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Suffolk's prettiest homes: Cliff top beach houses at Easton Bavents

PUBLISHED: 16:58 11 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:58 11 July 2019

The Watch Houses

The Watch Houses

Neil Longdin - Iceni Imaging. Licensed to Client only

Anne and Phil Jones have found an innovative way to overcome the coastal erosion threatening their property at Easton Bavents | Words: Jayne Lindill - Photos: Neil Longdin

Southwold is famous for many things - its lighthouse, its pier, Adnams' historic brewery, its beaches, harbour and common lands, and as simply a wonderful place to be on a sunny, summer day.

In recent decades, however, one part of the coastline just north of the seaside town has become rather better known for its disappearing act.

The hamlet of Easton Bavents is a casualty of the rapid erosion that affects many parts of the East Anglian coast.

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

Every year, the heathland retreats a few more feet as, bit by bit, the soft, sandstone cliffs are taken by the sea. One Suffolk family, whose cliff top farm, owned for almost a century, is under threat from the effects of time and tide, has battled nature and authority to save it from disappearing altogether.

Now they've found an innovative way of turning the situation to their advantage. They've built two unique, stylish cliff top beach houses, that enable other people to share their enjoyment of this beautiful stretch of the Suffolk coast, hopefully for generations to come. It's a sort of modest realisation of an earlier family ambition.

Anne Jones' family has owned the land at Easton Bavents since 1925 when it was purchased by her great grandfather, Herbert Boggis. In those days the farm consisted of 371 acres of land, plus farm buildings and workers' cottages.

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

Herbert's vision was to turn the land into a sort of leisure village - around 80 houses, along with bowling greens and tea gardens - and he had plans drawn up by the famous architect and planner Patrick Abercrombie, who was involved in the founding of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE), and is best known for the replanning of London after the Second World War.

"Unfortunately," says Anne, "the Second World War came along. The land was pressed into production and the plans never came to fruition. Only a few of the plots were sold for building. The family has continued to farm the land - my brother being the fourth generation - originally as a dairy farm, and more recently as an arable farm." Now Easton Bavents is maintained as a private and peaceful estate within walking distance of Southwold.

The issue of coastal erosion never goes away, though, and has been in the news recently with the Environment Agency announcing its new Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy. It's something Anne follows closely, with good reason.

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

"With climate change and rising sea levels coastal erosion and flooding will, in time, affect more people, particularly in a county like Suffolk which has a large coastline and many river estuaries," she says. "In the time our family has owned land at Easton Bavents we've lost 110 acres of land to the sea, and two cottages. And we're soon to lose three more."

This presents the family with enormous challenges. They receive no compensation for their huge losses, and it's not possible to insure against loss to coastal erosion.

"The land is now too small to make a viable farm and as we lose the farm cottages we also lose rental income from those," Anne explains. She admits to feeling let down by local and national authorities who, she says, don't consider their plight important. "We are the unfortunate few, along with other land and property owners on the coast, who have to just accept the situation. Maybe when more people are threatened the issue will be taken more seriously.

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"However, we've been very lucky to have the help of some individuals within Coastal Partnership East, who have been working with us on plans to adapt our farming business to the situation we face. The Watch Houses are part of these plans."

The Watch Houses (The Watch Room and The Listening Station) are built on the site of an old Royal Navy Y-Listening station. During the Second World War, the land was commandeered by the Royal Navy who built the listening station and several antenna.

The station was manned by Wrens, who stayed in Southwold and were brought up to Easton Bavents to work shifts listening out for German E-boats. In more recent times, the building had become derelict and had been used for storage and chicken rearing.

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

"We decided that it was an amazing site for some holiday cottages," says Anne. "Our vision was to create something unique and luxurious that would make the perfect spot to relax and unwind, and enjoy the views of the sea.

"We worked with our architect, Beech Architects, to come up with an innovative design which would make the most of the fabulous sea views and could also be moveable, so that we could relocate the buildings when the sea advanced further."

The buildings are constructed with a steel frame which allows them to be moved by crane, explains Anne, and all materials have been chosen with moveability in mind, which means no tiles or plaster on the walls.

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

"We used tongue and grooved wood on the walls and the vaulted ceilings, which I painted, all 5 km with white woodstain! We also had to make sure the buildings made no permanent impact on the site, and that all foundations could be easily removed when the buildings are relocated.

"The buildings are highly insulated to ensure they have a low carbon impact and are cosy all year round, even when Beasts from the East strike!"

Easton Bavents is in the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so it was important The Watch Houses blended with their surroundings. For this reason, the architect used cedar shingles for the entire outside of the buildings, which will weather to silver grey.

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

Anne and her husband Phil have invested their own money into the project to get it off the ground, and to keep costs down they did a lot of the work themselves. "We were even working up there in the Beast from the East. Even with two pairs of gloves on, my fingers were numb! We had help from a very skilled carpenter, who was invaluable as the buildings are mostly constructed from timber.

"Phil is an electrician, and the houses have been designed as SMART homes with the heating, motorised blinds and lighting all controlled electronically."

Anne was responsible for the interiors, and the buildings lent themselves well to a Scandi beach house look.

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"The intention was to keep the interior calm and uncluttered with lots of white and natural wood. The 5kms of woodstained timber was a key part of this, of course."

Anne and Phil are delighted with the cottages. "They look fabulous, thanks to our very creative architect. They have been popular and our guests have given us very positive feedback. The site offers great sea views, peace and quiet, amazing nature and birdlife, with a short walk in one direction to a secluded beach, or the other direction to all the facilities of Southwold.

"I was lucky enough to be born and bred at Easton Bavents and appreciate that it is a special place. We think we have come up with a very creative solution to coastal erosion which we hope will allow people to continue to enjoy this location is for as long as it still exists.

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

"Southwold is such a quirky and beautiful town. It's changed a lot in the time I've lived here, but it still retains its charm. I love the fish and chips and the beer. Phil and I are particularly fond of a pint of Adnams Broadside. There are so many lovely walks in the area, and the wide open skies and quality of light of Suffolk are breathtaking."

Anne's and Phil's tenacity, and their ingenuity in overcoming the challenges of nature, somehow echoes the spirit of inventiveness and initiative associated with the site's wartime role. After all their time and investment in the project Anne says they would certainly undertake another, although perhaps next time they wouldn't do quite so much of the work themselves.

"In fact, we're about to embark on renovation of The Warren House, which was built by my great grandfather as his farmhouse and now has great views of the sea and of Southwold."

The Watch HousesThe Watch Houses

So popular are The Watch Houses that Anne and Phil have only managed to sample them for one weekend. "But that was great. It's so lovely to hear the waves when you're dropping off to sleep, and to be able to lie in bed and look out at an amazing sea view and spectacular sunrises."

The Watch Houses are available via suffolkhideaways.co.uk

The reason Y

Y-stations were British signals intelligence collection sites established during the First World War and used again during the Second World War. The sites were operated by agencies including the Army, Navy and RAF plus the Foreign Office (MI6 and MI5), General Post Office and Marconi Company.

There were two types, for intercepting signals and for identifying where they were coming from. Sometimes both functions were operated at the same site.

The sites collected radio traffic which was then either analysed locally or, if encrypted, passed for processing initially to Admiralty Room 40 in London and during the Second World War to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.

In Suffolk there were Y-stations at Southwold, Felixstowe and Saxmundham.

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