Village in the Sand

Humberston Fitties, a century-old community of hand-built huts and bungalows on the Lincolnshire coast, is steeped in seaside nostalgia. Words: Jessica Johnson. Photographs: Bill Kingston

My father and his three brothers spent their childhood summers growing up on Humberston Fitties, a conglomeration of over 300 chalets, huts and bungalows situated on the banks of the northeast Lincolnshire coast. Every Good Friday, they’d hop on the back of my grandad’s Lambretta to be shuttled, along with pots, pans and mattresses, from their small terraced house in Grimsby to the family’s wooden bungalow five miles away by the dunes.

Until September’s end, long summers would be spent doing what little boys do best: stabbing in the creek for flounders, combing the beach for lemonade bottles to trade in for sweets at the local store, and orchestrating giant games of ‘holiday-makers’ cricket with local chalet-dwellers, many on a visit from the landlocked Midlands. 

In the 1950s, mod cons were few. Like many of the brick, stone and wooden bungalows that remain on this unique plot of winding sand-dusted roads, our family chalet ‘May Dae’ had no electricity. Calor gas lamps provided just one or two rooms with light and heat for cooking, while fresh spring water was carried in buckets from the communal pump.

My grandparents’ decision to interchange family life in town with carefree summers by the sea was in tune with national thinking. Nearby Cleethorpes, meanwhile, with its twinkly lights and promenade, just a 30-minute stroll from the camp, was quickly catching up with the likes of Pontins holiday resorts as a favoured destination for breaks in the sun.

Families at the time were also seeking improvements in social welfare and, ultimately, wanted a place to call their own. That aspiration is a timeless one. Seventy years on, The Fitties is home to a vibrant community of residents who lease their plots from the council for 10 months a year, in line with the official ‘closed season’, which covers December and January. Living alongside artists, musicians and fishermen, there are young couples, second-homers and holiday-makers, many of whom, just like their predecessors, says local author Alan Dowling ‘are looking to escape the hurly-burly of everyday life’.

Some years ago a chalet owner here described the area to Alan ‘as a fairyland’. ‘I have to say,’ he admits, ‘it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.’ His book, Humberston Fitties: The Story of a Lincolnshire Plotland, provides a fascinating historic account of this seashore community, while seeking out its timeless appeal through interviews with some of the very first residents. 

‘In the Victorian period, the Fitties grew out of this yearning to go back to the land,’ he says. ‘Today, people still have the same hankering for that retreat by the sea.’ For current residents, these are uncertain times, with news that the local council is poised to sell or lease out the chalets to a private investor. Yet, within this other-worldly plotland, where no two houses are the same, the general mood in camp for the folk of the Fitties will long remain one of unity; a celebrated return to the simple life.

SEASIDE DREAMS

Chalet-owner Liz Pinchbeck is on a crusade to bring the traditional bucket-and-spade holiday back to the Fitties. Born in Yorkshire, Liz splits her time between Lincolnshire and the Austrian Alps, where she lives with husband Peter, a local fish merchant, and their children, James, 14, and Jemima, 10.

After a career in London, the northeast coast was a coming home of sorts for Liz who, as a child,relished trips to Cleethorpes for a paddle in the sea and a bag of fish and chips. In 2009, after her first tour around The Fitties, she spied her perfect retreat up for sale: a 1940s bungalow backed by dunes.

‘It was all that I wanted – a beach hut with rooms,’ she says. She christened the home ‘Cape Cod’ in homage to her love of shabby chic and her trove of salvaged beach finds, which include decorative shells and driftwood collected from the nearby sands.

‘The Fitties has so much character,’ she adds. ‘I love the flat nature of the coast in Lincolnshire and the fabulous sense of freedom I get when I step over the sand dunes and on to the beach. You can walk for miles and it really feels like your troubles are left behind.’

SCANDINAVIAN STYLE

Cape Cod looks like something from a Scandinavian tale. Above a powder-blue Smeg dishwasher, the walls of the pint-sized kitchen are dressed with garlands of seashells, while a mismatched range of vintage cups and saucers, all sourced from local charity shops, jostle for space on the shelves of whitewashed dressers. The open-plan living area offers a stylish lesson in ‘make do and mend’.

