By Anna MALPAS
WALTON-ON-THE-NAZE, UK (AFP) — In her yellow-and-white striped beach hut, Melanie Whitehead boils the kettle for a cup of tea and sits gazing out over the North Sea.
Brightly painted wooden huts like hers line England's coastline and have enjoyed a boom during the pandemic, as people rediscover seaside breaks close to home.
In the resort of Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex, eastern England, beach huts run along the shore for miles, in some places rising up in five tiers.
Huts in the area have sold for over £80,000 ($111,000), said Barry Hayes of Boydens estate agent, based in the adjoining resort of Frinton-on-Sea.
That amounts to nearly a third of the £255,000 average house price in the UK, but it's far from a record: a hut in Dorset on the Channel coast sold for £330,000 this month.
Despite such astronomical prices, the huts are basic: most lack mains water or electricity, and staying the night is prohibited.
As huge waves crash onto the esplanade at Walton-on-the-Naze, inhabitants read books and newspapers, snooze or chat, often in multi-generational groups.
'Endless cups of tea'
Huts have names such as Paradise Found and Serenity.
Outside one, a group of women are drinking prosecco, celebrating 60 years of friendship since primary school.
Whitehead, a 49-year-old former town planner, does not use her hut for its historic purpose of changing into a swimming costume.
"I really hate swimming and going into the water," she said.
She is clear about the hut's real purpose: to "make endless cups of tea".
The hut, which she bought in 2008 for £6,000, has proved a welcome getaway during the pandemic when her husband and daughter were both at home constantly.
It has white-painted walls and a narrow couch topped with a patchwork quilt, and colorful blankets she crocheted herself.
A gas cylinder powers a hob and oven, which she uses to bake scones.
"It's perfect. It comes into its own on a horrible day," Whitehead said.
As a seasoned beach hut owner, she is well aware of the pitfalls, however: the need for regular repairs and the risk of vandalism by bored teenagers.
She is chairman of the local beach hut association and carries out regular patrols.
Many owners live far away and can't keep an eye on their huts, Whitehead said.
Many huts are also rented out by the day, some offering Instagram-worthy features such as cocktail bars or table football.
Sarah Stimson, who runs a rental business called Walton-on-the-Naze Beach Huts, says this has been her best year yet.
All her huts are fully booked until September.
"I think Covid has made people look for certain things to do in the UK," she said. "It's made us a bit more visible."
Most renters are women in their 20s and 30s with family in tow, and 70 percent of bookings come via Instagram.
For an upcoming client, she is arranging a photographer and a cream tea delivery. He plans to surprise his wife with a proposal to renew their wedding vows.
'Grown-up Wendy house'
Stimson, 46, used to commute to London to head a charity that promotes diversity in the PR industry.
Wanting to spend more time with her family, she and her husband started their business three years ago with three huts.
This year they are renting out seven of their own and managing three more.
Her own family uses a hut named Queenie after her great-grandmother.
Painted bright green, it has space-saving elements such as a fold-down table, storage bench and overhead storage for paddleboards.
"It is a bit like a grown-up Wendy house," Stimson said, describing a children's playhouse.
The pandemic-related surge in prices means Stimson's family has no current plans to buy more, though.
Prices have roughly doubled locally in a year.
"The last one we sold was over £80,000," said Hayes, the estate agent, calling the pandemic a "game-changer".
An average hut in Frinton-on-Sea, seen as more up-market than Walton-on-the-Naze, goes from £50,000 to £60,000.
"Last year we were selling those for 30-ish," he said.
As changes to rules on foreign travel make planning holidays difficult, "that uncertainty will keep the interest inflated for the time being", Hayes predicted.
Whatever the market does, Whitehead is not going anywhere. "I can get snug in here, look at the view, and forget about the world really."