A Dorset life for me
By Roger Guttridge; the illustration is by Becky Unwin
Published in April ’14
As one of Her Majesty’s most loyal subjects, Jean McCloy won’t thank me for comparing her to the Queen, although even she admits that some degree of comparison is inevitable. And to a journalist, irresistible.
As most readers will be aware, Elizabeth II lets us know when she’s in residence by flying the Royal Standard from the palace flagpole. It’s a form of communication that spells class, and once you step beyond the West Midlands accent, it’s clear that Jean McCloy is also a lady with class. So it’s apt that thousands know when she is in residence because of the pot of blue and white flowers she places near her front door.
Not the front door of her flat in Westbourne but the door of Bournemouth beach hut number 2048 at Alum Chine. Here, on almost any day of the year, come rain, shine or just about any other weather, 79-year-old Jean can be found holding court with a veritable army of admirers. I happened to visit on her first day back from a two-week holiday, so the hugs and greetings were almost non-stop, and what should have been a thirty- or forty-minute interview threatened to earn me a parking ticket for exceeding my two hours.
‘I’m sorry about all the interruptions,’ she said as I glanced at my watch. ‘It’s amazing how many people you get to know. I’m a very lucky person – I’m never lonely. On an average day I probably speak to between twenty and fifty.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I replied, ‘I want to see it as it is.’ I silently wondered whether Dorset Life would pay my parking fine.
‘She sits here like Shirley Valentine. Sometimes there’s a queue,’ said her daughter, Anne-Marie.
‘Jean is a permanent fixture. Alum Chine is Jean,’ added beach hut neighbour Richard Scullion.
Fans of Queen Jean of Alum Chine come in all ages, shapes and sizes and with a variety of accents and languages. They include not only fellow beach hut tenants and regular strollers but holidaymakers who visit once a year – and even a television presenter. Matt Baker was filming at Boscombe for Country File when someone told him about Jean. Suddenly she and her beach hut found themselves on BBC television.
‘Matt Baker is a lovely man. He took his shoes off before he came in,’ she said as I cast a worried glance at my fully-clad feet. ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to take yours off. I gave the Country File team coffee and mince pies, as it was Christmas.’
Mince pies were off the menu on the day of my visit but the chocolate biscuits that accompanied the tea or coffee were of the highest quality. For those who want to sit and chat, Jean has a stock of nine deckchairs and two sun-loungers not to mention the handy stone wall in front of the hut. For the neighbours, Jean is also a handy source of household items such as bottle opener, scissors, plasters and windbreak mallet. And it’s not just her human friends that she caters for. In summer there’s a bowl of water for thirsty passers-by of the canine kind.
Jean moved to Bournemouth from Wolverhampton sixteen years ago after her husband died, rented her first beach hut a year later and acquired My Haven, as she calls number 2048, two years after that.
It’s a kind of replacement for the canal boat that the couple used to have. ‘And I love it just as much as I loved the boat,’ she says.
The extent of that love is thoroughly obvious. The hut is professionally decorated, spotlessly clean and tastefully kitted out in blue and white – from curtains to crockery, from gas stove to dishcloths, from wall clock to the myriad ornaments and pictures. Not surprisingly, My Haven won the Best Kept Beach Hut in the South title a few years ago.
From the ceiling hangs a rubber ring (blue), which Jean calls her chandelier. The rubber seagull (white) suspended in the middle is a popular attraction for younger visitors. ‘The children like to squeak the seagull,’ she says. A row of tiny fishing boats atop the stove are kept as presents for children. Many ornaments were gifts from Jean’s admiring public. A pair of drinking mugs were given by a couple who stood outside and sang ‘Happy birthday to the lady whose name we don’t know’. For her 75th, a My Haven cake was made.
Jean does charity work one day a week, but spends the other six at Alum Chine, from 9.00 to 4.00 in the winter and in the summer from 9.00 to 6.00, when the beach barbecues start to affect her asthma. ‘She used to be down here at 7.00, but since she had a couple of strokes she’s had to catch the first bus,’ says Anne-Marie. ‘The drivers have a break at Alum Chine so they often walk her down.’
‘I’m very proud of my beach hut,’ says Jean. ‘I need to get a life, don’t I?’
Hardly. You’re a source of love and goodwill to thousands, Jean. Few 79-year-olds touch so many lives. ◗