WHAT SUSSEX MEANS TO US

My own private (rented) beach chalet

To celebrate the first anniversary of Sussex Bylines’ inaugural issue, we asked some of our key contributors to write a short piece on the subject of “What Sussex Means to Me”. From memories of being a student at the newly built Sussex University in the sixties while living in shabby digs in Brighton, to the enduring ancient magic of bonfire night in Lewes, our writers have submitted a wonderfully eclectic mix of mini personal essays…

Painting of Rottingdean beach chalets by John Haywood
Painting of the Rottingdean beach chalets by John Haywood: brusheswithwatercolour.com

It’s a little-known secret that you don’t have to shell out in excess of £20,000 to be the lucky owner of a Brighton & Hove beach chalet. You do need, however, a bucketful of patience to wait for your name to rise to the top of the Brighton & Hove beach chalet rental waiting list.

Surprise surprise

The day an email from the Council informed me I was now eligible to rent a beach chalet on the Rottingdean seafront, I was very surprised. I had totally forgotten that, on a whim around 10 years ago, I had put my name on their waiting list. I took a friend over for a viewing of the chalet.

Whatever image the term ‘chalet’ conjured in my mind, the row of 20 concrete bunker-like units, each with a pair of faded and cracked blue-green painted doors and rusting hinges and locks, was not it. My heart sank, but my friend was brimming with excitement: “Stand with your back to the doors and look at the view!”

She was right – there was a small, gently sloping pebbly beach dotted with sea cabbages, bordered on one side by a groyne of large rocks, and on the other a wall from which teenagers were egging each other on to dive into the water below.

Splitting the cost

It was a no-brainer. My friend and I decided to go halves on the rental. The chalet has become our happy place, made even more precious in the knowledge that it is time-limited – we must hand it on in five years’ time. Rottingdean is one of five fixed term rental chalet locations managed by Brighton & Hove Council, the others being: Hove, Madeira Drive, Ovingdean and Saltdean, all with a five-year tenancy, and with the annual rental rates ranging from around £840 to around £1500.

The rental beach chalets at Rottingdean
Photo of the Rottingdean beach chalets copyright Paul Gillett and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The chalet is a perfect place to sit and stare. Because it’s a sheltered beach it attracts families with small children during the day, and older teenagers with barbecues in the early evening, but it is never crowded.

It is also a final resting place for debris tossed up on the shore during storms. Last Christmas a 4 metre tree trunk arrived, stripped of its bark and polished by buffeting waves before being washed up on our little pebble beach. It’s become a permanent feature. We sit and wonder about its origins. Others sit and eat their sandwiches on it. Young children walk with arms outstretched, balancing along it. Dogs sniff and pee on it.

A refuge during Covid

Although using the chalet was prohibited during the first pandemic lockdown, since then it has been a refuge – somewhere ‘other’ to go at a time when our movements have been so restricted. It has provided a destination for the endless walking many of us have been doing in these Covid times. A place to meet outdoors, numbers circumscribed by changing, and often baffling, Covid regulations of ‘households’, ‘bubbles’ and ‘rules of six’.

It’s a good place for difficult conversations, too, deckchairs facing the sea rather than each other, enabling tricky words, previously locked up in the same way we have all been physically constrained, to be released.

Deckchair travellers

Gazing out to sea watching the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry make its three-times-a-day crossing, we fantasise about being on the far shore of the Channel. And every now and then – and I really can’t explain this – our mobile phones randomly jump ahead an hour, changing to French time, as if obligingly transporting us to our very own Rottingdean-sur-Mer.

With all local authorities so cash-strapped by a decade of Government austerity policies, it is surprising and very welcome that Brighton & Hove can still offer its residents these little gems of seaside oases*. We will be terribly sorry to give our chalet up at the end of our term, but it’s quite right that precious limited resources are shared and we just hope it gives its next occupants the same joy and calm that it has given us.

*At the time of publication, according to the Brighton and Hove City Council’s website, all beach chalets are rented and the waiting list is currently closed.