When fashion designer Kate Barton discovered The Dodo in 2002, she and her family didn’t like the name of the house at all. They tried hard to think of something that would seem more appropriate for a seaside home, but somehow the name Dodo stuck, and now they have grown rather fond of it. No one knows exactly where the name came from – in the same way that no one knows who created this astonishing house in the first place.
The Dodo overlooks the beach at the Sussex resort of West Wittering – part of a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty embracing the creeks, inlets and tidal flats of Chichester Harbour on England’s south coast. The shoreline features sand dunes, marram grass and tamarisk, and a long line of colourful beach huts. The story goes that in the 1930s, when a local railway line was taken out of service, someone had the inspired idea of installing a couple of defunct railway carriages at right angles to the sea, and parallel to each other, and building a roof over the top of them. ‘If you walk along the beach you will see similar houses made from railway carriages, though you often can’t tell,’ says Kate. ‘One of them is a traditional wooden structure that could easily be mistaken for a clapboard cottage in Cape Cod.’
In fact, the practice of turning redundant railway carriages into homes is much more common than might be imagined around the coast of England and Wales, with intriguing examples to be found everywhere from Cornwall to Yorkshire. The generous width of a railway carriage and its abundance of glass can be exploited with relative ease to create beautiful, light-filled modern living spaces.
‘When we bought the house, it was very basic, even though another family had lived there for some time,’ says Kate. ‘There was a small Formica kitchen and one tiny bathroom. Everything was covered in brown gloss paint.’
As the walls were painstakingly stripped and repainted, original details were uncovered, from tongue-and-groove panelling to the friezes on the ceiling. Carpets were removed and the floorboards were repaired, sanded and painted white. Bathrooms and four bedrooms are located in the two former carriages, which are linked by a large, open-plan living space heated by a wood-burning stove. There is a raised dining area with a seagrass carpet, but the family spend most mealtimes on The Dodo’s wide deck enjoying the views of the sea. ‘We always eat in the open air, unless the wind is strong enough to blow away the salad leaves,’ says Kate.
Kate and her husband Nigel worked to transform The Dodo into a relaxed and relaxing holiday retreat where they and their five children could escape as often as possible from their high-pressure city lives. The result is a chic and practical family space that needs minimal attention, apart from painting the floors once a year.
After the initial stage of the work was complete, there was a two-year pause before the couple decided to build an extension to incorporate a bigger kitchen, a downstairs bathroom and a utility area, as well as an extra bedroom. A wooden porch was erected, giving direct access from the back of the house to the beach.
Later, a former garage across the road was converted into a separate annexe containing a playroom and a guest bedroom. There is a tiny enclosed garden between the two buildings, which makes a secure play area for small children.
Kate and her family used to stay there for six weeks each year, but now that the children are getting older they go less often. Among other things, The Dodo is used as a writers’ retreat, where experienced scribblers and beginners gather for workshops and walks, and plenty of time is set aside for writing and relaxation.
Coastal Living by Henrietta Heald is published by Ryland Peters & Small for £25.
All pictures credited to: Coastal Living by Henrietta Heald is published by Ryland Peters & Small.