When it comes to tourism initiatives, you can’t knock Bournemouth council for ambition. A decade ago, it had the seemingly brilliant idea of creating an artificial surf reef off Boscombe beach aimed at attracting surfers from far and wide, and also help renew the immediate area, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the whole of the south-west, according to a local charity. Sadly, it was a disaster and the project sank without trace, though the huge sandbags are still teetering somewhere on the sea bed.
But despite its failure to make waves (at least the right sort – it did generate plenty of unwanted headlines), such was the hype surrounding the proposed reef that redevelopment of the Boscombe pier area began anyway.
Designer Wayne Hemingway was drafted in to revamp the 1950s Overstrand building – which he did with some style, incorporating beach pods as well as a surf academy and a beachfront bar/restaurant.
Just up the hill, the Urban Beach hotel launched in the hope of capturing the surfer market. They never came, but it remains one of Bournemouth’s best contemporary hotel/restaurants.
The council’s latest venture is less exotic and less risky than a surf reef, taking its inspiration from the good old British beach hut. There are almost 2,000 private and council-owned beach huts along Bournemouth’s five-plus miles of shoreline, and there are waiting lists for all of them. But in the new models the council launched in April, you can do a whole lot more than make a cuppa and store the deck chairs – you can stay in them.
Eight minutes’ walk from the pier and built at the bottom of a cliff, the 15 “beach lodges” look like bijou New England clapboard houses. Inside, they are paragons of ingenuity, squeezing all the facilities to sleep up to four adults and two kids into just 15 square metres but still managing to look chic and modern.
Half the party snuggles up in the mezzanine (which doubles nicely as a den when my son’s mates visit); at the far end, the galley kitchen has a fridge, electric hob, microwave and loads of high-end appliances; there’s a separate bathroom with shower and loo; there’s also a TV, decent wifi and even plenty of storage space. The dining table can be removed with a bit of muscle (this is one of several small glitches – the shower door also requires a heavy yank) and the seating slides down to become a double and single bed.
The bifold glass doors that cover the entire front wall slide open on to a private deck and the undoubted star features – the sea and beach itself, just a pebble skim away, with views of the Isle of Wight one way and the Isle of Purbeck the other.
When we sit inside with the hut completely open, it almost feels like it’s floating, lulling us all, even an eight-year-old boy, into sitting around for hours and doing little more than gaze at the horizon and breath in the salty air. At night, the sound of crashing waves (and absolutely nothing else) sends us to sleep beautifully.
While the kids play on the massive sandy beach, we keep an eye on them from the comfort of the deck or cooking lunch at one of the two electric barbecues the lodges share.
It’s a slick, modern set-up, not one you would normally associate with a Conservative council in a historically blue-rinse seaside town. It is wholly unfashionable for local governments to run their own services and build houses of any description, but rather than inviting, say, a big hotel or holiday chain to operate the lodges and pocket 10% of the takings, Bournemouth council conceived the plans and commissioned a local company to do the building, and it now runs the lodges in-house.
Indeed, many facilities on the town’s beaches, including catering outlets and mundane bits such as the toilet blocks, are also run – efficiently, from what I saw – by the council, rather than being outsourced.
So, hats off to them for keeping so many jobs and tourist infrastructure under local control. This will surely help safeguard against the terminal decline suffered by so many British seaside resorts.
My only reservation is whether the council has got its pricing of the lodges right. A three-night weekend or four-night Monday-Friday break costs a reasonable £275 in low season, but an eyebrow-raising £625 in summer and some school holidays. On the second May bank holiday weekend, all the lodges were full, but when we were there a week later, most were empty.
If it rained and everyone was on top of each other (four adults sharing this small space might be a squeeze at any time), you would probably find yourself wondering why you hadn’t hired a holiday cottage that offers many more square metres to the pound. But with good weather like we had, these bright and breezy beach huts are just about the perfect base for a family holiday.
• Accommodation was provided by Bournemouth Beach Lodges (three-night weekend or four-night weekday stay from £275 to £625, bournemouthbeachlodges.co.uk). One lodge has access for a wheelchair user, and some are dog-friendly (£20 per dog per stay)
More UK beach huts
Three of Shaldon’s luxury beach huts are available for overnight stays. These are 21st-century huts, with galley kitchens, underfloor heating, marble-tiled shower rooms and wifi.
• Sleeps 2-4, from £770 a week, shaldonbeachhuts.co.uk
Mudeford Spit, Dorset
There are 344 residential beach huts on Mudeford sandbank, many of which are rented out between March and October. The huts have views of Christchurch harbour or the Isle of Wight – and some are dual-aspect so have both.
• Sleeps up to 8, from £400 a week, msbha.org.uk
Tolcarne beach, Cornwall
Four cosy pine cabins, right on the beach, can be rented overnight – deckchairs included. There are plans to build three luxury Caribbean-style cabins, too.
• Sleeps two, from £75 a night, tolcarnebeach.com
Dunster beach, Somerset
There are 230 simple beach hut-style chalets on Dunster beach, near Minehead, 60 of which are rented out to holidaymakers.
• Sleeps 2-4, from £55 a night, beach-huts.com
These 150-year-old fisherman’s huts were originally used as storehouses by Whitstable’s fishermen, and are now rented out by the Hotel Continental.
• Sleeps 2-4, from £85 a night B&B, whitstablefishermanshuts.com
Cove Harbour, Berwickshire
This little cabin is a few steps from the beach, and has a terrace with a barbecue. Guests can buy lobster and crab directly from the fishermen in the harbour.
• Sleeps 4, from £700 a week, bluecabinbythesea.co.uk
The Shack sits on stilts over the tidal river Blackwater, two miles from Maldon. It has a woodburning stove and a balcony, and is a short walk from the beach.
• Sleeps 4, from £695 a week, beachhuts4hire.co.uk