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Community engagement: swimterviews, walks and talks

To ensure our future beach hut is designed around the needs of the local community, we have spent the last few weeks talking to people who live on and regularly use West Bay.

Sara and Charmaine who swim all year round on West Bay. Image credit Sara Cairns
Sara and Charmaine who swim all year round on West Bay. Image credit Sara Cairns

This research has involved early morning and afternoon swims, or ‘swimterviews’, a new term coined by local resident and swimmer Sara Cairns. We’ve also enjoyed walks with West Bay residents and young people and have interviewed a wide range of people who have an interest in West Bay and our project.

Young people for Dunoon Grammar School on a heritage walk along West Bay
Young people from Dunoon Grammar School on a heritage walk along West Bay. Thanks to Liz Miller and her team.

Thanks to the brilliant Cowal Elderly Befrienders, we have even had afternoon tea with Lilly and Kaye, who moved to Dunoon just after and before WW2. As well as sharing their memories of beach huts, they told us about a lemonade stand on West Bay and the changes that have taken place to Bishop's Glen. Lilly’s father use to manage the town's water supply and she talked about the hard work and long shifts he had to endure to keep the reservoir clean.

Kaye who moved to Dunoon just before WW2 and remembers a lemonade kiosk on West Bay.

Lilly who moved to Dunoon just after WW2 and whose farther looked after the water supply for Dunoon up at Bishop's Glen
Lilly who moved to Dunoon just after WW2 and whose farther looked after the water supply for Dunoon up at Bishop's Glen

We also spoke to well-known local historian and retired teacher Mrs Patterson who is in her 100th year. Mrs Patterson lives in the oldest house on West Bay and has vivid memories of Dunoon and the changes that have taken place around the town; she is a fascinating person to spend time with.

By speaking with people who remember beach huts on West Bay, we are gathering insights into the cultural history of place, whilst finding out how the beach hut structures were used and made. Community needs and the economic realities of place change over time, so by speaking to people who use West Bay today, we aim to identify how a beach hut could positively impact on our community now.

The past

Although traditional beach huts are simple, relatively straight forward structures, their function and long-term management are less so. Siting a permanent beach hut on a narrow stretch of shingle beach is fraught with issues. Climate change is bringing increased rainfall and the threat of storm surges; therefore, any structures placed permanently on the shore need to be designed for extremes, which increases costs and liabilities.

The beach huts you see in old pictures of West Bay were strictly seasonal and owned by the boat hirers, many of whom were highly skilled boat builders. They derived an income through crafting and fixing boats and doing other joinery jobs around the town. The boat hire season started in the early summer, May / June through to September. After the final wave of Glasgow holidaymakers left Dunoon, the beach huts were packed flat and barrowed up the road and stored in local boat yards. They were fixed-up, repainted and put out again the following season. The huts were protected from harsh winters by removing them from the shore completely.

Willie Furguson who lives on West Bay with his wife Jeanette.

Willie Ferguson, who lives along West Bay with his wife Jeanette, told us that “The boat hirers were highly skilled workers … The summer season provided additional income to boat hirers and brought opportunities to the shore for work and enjoying the water by boat and through fishing.”

The beach huts of West Bay were exclusively for businesses and never for bathers to change. Port Riddell at East Bay had changing rooms, you can still see the bricked up cubicles today, which originally had swing doors. Port Riddell seems to have been a lively spot, less for visitors and more for community use. It was here that you learnt to swim, and hung out with rowing boats, boat hirers and fishing gear.

Port Riddell 1950s. The now bricked up changing rooms at Port Riddell can still be seen. They are located under the road near the jetty and had pivot doors on them.

Kirn Lido was also a popular swimming spot. A series of wooden huts housed Reggie's cafe during the summer season. Charmaine Boyd, a local swimmer and Dunoon resident, remembers how the colourful sheds were shuttered up over the winter to protect them from the weather. The sheds sat on a concrete platform, just above the shore line. You can still see the platform on the beach at Kirn today.