A pair of squishy brown sofas are adorned with nautical-striped throws and patchwork-style cushions, sourced with the same fabric – much of it offcuts from Cath Kidston and vintage Ralph Lauren, that Liz has snipped up and sewn together.

Blind hems, brightened with triangles of bunting, roll down on to the cleverly-sliced fronts of antique fish boxes, sourced from Peter’s fish yard, which give the tiny front windows an illusion of depth and rustic charm. Painted wooden tables and battered old chairs, re-covered in floral ditsy prints nestle up to antique trunks, log buckets and beachy wicker baskets, full of hand-knitted blankets.

After a day’s kite-flying at Humberston Beach, Liz and daughter Jemima love nothing more than snuggling down in front of the anthracite burner with tea and cake, and their coast-loving dachshund, Cyril.

‘When I found it, Cape Cod was a shell which I could renovate and furnish to create my dream house by the sea. Every piece here tells a story,’ says Liz, who rents the house out for short- and long-term lets throughout the year. ‘Visiting Cleethorpes was the highlight of my childhood summers,’ she confides, ‘and every trip here with my family is still a little holiday.’ Find out more at capecod-vintage.co.uk.

GOOD PROSPECTS

Another property on The Fitties is Prospect Place. The wooden chalet was renovated in 2006 to create a sophisticated, open-plan pad just 20 metres from the dunes. Today it is rented out by young professional couple Mollie Farr, a local primary school teacher, and her partner, Kurt Grantham.

When Kurt isn’t working away on an oil refinery as a civil engineer, he takes every opportunity to throw their (sea-facing) doors open wide and invite neighbours and friends round to listen to music under the stars.

BEACH GARDEN

On moving out of their respective family homes just over a year ago, the couple shunned a traditional two-up, two-down first nest together in favour of life on The Fitties with their cat, Roxy. Both Mollie and Kurt grew up visiting Humberston Beach – a vast expanse of golden sand dominated by the rusty remains of two war-time forts.

For any visitor to the area, the beach is traditionally accessed by a short drive past The Fitties’ higgledy-piggledy rows of homes. Mollie and Kurt however, just have to open their back garden gate to step on to the sand.

‘I have memories of crabbing behind the yacht club with my brothers, with our windbreaks up and some cricket on the radio,’ says Kurt. ‘Living here is like being on holiday all the time. When the chance to rent Prospect Place came up, it was perfect for us.

We weren’t ready to pay a mortgage and we’re in a carefree time in our lives, so this is ideal. We’ll sometimes watch the sun rise before work, go for a run along the bank, or bike along the muddy sea defence wall, out to the marshes. When friends visit and come inside the chalet for the first time, it takes their breath away.’

NAUTICAL LINK 

It’s hard not to be in awe of the chalet’s bold interior, which feels a little like being on a luxury ocean liner. The dark blue and cream walls, teamed with the dramatic black concrete floor and frosted portholes, were a natural starting point from which a nautically-inspired collection of furnishings was built. 

From an antique trunk and a lampshade fashioned from a piece of fisherman’s rope, to decorative wooden boats and a lobster-crate stacked full of the couple’s favourite recipe books, Mollie and Kurt’s stamp on the home is palpable.

One of the main pulls for the couple is the chalet’s proximity to Cleethorpes. The traditional seaside town boasts a vibrant night scene (Kurt is resident DJ at bar Gypsy Tears) and good restaurants (‘Café Valerie for the best seafood pizza in town,’ says Mollie). Sea View Street is one of the town’s quaintest shopping quarters, home to a string of tearooms, junk shops and boutiques, where there’s always a trinket in waiting for the couple’s coastal home.

‘Living on The Fitties has given us ideas about how we want to live,’ says Mollie, whose parents have recently bought one of the now sought-after-chalets that sits less than a minute’s walk from Prospect Place. ‘If we don’t stay here forever, we would love to come back one day and retire.’

Find out more about The Fitties at thefitties.co.uk and nelincs.gov.uk

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