It is a curious reversal: from rescuer to rescued. When lifeboat stations, the starting points for innumerable journeys of adventure, bravery and tragedy, become redundant, they are often the focus of incredible local pride. Yet, having suffered the extremes of tide and climate inherent in their coastal locations, the buildings are also often worn out. Communities reject and defy any suggestion that these landmarks of honour and remembrance might be demolished and so their owner, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, must face the challenge of finding ways to re-employ them before lack of use and further climatic exposure reduce them to eyesores.
In Tenby, south Wales, the former lifeboat station, which was built in 1905 and includes the longest RNLI slipway (110m), is being converted into a house by Tim O’Donovan, to a design by local architect Michael Argent. This Edwardian building has been dubbed the “most photographed shed in Wales” because of its dramatic location over the water. O’Donovan says, with a sparkle of Irish mischief: “If my wife and I decide not to live there it will be rented out as a holiday home so that I can grossly overcharge rich people who want to stay there.” No figure for rental has been decided as yet but, because of its unique character and location, it will be several hundreds of pounds a week.
O’Donovan first approached the RNLI about the structure in 2003 but a panel made up of representatives from Cadw (the Welsh Assembly’s historic environment service), the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, the Crown Estate and the RNLI was charged with deciding its fate. They invited parties to submit architectural plans for alternative uses. Nine tenders entered the competition, six were shortlisted and the O’Donovan/Argent proposal won.
“I was not allowed to do a lot to the exterior, but a structural engineer pronounced the fabric of the building sound, which was reassuring,” says Argent. “Internally, the space designed itself, really. The master bedroom is on the top floor with an internal gangway bridge seawards over the main living area below to another seaside sitting area looking over the slipway. There are a further three double bedrooms on the lower floor. The station could not have had a more dramatic backdrop; it was a very pleasing project.”
O’Donovan does not want to disclose how much he paid for the building, except to acknowledge it was in six figures. As to the conversion costs, he cheerfully acknowledges: “It’s like I’m on a runaway train. I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”
Restoring and preserving a lifeboat station can present challenges. “The RNLI has generally had excellent value from buildings dating back to Victorian times but, from time to time, boathouses and slipways reach the end of their operational or economical lives,” explains Howard Richings, the RNLI’s estates manager. “Even the best constructed buildings finally succumb to the ravages of storms. The surrounding environment can change, too. Channels can silt up and accretion or erosion can leave boathouses remote from the sea or even stranded offshore. Another factor is the continuous development of ever more powerful lifeboats, and thence the boathouse required.
Former lifeboat stations have had new leases of life in all manner of ways. In Polkerris, in Cornwall, south-west England, the former sea rescue centre, converted into a family home and beach café in the 1950s, has just been turned into a restaurant. The owner is Sam Sixton, who is a volunteer in the Fowey-based lifeboat – one of 4,800 crew members based at 235 stations around the coast of Britain and Ireland operated by the RNLI, a charity founded in 1824.
Sixton and his wife, Emma, have lovingly restored the boathouse and have honoured the exploits of the brave crews of the past by putting the original launch and rescue boards (dating back to 1859) on display.
“Several owners ran seasonal cafés before we were offered the lease at the beginning of 2009,” says Sixton. “We have kept the infrastructure where possible, such as the crew room and its ladder access, and the slipway and glass frontage. Customers can dine looking on to the harbour and, in bad weather, see just how testing launching on a winter’s night might have been.”
Other redundant stations are used as garaging for an undertaker’s cars and hearse in Aberystwyth, west Wales; a wine bar in Holyhead, north Wales; university student accommodation at Blakeney on the Norfolk coast; a store and village hall in Port Logan in Galloway, Scotland; a library in Watchet in Somerset and a welfare and benefits office in Withernsea, Humberside. And in Cornwall, redundant stations are used as holiday apartments in Bude, an aquarium in Mevagissey and a church in Portloe.
The most recent former station to come on the market is in Hoylake, Merseyside, a town most famous for being the home of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club. “There has been a lifeboat stationed in Hoylake since 1803, so even before the RNLI was founded,” says Jon Swain of chartered surveyors and commercial property consultants Mason and Partners, who are handling the sale. “The redundant building went to sealed bids at the end of December last year. There was interest from people who wanted to convert it to residential use, others wanted to use it for offices and a restaurant, another for a crèche. There is strong local feeling about wanting it to be a museum to honour the brave men who served here and the current owners are waiting to see if a private individual can raise the money in order to do this.”
Similar considerations might apply to two other lifeboat centres in Wales. The RNLI has decided that the stations at the Mumbles and St Davids are coming to the end of their working lives and will be replaced by new buildings, but not on the footprint of the old stations. Most likely both will be subject to tenders, as in the Tenby case.
The architectural drawings for the converted Tenby lifeboat station are at www.argent-architects.co.uk: click on ‘convert’, then the floor plan. Argent Architects, tel: +44 (0)1834 845440
Sam’s On The Beach, Polkerris, Cornwall, tel: +44 (0)1726 812255, www.samsfowey.co.uk
Mason and Partners, tel: +44 (0)151 227 1008, www.masonpartners.com, are the estate agents for the old Hoylake lifeboat station