On a sunny summer weekend, the trains south from London are packed with holiday makers heading for the shingle beaches of the English Channel coast. Most of the revellers are heading for the Brighton-Hove agglomeration, that Ibiza of the Home Counties, where every inch of beach is as precious as real estate in South Kensington. Those more savvy are going further West, towards Bognor Regis, Littlehampton, or maybe even Southampton. A few will reach as far as the Isle of Wight.
What most of them will miss is a tiny, sleepy, incredibly ancient town of Shoreham-by-Sea, halfway between Brighton and Worthing. With known history stretching all the way to pre-Roman times, with some of the oldest churches and the oldest secular building in England, a lovely and broad beach-that-tourists-forgot, an RSPB reserve and a vibrant farmers market, Shoreham-by-Sea would already have enough attractions for a busy day out. But it has something else, something that makes it unique among all quiet coast towns of England: the house boats on the Adur Riverbank.
These are not your ordinary house boats, of the kind you’d find on the Thames or in Amsterdam. Some of them are your regular converted barges, but a majority are converted military vessels, mostly navy lighters, motor torpedo boats and landing craft, many of them remembering World War II and the days of Dunkerque or Normandy landing. Salvaged from scrap after the wars and turned into floating works of art, the house boats of Shoreham – and the community grown around them – are, in my opinion, worthy of a UNESCO heritage mention.
The boats are not immortal – they come and go, as maintenance costs rise too high or owners, sadly, perish. But there are still new coming. The pearl in the crown of the current selection is the M1096 Fische – the enormous German minesweeper from the 1960’s, towering over the other boats with it 150ft-long bulk, brought in place of an older motor boat to the chagrin of the local house owners and rejoicing of the boaters and their fans. A second generation of boaters now lives on board – the accommodation is spacious, considering the ship was designed for a crew of 30.
Strolling the Riverbank, I was reminded most of all of Copenhagen’s Christiania. It has the same laidback, hippy mood; the same ideal of converting tools of war into works of art (the old fortress buildings in case of Christiania). Some of the boat owners offer meditations and yoga, there are Tibetan motifs and organic vegetables growing in make-shift greenhouses, and the architecture and interior design are equally free of any preconceptions, resulting in constructions that range from mad to genius (as in the case of a Hamish McKenzie boat built of two buses and a Robin Reliant). The only thing missing is the permeating scent of good quality hash 😉
Below is a small gallery of my photos from Shoreham, made in August this year, on the last sunny weekend of the summer.