and the odd holiday to France too.

What we have never experienced though is a beach hut. There are beach huts around the world, but it is Britain that has really taken them to its national heart.

Hythe beach huts, pink

Beach Hut Heyday

When the wheels dropped off our Victorian bathing machines, and we didn’t care so much about showing our knees in public, the timber boxes remained. Perfect for changing into your cossie, having a brew and storing seaside paraphernalia, by the early 1900s they had a slightly down-at-heel image.

During the 1930s though, the tides were turning: suntans had become fashionable, with lidos and sun terraces springing up. Royalty and movie stars were now spotted in the humble beach hut.

The Second World War very rudely shut all of our beaches, but once it was over you couldn’t keep us away from the sea. The 1950s were the real heyday of the beach hut in Britain.

Hythe beach huts, bright row

Huts at Hythe

Hythe has a modest row of what look like 1950s beach chalets. Or maybe 1930s, the more I study them. Google and the library’s local history shelf have let me down when it comes to tracing their precise creation date. Hythe Civic Society is very kindly hunting around in the archives and thinks that they were built sometime just before or after WWII.

They are not the most good-looking beach huts, and they seem very underused, retaining a depressing bus shelter air which reminds me of growing up here in the 1980s – a low point for the British seaside and my hair.

Owned by the council and leased to a local builder, they could be so much more. As ever, no one with the power and cash to do so has capitalised on the town’s vintage seaside credentials or fishing heritage to improve the environment for those of us who have chosen to live here, or to promote vital tourism either.

Beach Huts Around the UK

In other Kent, Suffolk, Sussex, Essex and Dorset towns you will find very beautiful beach huts, oozing vintage vibes, uber cool shabbiness or a beachy New England feel. They’re decked out in 1950s fabric, enamel kitchenware and all manner of retro picnic gear, or rocking some serious Ralph Lauren nautical style.

In some counties, new beach huts have been built, old ones have been part of regeneration schemes. Some are privately owned, many are leased from local councils. Most beach huts are for day use only and few offer running water or electricity.

There are more than 20,000 beach huts around the UK. People get married in them, sell arts and crafts, serve tea and cake, tuck into BBQs, sip Pimms and Prosecco, and enjoy family days out in towns like Southwold, Mudeford, Bournemouth, West Wittering, West Mersea and Whitstable.

Time for a Change?

It’s not quite the same in Hythe. And yes, I know, sometimes the whole kitsch cupcake vintage thing can start to make you feel slightly sick. I’d just be happy to see more old fellas in their sandals enjoying their flask tea or screaming kids grabbing their buckets and spades, and more of that beach hut community that seems to exist along other parts of our coast.

And there’s no doubt that there are plenty of opportunities around the beach huts to boost the appeal of the Marine Parade end of the seafront. Griggs at the Fisherman’s Beach is going great guns with its steadily expanding range of tasty seafood treats which you can eat on wooden benches right on the pebbles.

The cafe next to the beach huts is functional, and that’s being kind. Whoever decided to make urinals and a cafe part of the same building anyway? Imagine what it could be? A pleasure for us, and a great way to attract more visitors to Hythe.

Hythe beach huts, marine parade

It does seem like things are soon to change for the Hythe beach huts, but possibly not in a good way. There has been some public controversy over the way the Hythe (and Folkestone) beach huts have been managed by the private landlord.

The land they sit on appears to be part of a Shepway district council site allocated for housing if the Princes Parade debacle is ever sorted and the South Road pool closes.

The minutes of a recent Shepway council meeting mention the possibility of developing the beach huts as part of their Oportunitas ‘vehicle’ (a shadowy sounding thing), but say no more.

Could they soon be a thing of the past? I think that would be a shame. Bunkerish as they are, those concrete and brick boxes are a piece of Hythe’s 20th century history and, more importantly, they could be a really valuable part of the town’s future. Restore them, rent them out fairly to day trippers, artists, craftspeople and vintage sellers, create a lovely new beachfront cafe, and bring back the donkeys!

If you know anything about the history of Hythe’s beach huts, or indeed their future, please do share it below.