Huts part of the Felixstowe scenery

BEACH huts, or "shallies" as they are sometimes called, are a much-loved part of the British seaside – and Felixstowe's remain as popular as ever. RICHARD CORNWELL looks at the joys of owning your own little palace by the sea.

By Richard Cornwell

BEACH huts, or "shallies" as they are sometimes called, are a much-loved part of the British seaside – and Felixstowe's remain as popular as ever. RICHARD CORNWELL looks at the joys of owning your own little palace by the sea.

IT'S impossible to imagine Felixstowe without its colourful beach huts.

The kaleidoscopic lines of prettily-decorated wooden chalets are one the best-loved features of the seaside town, and have been for the best part of a century.

Even in these days of hi-tech entertainment, theme parks, and mega attractions, beach huts still command a place in the hearts of those who love a day by the sea – and demand for them is growing.

Suffolk Coastal council has a waiting list for people wanting sites for a hut, and last summer a hut on the resort's East Beach sold for £4,000.

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They may not be in the Southwold class yet – or the Whitstable world, where advertising mogul Charles Saatchi paid £75,000 for his hut – but things are certainly looking up.

There is no doubt that the chalets provide a wonderful family day out, especially for those who enjoy a traditional bucket-and-spade day on the beach.

And that may be the key to the resurgence in popularity for the shallies with families today no longer taking the one or two weeks' holiday at a coastal resort each summer as they did in the 1950s and 1960s.

In those days, mum and dad would relax in their deck chairs while the children built sandcastles and splashed in the sea, staying in the same place all week.

Clacton, Felixstowe, Yarmouth, Hunstanton, Lowestoft and Southend would see an influx of visitors week after week, with beaches packed when the sun shone and the arcades full when it was tipping it down with rain.

Today people are more likely to jet off abroad for their hols in search of instant sunshine or, if they stay in this country, to stay at a "base" and then explore the attractions of a wide area, even a whole county.

Owning or hiring a beach hut is a way of having a regular day by the sea to enjoy those pleasures of old.

There is also a great family connection, with those who recall the thrill of a day at their grandparents' hut as children being those who own huts today, passing on the fun to their children and for generations to come.

And it's not just in Felixstowe it happens, in a walk round Britain's coast for his book The Kingdom By The Sea, author Paul Theroux noted that shallies were a part of the country's seaside heritage, with rows of beach huts to be found at almost every seaside town he visited.

Felixstowe has 1,000 huts along its five-mile seafront, and on any warm day you can find families sitting outside in their deckchairs, reading, relaxing, or just enjoying the sea air, with the aroma of bacon and eggs and hot coffee wafting from their huts.

Each hut is like a palace. Smartly painted and given a fresh coat of colour each spring, with boards checked and mended where necessary, by owners who care lovingly for their pride and joy.

Most have names – Lazy Days, The Mess Hut, Forget-Me-Not, Val's Whim, Seagull's View, Rest-a-While, Dunroamin among them – and inside they are a real home from home.

Chairs, stove, windbreaks, cutlery, plates, glasses, kettle, radios, beach toys are all vital elements of a day by the sea. Some huts even have pictures on the walls, and scented candles to light them at dusk.

Suffolk Coastal chairman and Felixstowe councillor, Doreen Savage said huts were a firm part of the authority's future plans for Felixstowe – and there was certainly no plans to get rid of them.

"They are very much part of Felixstowe and we have never wanted to see them go," said Mrs Savage.

"We have encouraged the hut owners to look after their huts and I have to say the sites are looking better now than for many years. They are really well looked after and cared for and that is what we wanted – to see the huts make a real contribution to the resort."

The resort's most popular hut sites are The Dip and Brackenbury at Old Felixstowe.

When the multi-million pound sea defences were built at The Dip in the early 1990s, terracing was provided for the chalets and those on the front row are highly sought after. The huts here are well-protected from winter's waves with the first terrace six feet above the prom – leading to many families using rope-ladders in summer as a quick way to get from their hut to the beach!

Nearby Brackenbury is more rural-looking with huts nestling in the cliffs and is another quiet, popular place for those seeking a tranquil time.

East Beach – Undercliff Road East – where some huts sit right on the prom is also a favourite spot, though busier, closer to the cafes and main town.

There are still a few near the Spa Pavilion, where one called Penelope was immortalised by comedian and singer-songwriter Richard Digance in a poem.

The south seafront, where around 1,000 used to stand, also keeps its hut tradition and many of these have been in the same families for years.

"I remember my mum having a beach hut and it was great fun. We used to pack up everything we needed for our day in the hut – all our food and everything – and off we would go," said Mrs Savage.

"It was a great adventure, even though our hut was at Manor End and we only lived across the road in Manor Terrace!"

Originally beach huts were used by those who could not afford a holiday, as the cheapest way of getting away from it all but still within easy reach of home. Most of Felixstowe's were owned by Ipswich people, and still are today.

But now with huts changing hands for thousands of pounds, ownership is perceived as being a bit more upmarket, quite fashionable.

The huts grew out of the Victorian bathing machines. These were literally huts on wheels which were pushed down into the sea so that the oh-so-shy Victorian bathers could change discreetly and enter the sea without people glimpsing and being shocked by the sight of skin.

Static huts later appeared on the shore, again to be used as changing rooms.

But sometime after this their use was expanded as families began to use them as a base for their day at the seaside.

The huts really are a family affair – used by grandparents, their children and the grandchildren, with sometimes everyone turning up at once for a real get-together.

"I think it the huts are really something very charming. The people who use them absolutely adore them and it is great to see them being used," said Mrs Savage.

"You see the whole family there enjoying themselves with everything they need with them, to cook the dinner, make the tea. It's wonderful.

"I love looking inside as I walk along the prom and seeing how lovely people people have made them.

"There is a real community spirit about the hut sites, too, a real social life. Everyone knows the people around them, their neighbours, and they all look out for each other. Many of the huts have been owned by the same families for years and have been handed down and they just love that part of Felixstowe where their hut stands."