It is rather fitting that the seaside town that invented the beach hut is reinventing it a century later. And just as a waiting list had to be drawn up for the original structures in Bournemouth, southern England, so today’s seaside enthusiasts are queuing up to claim their slice of coast.
Few of the 160 wooden shelters built by local engineer F.P. Dolamore near Bournemouth Pier remain and now forward-thinking designers Wayne and Geraldine Hemingway are creating Britain’s first “penthouse” beach huts a mile up the beach. Part of the restoration of the once-derelict Overstrand complex in the suburb of Boscombe, the 58 luxury units will be called Surf Pads and will overlook Bournemouth’s seven-mile bay. The elevated changing rooms – 31 of which will be sold with 25-year leases while the rest will be used for casual hire – will also have a prime view over Europe’s first artificial surfing reef, due to be completed in October and the most attention-grabbing aspect of Bournemouth’s own reinvention.
The sandbag-filled structure will increase the height of waves and double the number of surf days, bringing an extra dimension to the appeal of the town, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from London. “The reef’s going to bring us a lot of interest and we’ve already had people learning to surf so they can use it,” says Andy Joyce of Bournemouth Surf School. “Why go down to Devon and Cornwall when it’s a five- or six-hour drive [from London]?”
“Everyone thought I was mad,” adds Mark Cribb, who recently returned to the town to transform an ailing bed and breakfast into Urban Beach, a boutique hotel and bistro. “But now the reef is going ahead there’s a real buzz here.”
Interest in the new structure has also affected Boscombe’s property market. “Large family houses are selling for £750,000 as soon as they come on the market,” says Alastair McCall of estate agency Richard Godsell. And the past two years have also seen smart, new-build projects drawing investors and second-home owners. “Three years ago you could get a two-bedroom flat for £120,000 but now you’re looking at a minimum of £160,000,” says Collette Chester of estate agency Connells.
Photographer Sean Gardiner, 38, spent £350,000 on a property a year ago. “I believe this area will outperform others – my two-bedroom flat is worth £420,000 already,” he says. “But it’s also a lifestyle choice. I work from home, go to the gym or the local surf restaurant and take a couple of hours off to hit the waves if I fancy it.”
There is also a sense that things have begun to change in other parts of Bournemouth, especially on Exeter Road, the central artery where grand old Victorian buildings such as the Royal Exeter Hotel have undergone stylish refits. In addition to new hotels there’s the refurbished Pavilion Theatre, which hosts large touring productions, the Bournemouth International Centre, a conference and events venue, and the Opera House, which has recently been transformed from a nightclub to a concert hall.
Hosting political party conferences, becoming the European headquarters of JPMorgan Chase and proximity to Sandbanks, where some of the most expensive homes in the UK can be found, have also helped boost the town’s profile. Its head of tourism, Mark Smith, is keen to emphasise its multi-faceted approach. “We are a large resort and part of our success is to cater for three different markets: the leisure industry, the conference market and the international education sector. We have become an aspirational place because of the quality of the environment and the fact it’s a safe place for people to send their children to live and study.”
Indeed Bournemouth, which has a population of about 300,000, is the largest centre for English-language tuition outside London with 25,000 students a year. Accessibility is also a draw. An easy train journey from London, it is well connected to airports: Heathrow (90 minutes’ drive away), Southampton and Bournemouth, a hub for airline Palmair.
Estate agent Stephen Noble says half of his clients buy second homes. “Prime beach [property] remains market-proof. The market is driven by middle-aged second-home owners who buy a two-bedroom waterfront apartment then upgrade two years later, then semi-retire and upgrade again, before finally downsizing. Plus there are plenty of law and insurance companies, which attract young professionals, and the overseas students, who like it so much they come back to settle here.”
Property information specialist Hometrack reports that the average price in Bournemouth is £230,000, with a 29.9 per cent increase in the past four years. A 3,000 sq ft penthouse in six-storey Needle’s Point broke town records by selling for £1.7m last year, but most two-bedroom flats with sea views in the high-rise towers of the East Cliff area go for about £300,000.
An area to watch, according to Chester, is the eastern suburb of Southbourne. “You can get the same sort of house as you might pay several millions for in Sandbanks for around £800,000 in Southbourne – and it will have better views,” she says.
Here, as in many other areas of Bournemouth, plots with derelict properties are being targeted for redevelopment. On one prime site is One80, a new block of eight two-bedroom apartments selling from £240,000 through Savills. A few metres from the sea, it is in a quiet area of tree-lined streets. This kind of environment – in addition to the good grammar schools – appeled to Rachel McCarthy and her Maltese husband, Daniel, who moved from Wimbledon in south-west London last year.
They bought a five-bedroomed Edwardian house for £650,000 after being priced out of other areas. “People tend to just pass through Dorset, yet whether it’s walking in the Purbeck hills or mountain-biking in the New Forest, it’s got as much to offer as Devon and Cornwall,” says McCarthy, 37, who has two-year-old twins.
“Some parts of Bournemouth remain horribly dated but this area gives us the sort of life closest to that we enjoyed in New Zealand, where we used to live. What more can we offer our children than a beach at the end of road?”
Stephen Noble Estate Agents, tel: +44 (0)1202 557766; www.bournemouth-property.co.uk
Connells, tel +44 (0)1202 423281; www.connells.co.uk
Savills, tel +44 (0)800 0113 095; www.savills.co.uk
Richard Godsell, tel +44 (0)1202424 214; www.richardgodsell.com