A village by the sea – Mudeford Spit beach huts
The 344 residential beach huts at Mudeford Spit are normally only written about in terms of their prices, but, as Joël Lacey discovers, there’s a lot more to life by the shore
Published in September ’16
It’s early in the morning and there’s no-one on the beach at Mudeford Spit, or at least almost no-one. Alan, with binoculars and marine radio, is sitting at the bench seat of his brother’s hut watching to see if there will be any racing around the Isle of Wight today.
The island, which looks so close and so clearly defined that one could reach out and touch it, appears to be floating atop a scintillating halo just above the sea’s surface; the sun has a warming almost warning strength, even at this early hour. Alan eats his toast, has a sip of tea and seems pretty happy to be here. He lives in Christchurch but says of his beach hut: ‘This is my back garden in a way. [Coming here] is what I do; where else would I go?’
He has been a beach hut user at Mudeford Sandbank (as the Beach Hut Owners’ Association styles it) since 1977. When the ‘Right to Buy’ came in, Alan like many others bought his beach hut from Christchurch Council. Like everyone I meet on a two-hour-long wander along the fragile stub that is Mudeford spit, Alan was drawn here almost by a sense of manifest destiny. Also like many others, there’s a family connection here: ‘You have generations buying in the footsteps of their parents,’ says Alan, ‘and my sons come down here for a week every year.’
As well as being a family thing, it’s a community-minded place too: ‘Most people are members of the Mudeford Sandbank Beach Hut Association (msbha.org.uk),’ Alan says, and this is where one can find fridges for sale, boats, for sale and wanted, discounted beach hut insurance, members’ huts for rent or even, from time to time, huts for sale. Up until this year, there has also been a family fun day for all the beach hut owners, but it proved to be such a logistical challenge for the few volunteers trying to put it together that it is having a hiatus in 2016.
Lucy Clarke first met her husband growing up around the Mudeford beach huts where, like hers, his family had a hut. ‘We have a big group of friends from that time,’ says Lucy. ‘I’ve grown up down here. When we first married we shared a beach hut, but with four families trying to do that we decided to get our own. She co-parents with her husband so she can spend half a day writing (her novels include The Blue, A Single Breath and The Sea Sisters) down at her hut. Her fourth and latest novel will be published in Summer 2017 and, fascinatingly, the story is based around a small community on a shoreline. Lucy is keen to stress that while Mudeford is certainly an inspiration for her new book’s location, the characters are not those of her neighbours!
Unlike many smaller communities in Dorset, this one has a shop – albeit one that is more geared to cooling down on a hot day than doing a weekly shop – attached to a seafood café, although one that is open only seasonally and not in inclement weather.
Although the beach huts can be slept in, the right to do so only exists between 1 March and 31 October, outside of this period, the huts cannot be used between 11.00 at night and 5.00 in the morning. That restriction (along with many others in the Council’s 81-page handbook) does not put off the long-term owners, though. One such pair are Steve and Nicki who have had a hut for 23 years now, although the decision to get one was pretty quickly taken, recalls Steve: ‘We came here by boat and a friend held the boat on the beach while we went to have a look at the one hut that was available at that time. We made our minds up straight away.’
That sense of being anchored by friends applies to the huts as well. ‘We moved up north, but we used this hut as a way of getting back here,’ say Steve and Nicki.
The ‘here’ in question is the spit, but as Steve points out, there are different suburbs within the spit itself, with distinct identities. But whichever suburb of the spit a beach hut owner is a part of, this seemingly inhospitable sandbank is much more than the house-hunting headlines, more than a summer-house equivalent of Sandbanks.
It is a place for families to grow up and stay together – or perhaps even to meet and fall in love – or to return to as one from their travels. If, as they say, it takes a village to raise a child, then this is certainly a village by the sea.
Who owns what?
Three quarters of Mudeford Spit is owned by Bournemouth Borough Council, the rest by the Meyrick Estate and it is leased to Christchurch Council on leases of 98 and 99 years and elapsing on 24 March 2029 and 23 June 2061 respectively. After the enacting of ‘Right to Buy’ legislation, the Borough council now doesn’t own any of the huts. It does, however, own the leasehold to the land on which they all sit and it licenses the siting of the beach huts (as an annual fee) at £2800 per hut (more for larger huts). For transfers between parent and child, there’s a £7500 fee and to transfer outside the immediate family, there’s a £15,000 fee. In short, the council earns well over £1million a year from this spit of sand.