There is something so quintessentially British about a beach hut that appeals to my sense of nostalgia. Those rows of tiny huts, painted in a spectrum of the most mouthwatering sherbets and candy colours, make my heart sing.
They are a legacy of the Georgians and Victorians, who were quite prudish when it came to changing into their swimwear, and are now so popular that in some areas there are waiting lists and even a modest one can cost the same as a sturdy deposit on a one-bedroom apartment.
Despite the expense, most are still used as a place to change in, and as a storage space for seaside items. But that is not the casewhen you visit the beach hut belonging to the artists Claire Fletcher and Peter Quinnell, in St Leonards-on-Sea. They live in Hastings, but their hut, just a 10-minute cycle away, is very much their home from home. This is the place they come when they have time to swim, to relax, to eat, for a lungful of sea air and even to work, no matter what the season or the weather. And as soon as you walk in, you can see that they have filled it with their innate sense of style, their personalities and so much love.
It had aways been Claire’s dream to have a place by the sea. She was raised in Northern Ireland, where her family home looked directly out on to the Belfast Lough and so to be near water meant a lot to her.
“Peter says that, for as long as he can remember, I’ve always been chasing the sea, and I can’t deny it,” she says.
The couple met when they were at art school in London in the 1990s and moved to this part of the world after they graduated. They would go on to forge successful careers within the art world, Claire making a name for herself as an illustrator and Peter as a sculptor. They had always rented a beach hut from the local council, but when they saw one for sale on one of the most unspoilt shingle beaches on the south coast, they simply couldn’t resist the opportunity.
Step inside and from the 1950s-style kitchenette and the paraffin lamps to the vintage furniture and artworks, it is as though you have been transported back in time.
This beach hut isn’t just a folly for Claire and Peter – it is an extension of their home, and it is in constant use throughout the year. Claire comes here to sketch, either from a deckchair on the beach or from the old wrought-iron hospital bed within the hut, which offers incredible sea views.
Even though the space is small, it’s filled with so much character and personality. Flags draped from the ceiling add colour to the vaulted wooden roof. A crocheted hanging – bought at a festival – brings warmth to the doorway. The wrought-iron hospital bed has been covered in the prettiest of throws, blankets and cushions and topped with a vintage eiderdown to make it all the more inviting.
What I really love about this hut is that, even though it is just a little retreat for the couple during the day, it is filled with so many homely touches that you could almost imagine that they live here full-time. None of this is contrived, either. As Claire explains, over the years, items from their home – books, toys, blankets, artworks – have seemed to “magically” find their way here. Above the daybed hangs a wonderful portrait, which the couple affectionately call The Grumpy Girl.
Creative use of shelving affords Claire and Peter the storage they need and also allows them to create charming displays using their possessions – a collection of vintage books on the local area, a deck of playing cards and a trusty corkscrew – essential items for a rainy afternoon in the hut, one might imagine
On one wall there is a tambourine on to which Claire has painted a picture of a mermaid – a motif that runs through much of her work as an illustrator. She likes to paint on tambourines not just because she enjoys their aesthetic qualities but also because the skin of the instrument serves as the perfect canvas for her artwork. The “Comic Cards” sign on the wall is one of Peter’s finds. He loves to collect salvaged and vintage pieces like this that catch his eye.
Towards the back of the cabinthe couple have installed a charming tiny retro kitchenette. I adore this mustard-coloured storage unit, so well-worn that the original red paintwork can be seen coming through, and I love that it has been left as it is. Above the window, a shelf provides room for their collection of commemorative and souvenir mugs. Vintage floral curtains draped around the cabin window and the various little kitsch elements, such as this delightfula kitten tray, bring character to this part of the hut.
Peter, who creates wonderful art installations, loves to collect old salvaged signs such as this one advertising “Donuts”, which is attached to the back of the door.
This is very much part of a community – a little hamlet of huts – in which everyone knows each other and looks out for one another. Technically, occupants are only allowed to use their huts by day, but Claire admits that they once broke the rules and spent a night here. “It wasn’t that comfortable and the amenities aren’t great, as you’d imagine, but hearing the roar of the sea and the wind crashing against the shutters once we had locked ourselves in for the night was just magical.”
This is an edited extract from Faded Glamour by the Sea by Pearl Lowe, published by Cico Books at £25, out now