Coming home to Walberswick
PUBLISHED: 11:37 28 July 2015 | UPDATED: 11:37 28 July 2015
Quirky Tow's Cabin on Walberswick's dunes had been in Luke Jeans' family for three generations. Now he's built a new 'cabin' on the site to call his own.
Tessa Allingham went to see it
On a shelf in Luke’s living space are three pottery mermaids. Their scaly tails curl up to towards scallop-shell bosoms and faces dominated by naïf, exaggeratedly large eyes. Two of them strum lutes with their bizarrely oversized hands, as mermaids do.
Luke’s grandmother, talented potter Marjorie Jeans, made these quirky little vases, and when Luke moved into Tow’s Cabin last summer they were among the first things to be given a space.
“It’s as if they’ve come home,” he says. “It’s right they should be here. And I really like them.” Luke likes to talk, he’s one of those people who can spin a great yarn, absorb you in his stories, plenty unprintable. He talks of backstage derring-do during a life spent in award-winning documentary film-making, of the characters he meets while rowing the Southwold-Walberswick ferry, and the joys of living in this most beautiful of Sunrise Coast villages.
But when Luke shows me the mermaids he is, for a moment, reflective.
I’m with him in Tow’s Cabin mark 2, his stunning, light-filled, contemporary house in Walberswick, a mere crab’s scuttle over the marshy dunes from the North Sea. New Tow’s has been built by local firm, Webb Construction, on the site of the original cabin that had been cobbled together by legendary local fisherman, Tow, and which Luke’s grandmother bought in the nearby Bell pub back in the 1940s.
“By then, Tow’s belonged to Dinks, another local legend, and cost my grandmother £200 and a packet of Woodbines. At the Bell there’s still a spot marked ‘Dinks’ leaning post’ which is where he’d wait, looking every bit the gnarly fisherman, for tourists to buy him a drink. The order would always be a pint of mild and a packet of Woodbines!”
And so the ramshackle cabin, made with bits and bobs washed up by the tide and more or less weather-proof, came to belong to the Jeans family. The family lived in adjacent Valley Farm and for years Tow’s was an overspill for visiting friends and family. Marjorie did her pottery there, Luke’s father Mike – a film-maker like his son – used to write there, my husband was allegedly conceived there (as was Luke’s daughter Amy), and Richard Curtis holed up there one summer to work on the Love Actually script.
Now, Tow’s starts a new phase. From being dilapidated, uninhabitable and little more than a popular photographic subject for visitors, it now stands up on stilts, able to look over the Jeans Wall sea defence to enjoy the supreme view denied it till now.
It’s just about finished – Luke reckons there are another few months of “fiddling” to get it just right – and while he’s had to contend with much-documented local objection, he has stuck to his guns.
“I’ve known for the past 10 years that I would inherit Tow’s so I’ve been saving up and mulling over ideas for years. I live in this village. I’m the third generation of the Jeans family to live here, so I wouldn’t ever consider building something that was an abomination. I’d only ever do something I could be proud of.
“There were so many reasons not to do this build. It’s in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a conservation area, on a floodplain, sandwiched between two grade 2 listed buildings and adjacent to a public footpath. But I’m tenacious and stubborn and I persevere when I believe in something.
“Yes, there were times when I wanted to give up, but I knew I could build something very special – and above all my home.” And what a home.
“I’ve always loved the idea of living in a loft, so it was important for the space to be open plan,” Luke says. Green oak trusses and beams are left exposed and the high ceilings and white walls make the space feel airy. Folding oak doors can close off the main bedroom but are most often pushed back to create a sweeping L-shaped living space. A kitchen area (“Howden’s, £3k minus the worktop!”) at one end fits the bill, a red Smeg fridge, red kettle, and red work surface tie in perfectly with the – red and so cool – American diner furniture that Luke bought from Lawton Imports, an Essex-based restaurant-supply company. It’s comfortable, is a nod to Luke’s love of Americana, and is typically quirky and fun.
Shelves house favourite memorabilia. Luke loves ‘stuff’, things that he picks up at car-boot sales that make him laugh or that have a story to tell or connect with him in some way. He’s trying – we will see how long it lasts – to channel minimalism in the new place, so the items on display are few and precious. There are the mermaids, a favourite picture of him and his oldest granddaughter, Rosie, the Emmy award he won in 1992 for Beat That, a groundbreaking Channel 4 problem-solving programme involving children with disabilities, and a wind-up tin duck that was a childhood toy.
Full-height glass doors open onto the balcony and a mesmerizing view. It takes in the grazing meadows along the Blyth estuary, the boats moored on Southwold harbour and the town beyond, the cluster of black weather-boarded huts and houses on stilts on the Walberswick side, the marshes, creek and dunes where dogs and children play, kites are flown and crabs are (briefly) caught.
Immediately below the balcony, a decked area will in time have raised vegetable beds, a shed and suntrap seating. Round the side, between the oak stilts that support the building and section off the carport, Luke plans to plant espaliered fruit trees and soften the boundary fencing with colourful planting.
A second bedroom is also where the lift arrives. “I’m planning ahead for when climbing the stairs isn’t so easy!” A quick glide down to ground level brings you to a workshop (complete with his two granddaughters’ beloved heirloom rocking horse) and a magnificent wet room. At the moment, there’s little by way of pictures on the walls in Tow’s – that’s on the to-do list – but the wet room makes up for this. A vast photograph of the colourful Southwold beach huts has been transposed onto waterproof material that covers one entire wall.
There’s an important ecological element to the house. “It’s probably the most exposed house in the village in terms of the North Sea, so it had to be well insulated,” Luke says. An air source heat pump keeps the inside temperature constant. “It’s an Austrian system, and they know a thing or two about keeping warm. I believe it’s the first of its kind in East Anglia and so far it works brilliantly – winter was cosy!” The system will see Luke’s running costs settle at about £1,000 for underfloor heating, cooking and water. “And I generate electricity for the national grid!” he adds, waving a credit note for £90 under my nose. “I am very close to being carbon neutral.”
Alongside the cutting edge technology there’s plenty of ‘obtainium’ in new Tow’s, maybe as a nod to the old building. Panelling used to make bedroom storage was salvaged from the old cabin and Luke has had shelves and windowsills made from reclaimed quay heading. Even his bed – made by his son-in-law and complete with a graffiti’d love heart and four initials – is made from these planks. “The builders thought I was on the loose from the asylum when I came back with this rough old plank over my shoulder but we cleaned it up and sanded it down and I think it looks fantastic.”
There’s an extraordinary attention to detail throughout the building, and a happy balance between slick, forward-looking and contemporary, and comfortable, embracing and rooted. Luke is rightfully proud.
“The first night I spent here, I went onto the balcony and I felt that I was home. That, above all else, is very, very important to me.”