Jeff’s labour of love

HANDMADE Jeff Bird with his replica bathing hut at Lee-on-the-Solent
HANDMADE Jeff Bird with his replica bathing hut at Lee-on-the-Solent
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Building it was a labour of love for Jeff Bird. But the admiring glances his bathing hut attracts make all the sweat and toil worthwhile.

The wooden cabin has been tenderly painted and inside it is kitted out with a wood-burning stove, seats and a table.

Sat on the shingle at Lee-on-the-Solent, it’s a nod to years gone by, a reminder of times when being seen in your bathing suit was considered the height of impropriety.

Brightly-coloured beach huts are still a familiar fixture at many local beaches, including Hill Head, Eastney and Stokes Bay at Gosport.

But Jeff’s creation is very different. It has wheels and can be pushed right down to the water’s edge, just like the bathing machines that found favour in the Victorian era.

Back then it was fashionable for people to take a medicinal dip in the sea. But flashing some flesh as you walked into the water wasn’t an option.

Today, it’s such an unusual sight that passers-by can’t help but take a closer look. And as Jeff leans on one of the large cart-style wheels, he smiles with pride.

‘I’ve been surprised by people’s reactions to it to be honest,’ he says.

‘People have been gobsmacked to see it. I think it’s because it’s a reminder of the past. The craftmanship I’ve put into it makes it unusual and it makes people smile.’

It took around 700 hours of labour to build the traditional-style hut from scratch. That’s between two and three months of sawing, sanding and hammering.

For Jeff – a boatbuilder by trade – it was a chance to get stuck into a new project. And now he hopes it might be a new way to make a living.

‘I’ve built several boats and have been working the other side of Southampton,’ he explains.

‘But my contract had finished and I needed something closer to home because I’m a carer for my mother.

‘I’d seen a shepherd’s hut at a garden centre and thought “I can make one of those”. I saw that studios and extra accommodation in the garden were quite popular, so I started looking at Victorian bathing huts as a way to use my skills.’

He adds: ‘‘I’m not going to be able to retire yet, so I thought if this takes off it would be a good thing for me to do. Wooden boatbuilding is a bit of a dying trade.’

As he began to research the topic he realised that bathing huts came in all shapes, sizes and designs.

The traditional machines were very plain on the inside. It was essentially a changing room on wheels, with steps leading down into the water.

Horses would pull the machines into place, allowing a bather to step out into the sea without being seen. Other machines had advertising hoardings on the side or small windows to let in light.

Jeff was confident he could use the skills honed during years of boatbuilding and set out to make his own bathing hut.

‘There are lots of different designs,’ says the 60-year-old, from Lee-on-the-Solent.

‘They can just be a simple shed on wheels, others have a canvas roof, or the other extreme is the one that Queen Victoria had at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. That was much more ornate and had a very elegant roof. They became very popular when people began to take a dip in the sea for medicinal purposes.’

Once he’d settled on a shape and size he was able to start work – and now it’s finished, he hopes to sell it.

While the original huts were only ever used at the beach, Jeff thinks his will be the perfect addition to a garden.

‘I just had enough space in the garden to build it,’ he adds.

‘It has been a personal thing, especially when you can be a bit creative. There’s a little artistic flair here and there, it’s a bit like a painting.

‘I’ve tried to keep the outside original with Victorian advertising, but I’ve been a bit more creative on the inside. It’s a place for relaxing, somewhere to go at the weekend, for reading. I see it as an extra room in the garden. The guys have their sheds, I think this is a nice shed for a lady.’

Similar shepherd hut-style outbuildings can sell for anything from £10,000 to £19,000. Jeff hasn’t fixed a price for his yet, but knows he can’t afford the luxury of keeping it.

In time he hopes to get more work building huts as it’s been a project he’s enjoyed.

‘It has a useful purpose,’ he says.

‘I just hope it will go to a good home.’