Kirn Lido and Reggie's cafe in a series of wooden huts on the shore. Image credit: D. Buchan
Kirn Lido and Reggie's cafe in a series of wooden huts on the shore. Image credit: D. Buchan

Dunoon Lido, built in 1937, is the only known municipal changing facility on West Bay. This was located at the Bullwood end of West Bay, beyond the promenade, just opposite the entrance to Morag’s Fairy Glen.

According to a newspaper article written about Dunoon Lido’s opening ceremony, the striking Art Deco-esque Lido was built to accommodate up to 800 people over 2 floors. The Lido included changing rooms, a café and sundeck, and floating swimming pontoons. It opened to great pomp and ceremony after many years of discussion by the local council, replacing an older “Gentleman’s changing station” that was located on the same site. However, the scale of the concrete structure made it costly to maintain and it slowly declined as visitor numbers fell in the postwar era. This left no place on West Bay for changing, and when the swimming pool opened in the 1960s, swimmers where even less likely to use the sea for swimming.

Historically, women swam in the middle section of West Bay. Colgate’s Guide to Dunoon, published in 1868, is thought to be the first guidebook to the area (the Castle House Museum hold an original copy). The guide briefly describes bathing arrangements:

“Most of the Villas have their own private bathing grounds of boxes. The best bathing place for ladies is the West Bay. Gentlemen’s Bathing places – Rocks, foot of Castle Hill, deep at all states of tide. Sand, beyond Baugie Burn, beginning of Bull Wood, shallow and sandy.”

A group of swimmers who meet regularly to swim on West Bay and other beaches in the local area
A group of swimmers who meet regularly on West Bay and other beaches in the local area.

The present

Today, local women and men regularly swim on West Bay, in a section of water between the Boathouse Bistro and the Selborne Hotel. Over the past few years, the number of sea or ‘wild swimmers’ has steadily increased nationally and locally. As part of our research, we have spoken to swimmers who use West Bay and witnessed first-hand how people are undressing and drying themselves in the absence of changing facilities.

One group have mastered the art of changing outside in all weathers. Using Ikea bags to stand in, they skilfully remove wet swimming gear under robes, or perch on walls wrapped in towels whilst drinking hot tea to shelter and change. Some hop into cars and head home to change, but they would prefer not to be citing the negative environmental impact of car journeys and the hassle of wriggling out of swimming gear in cars.

This small but growing group are a diverse bunch. They swim in the sea all year round for a range of reasons: the management of severe pain, the benefits to wellbeing, and the simple pleasure of doing something for yourself every day that is both free and good for you.

Swimmers include dinner ladies, dog walkers and social workers who have lived in and around Dunoon their entire lives, to health care workers and photographers who have recently relocated to the area.

During discussions with swimmers, the challenge of changing on West Bay came up. One swimmer spoke of the risk of leaving items unattended on the shore whilst going for a swim while another spoke about an incident where she felt discomfort because a man approached her and failed to respect her personal space whilst she was changing. A beach hut could be a place of safety and security for swimmers, but it would have to function all year round to be useful to local swimmers, which raises all sorts of design challenges.

Historically the changing needs of female swimmers on West Bay have not been fully considered and looking at the design of access routes down to the sea, nor have the needs of people who have mobility issues – a reflection of wider structural issues that tend to neglect the needs of people whose voices are not always heard.

Going forward there appear to be a wide range of benefits in supporting more people to use the sea for swimming and nurturing a culture of safety and inclusion along the shore – this would open up and maximise a natural asset in Dunoon for more people – both local residents and visitors.

A beach hut that considers these issues from the outset is a positive start to designing inequalities out of the public realm at a local level and we intend to include this in the design brief.

Next steps

We will continue to talk to people throughout the course of the project, so if you want to contribute your stories about swimming, beach huts and West Bay please get in-touch.

We will be looking at water quality and beach hut architecture over the next few weeks and will keep you updated about the research.

By January 2022, we hope to have the Beach Hut design brief completed. With the help of Sure Shot Film, a series of short films about West Bay are in production. These will feature interviews, information and archive research and will form the basis of a community design resource to support the next stage of the project.

...and finally

A big thank you to all the people who contributed so far to the We are building a beach hut project. We really appreciate your input.

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