An ongoing series by photographer Will Scott explores the beguiling architecture of British seaside shelters
WRITER: TOM HOWELLS
Seaside shelters – those stylised little buildings so ubiquitous of windswept, rain-lashed British seafronts – were a product of the profusion of coastal tourism that came with the railway age. From the late Victorian to the post-war era, explains design critic Edwin Heathcote, they were ‘part of a continuum of seaside architecture,’ that then dwindled with the advent of foreign travel. Their subsequent, neglect-fuelled decline was steady, but these strange structures retained a character that is singularly British, both charmingly stoic and exasperatingly austere.
‘Once beautifully painted and pristine but now crumbling and run down.’
They’re the subject of a new book by photographer Will Scott. Prosaically dubbed Seaside Shelters, the monograph surveys 50 of them, with a foreword by Heathcote, lurching from the wilfully exotic to the downright morbid. Scott started the project after photographing the line of beach huts in Boscombe, Devon, that close the book. After shooting a couple more, he ‘realised that they were indicative of the towns that they were in: [once] beautifully painted and pristine but now crumbling and run down’. His project became, in part, one of conservation. Many are doomed to demolition. Some, of course, are listed or protected. Some, he says, were already gone when he got to them.
Clevedon, North Somerset
The collection is as striking as it is banal. Sure, there are glorified bus stops – the examples from Kent’s Grenham Bay, Llandudno and Colwyn Bay are particularly egregious – but diversity abounds. Many are conventionally ornate, like the pretty examples from Bexhill-on-Sea, and Shanklin on the Isle of Wight; likewise the pier-end piles in Beaumaris, Anglesey, and Clevedon in Somerset.
More alluring are the outright outré. Behold: the squat, splendid pile in Essex’s Frinton-on-Sea, at least a third of the height of which is taken up by an oversized clock that looks plain bizarre in such proximity to the ground (see also the shelter in Broadstairs, with the added bonus of a massive nautical weathervane). Dover’s needle-spired rotunda and Rhyl’s rounded lozenge, meanwhile, are practically pared-down versions of the cosmic architectural monoliths dotted around former Soviet states; while the minimalist pods at Trusthorpe in Lincolnshire evoke, albeit quietly, Laloux’s psychedelic animated sci-fi Fantastic Planet. Some, like a pretty blue-and-white, glass-roofed shack in Eastbourne, are painted with what could be mistaken for esoteric symbols. Look hard enough, and the variety is astounding.
There’s a bleak humour throughout: in the aching nostalgia, decay and, outright despair suffused in all of the buildings; in Heathcote’s histrionic reading of the typology; and in the blunt way in which these often unlovely buildings are portrayed. Heathcote describes the shots as ‘unflattering’, but often they’re resplendent. Scott used a one-point perspective to emulate a window view of the shelters; while he didn’t shoot many in authentic (ie dreadful) weather conditions, his disregard for checking the forecast before heading out was an unconscious nod to the inherent pig-headedness of the classic British seaside holiday, embraced in rain or shine. The design of the book itself, with its breezy postcard cover, sand-coloured endpapers and light sea green colouring, all hint at a tourist board’s image of sun, sea and sand that remains an exotically rare sight across the country.
The seaside shelter ‘is an architecture of impotence, exposing it’s users to the climate rather than sheltering them from it’ expounds Heathcote, in sum. ‘An epic act of resistance’ against time, weather and architectural fashions. What could be more British than that?
Seaside Shelters, £14.99, is published by HENI Publishing. An exhibition, ‘Seaside Shelters, by Will Scott’, is on view from 20 July – 19 August at HENI Gallery, 6-10 Lexington Street, London W1F 9AH