An artist’s home by the sea

Finding inspiration in a new timber-framed home-cum-studio on the Kent coast

You see the most remarkable skies here – like a miracle of heaven and earth together,” says artist Rachael Dickens of the view from her newly built home, between Herne Bay and Reculver on the Kent coast. A keen outdoor swimmer whose work is often inspired by water, Rachael was first drawn to this site by its setting. “I walk on the beach and swim in the sea nearly every day,” she says, “and the vision for the house was very much about being able to see the sea.” The result is an arresting contemporary home whose jet-black weatherboarding and corrugated roof echo the tarred fishermen’s huts and net lofts typically found in nearby Whitstable.

Rachael came across the plot by accident during a day trip to Whitstable with her sister in 2014. At the time, she was house-hunting without success in south London, after selling her home in Sydenham with a view to moving closer to Brockwell lido. (Rachael has been cold water swimming since 2006 and helped to reform the lido’s original 1930s swimming club: The Brockwell Icicles.) While walking along the east Kent coastline, looping back from Reculver, the sisters stumbled across a small 1930s bungalow for sale right by the shore, but it was in need of modernisation.

Old meets new: the kitchen cupboards from the original bungalow were retained and repainted.
Old meets new: the kitchen cupboards from the original bungalow were retained and repainted. Photograph: Bruce Hemming/The Observer

“It wasn’t a nice house, but it had the most fantastic views and quite a big garden, so I knew I could build a studio at the back,” Rachael recalls. “And because I had done some building work before, I could imagine how it could be refurbished.” She quickly made an offer and moved in that October.

As her original intention had been to remodel the house, Rachael commissioned a local architect, Michael Shoobridge, to draw up plans for a fresh internal layout. However, when builders began work in 2015, it became clear that the bungalow’s timber frame was perilously rotten and it would have to be knocked down. “I was a bit terrified – but excited as well – when I found out about the demolition,” says Rachael, who has two grown-up children still living in London, and shares her home with a Staffordshire terrier cross named Zoot. “It did make it a lot more expensive.” A buy-to-let flat she had just purchased in Westgate-on-Sea had to be sold to pay for the project. Meanwhile, Michael Shoobridge revised his plans to create a new timber-framed building, designed around Rachael’s twin passions for the outdoors and art.

Having already set up a studio in the garden (built by Homestead Garden Rooms, complete with shower), Rachael made this her home for a year as she project-managed the construction. “My aunt, uncle and cousin were all architects; my dad built concrete and steel structures as a civil engineer and my grandfather was the son in the building firm Bailey, Dickens & Son, so I have a lineage of ideas about form, structure and materials,” she explains. “It was fun – and I had every faith in the builders.” The finished two-bedroom house, built by Chris Dew at San Ris, is ideally suited to her way of life. The ground floor has floor-to-ceiling windows to the front and rear, so that from her garden workspace she can look straight through the house and out to the sea.

Rooms with a view: the ground floor has floor-to-ceiling windows to the front and rear.
Rooms with a view: the ground floor has floor-to-ceiling windows to the front and rear. Photograph: Bruce Hemming/The Observer

The vaulted, open-plan living room and kitchen is painted white and has a pale plywood floor, making the most of the natural light. To keep within budget, the kitchen cupboards from the original bungalow were retained and repainted, then teamed with a reclaimed timber worktop from a school science lab. Rachael’s collections of vintage finds and contemporary art, displayed on midcentury Ladderax and G-Plan units or floating shelves, lend vibrant colour to the decorative scheme. Some of her own paintings appear here, and throughout the house, alongside works by south London artists Liz Chisholm and Christopher Noulton, plus cushions by weaver Margo Selby, whose studio is in Whitstable. A restored pinball machine, from RG Scott’s antiques emporium in Margate, adds a jaunty touch.

The theme of seaside nostalgia continues into the snug, – a second sitting room, tucked away on the ground floor – where kitsch curios, such as antique shell art, nautical embroideries and 1960s ceramics, are displayed against a warm backdrop of unpainted plaster. Rachael’s wit and creativity are further in evidence in the downstairs bathroom, inspired by the house of architect César Manrique on Lanzarote, which opens out on to the garden. Rachael sourced some potato crates from Quex Park in Birchington and, in exchange for a donation, broke them up to use as cladding for the bath and WC. “All that white porcelain is really boring,” she smiles. A lid made from a salvaged door conceals the bath when not in use.

The first-floor bedroom gives a sense of being afloat on an ocean liner, with its generous glass-sided balcony, beside which stands a stack of time-worn leather suitcases. From the bed, the marine outlook extends across the front garden, which is filled with hardy, salt-resistant plants, interwoven with items found on the beach, such as a totemic driftwood pillar, which Rachael thinks was once part of Herne Bay pier.

‘I find scraps of cloth on the beach and wonder how far they have travelled’: Rachael Dickens in her studio.
‘I find scraps of cloth on the beach and wonder how far they have travelled’: Rachael Dickens in her studio. Photograph: Bruce Hemming/The Observer

Currently, her artwork is prompted by the surprising things she discovers washed ashore. “I find scraps of cloth, which were obviously once clothing, and it makes me wonder whose clothes they were and how far they have travelled through the tumbling oceans to land on my beach.” These fragments are then incorporated into stitched-cloth pieces, evoking human vulnerability, which have featured in exhibitions across Kent. In addition to a recent series of ceramics exploring the experiences of displaced families, she makes silver boat and bronze anchor pendants in support of Kent Refugee Action Network.

Following her move, Rachael quickly became involved in the Whitstable arts scene and opens her doors every autumn for East Kent Open Houses to welcome admirers of both her work and unique home. Among her future plans for the property is an extension across the back, to create a third bedroom and yoga studio. A trained yoga teacher in both Sivananda and Kundalini, Rachael spends time in India, continuing her practice.

The artist considers her regular sea swims, accompanied by Zoot, also to be a meditation. “Moving here has been the best thing ever,” she confirms. “Just getting out into the open so calms the spirit. Swimming daily is a fantastic ritual. This is a very special place.”

East Kent Open Houses takes place on 10-11, 17-18 and 24-25 October ( To see more of Dickens’s work, visit

Alex Reece

The GuardianTramp

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