Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Winchelsea Beach, Sussex

The Wild East

‘Show me shacks and houses made from old railway carriages!’ I said to Mr W, my host in Sussex the other weekend. And soon we were speeding towards Winchelsea Beach where it is still possible, he explained, to glimpse such things. The southeastern coasts of England, and some in Eastern England too, were once festooned with a host of such opportunistic self-built dwellings, which represented an escape from London for many families who otherwise could not hope to afford a home of their own. Landlords would sell off unproductive farmland and bits of terrain vague, and people would buy up a site, camp on it, and eventually build themselves a house using cheap materials such as wood or corrugated iron. Meanwhile, railway companies were selling off old rolling stock for a song, and redundant carriages were sometimes hauled to these sites and turned into houses. This was mostly in the 1930s, before modern planning legislation had developed and plotlands, as these settlements were called, were frowned on by planners, architects, and those who wanted to preserve their local view. The likes of Clough Williams-Ellis (creator of the outré Italianate Welsh village of Portmeirion and author of preservationist books such as England and the Octopus) inveighed against them, lumping them together with ribbon development (‘bungaloid growth’), corrugated iron garages, and general untidiness. While I’d not want the whole of England covered with them, I admire plotland buildings, cherishing the ingenuity and effort their builders and owners put into them.

So I was pleased when Mr W took me to Winchelsea Beach and showed me such sights as this. Surrounded on at least two sides by verandas that look, with their braces and palings, like something out of the Wild West, this is a wooden house that seems to have at its core a trio of carriages, the curving roofs of which are visible when you look at the building from a slightly elevated viewpoint, as in my photograph. I recalled a colleague telling me about someone he’d been working with who lived in a house made up of a U-shaped configuration of three linked railway carriages. Perhaps this was something similar. A little online searching* brings up a suggestion that in this case the carriages are actually tram bodies, perhaps originating on the Rye and Camber Tramway, an old narrow-gauge railway connecting Rye and Camber Sands, not far away.† Whatever the source, I can’t help admire the mix of inventiveness, opportunism, and hard work that must have brought this dwelling about. My admiration extends to those who own and look after such gems rather than tearing them down and replacing them with more conventional brick bungalows, which to my mind would be bungaloid growth indeed.

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* There are more pictures on this website, which is my source for the theory about the tramway origin of the rolling stock.

† The tramway closed in 1939.

2 comments:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

When I was a very little boy in the 1950's my parents took us to see a beautiful country house with a wooden veranda and a stream in the garden (I think) at Wolverley near Kidderminster. They were interested in buying it, till they found it had been self-built without planning consent. I later read that a fair number of what in Barbados might be called "chattel houses" were self-built along the banks of the Severn by poor people escaping from the city.

There also used to be a knot of these houses at a remote point somewhere beyond Solihull, utterly romantic and picturesque, with a good plot of land with each. Returning at a later date, I found the same site was occupied by regular developers' houses, with mod cons no doubt, but extremely ordinary. I wonder what happened to the people who had lived there before. Did they ever find anywhere as quaint and evocative to live in?

A group of families reported to be Rom or gypsies were living in similar houses on an abandoned site near the Port Talbot steel works, till someone decided the site needed to be "developed". They had been in residence, a nuisance to nobody, for over 20 years.

Philip Wilkinson said...

There used to be another group of these houses near the Severn outside Bewdley. Most have been replaced by recent 'pinbe lodge' type houses, but a few were still there when I had a look several years ago.