Belgium's beach cabin culture will soon be 250 years old


You can hardly miss them: wooden huts in all sizes and colour combinations adorning the beach from De Panne to Knokke-Heist.

Around 1780, an English sea captain established himself as a part-time innkeeper in Ostend, attracted by the economic boom in the city. He saw an opportunity to sell refreshments to bathers, in exactly the same way as already was customary over the sea in England and he was given permission to site carts on the beach. This would make Ostend – although some sources believe that this originated in Blankenberge, just up the road – the first city on the Belgian coast to see those colourful wooden huts pop up.

The wooden huts themselves were mounted on two giant wheels, and while ladies of rank changed their clothes, shielded from any immodest glances, horses pulled the cabins out towards the tide line. Once the vehicle arrived at the tideline and the steps were deployed, the coachman clapped the whip on the roof as a sign for the guests that the coast was clear. From then on, they could paddle and splash around in the water in a discreet and carefree way. In his 1899 etching entitled The Baths at Ostend, the Belgian painter James Ensor (1860-1949) shows how ludicrous such a spectacle was in his eyes.

In 1920, one Albert De Jonghe started renting out these cabins on wheels in Middelkerke. Before the First World War, he had been a cyclist who had achieved a certain degree of success, having once won Paris-Roubaix and finished fifth in the Tour de France. His grandson, Marc Coene, and his wife have fortunately been able to rescue a few of these authentic beach carts from oblivion. Marc says that in the old days, an employee atop the roof of the huts kept a close eye on the bathers. He was pretty much the lifeguard avant la lettre. At one point, his grandfather fired one such employee on the spot, because the nefarious person had drilled a peephole in the wall of one of his cabins ...

Booths for all uses
You name it, the beach cabins have served – or still serve – as painters' studios, candy and soft drink stands, as a storage place for props for beach theatre, a place where grandma took her afternoon nap or where holidaying lovers could indulge in their pursuits undisturbed ... Meanwhile, the wheels have come off and some have been kitted out as a kind of mini-residence with all modern comforts and luxury – a kitchen, shower, toilet, lounge with seats and sun beds and a storage room for beach furniture, toys and so on. You pay a bit for rent of the pitch and for the beach cabin, but then you have something for your money.