Littlehampton: The Heatherwick effect and a surprising architectural solution

This is a case study featured in our seaside report. Click here for the full report page

Sometimes, only outsiders can make things change. In recent years, the quintessentially English seaside resort of Littlehampton has been transformed into an architectural destination, thanks to one visionary entrepreneur.

It’s a flat grey, blowy day in Littlehampton. Cars and vans tootle around the small West Sussex town. A few empty tennis courts separate white shuttered villas from the pebbled seafront.

Littlehampton was always genteel, not Gen X. Like many English seaside towns, it enjoyed a heyday as a holiday resort in the early 20th century but then, as fashions changed, long-stay tourists moved away and the residential population aged. Today, more than a third of the town’s residents are over 60; 96 per cent of this community is white. The Living in Littlehampton section of the town’s website leads on “Allotments”.

There are some patches of deprivation, especially around the River Arun where unemployment is high and the number of people with life-affecting health issues is, at 12.4 per cent, well above the national average. But this is no seaside basket case, more a town dozing as the world races away. The renowned architectural writer Stephen Bayley described Littlehampton, with mild exasperation, as “this narcoleptic West Sussex town”.

Go to any similar resort, and you’ll find an emigre family – usually from the Mediterranean – running an excellent local ice cream shop or restaurant. In Weston-super-Mare, there’s a large Greek community who own and run many seafront eateries. Maybe it’s the sleepiness of such towns that appeals to outsiders. After the upheaval of migration, perhaps they crave quiet and security.

Into 1950s Littlehampton arrived an Italian family who would make a lasting impact on the town. Their daughter was to become one of Britain’s most influential businesswomen. She emboldened a generation of entrepreneur-activists – like Lush’s Mark Constantine and Liz Weir, and Dale Vince of Ecotricity – who saw that business could be a way to effect social change.

As a child, Anita Perilli felt like an outsider in her home town. As a youth, she travelled the world, returning filled with moral outrage and business ideas. In 1976, as Anita Roddick, she opened her first Body Shop in Littlehampton; over the next 30 years the cosmetics retailer did more than any other company to bring natural products and environmental thinking into the mainstream.

When Roddick finally sold the retail group to L’Oreal for £652m, it had 700 shops around the world. Even today, Body Shop’s HQ is Littlehampton’s largest employer, though job numbers are down on the 1990s and its original shop and manufacturing base are no more.

Before Dame Anita Roddick died tragically early in 2007, she had time to inspire a worthy successor in Littlehampton.

Jane Wood is a controversial entrepreneur-developer with her own protester’s backstory. As a youngster, she doorstepped an engineering company who wouldn’t pay her tailor-father for four suits. Later, as a toyshop entrepreneur in Wimbledon, she led local independent traders’ successful campaign against the area’s big landlord, the Prudential. The campaign banners featured the insurance giant’s Prudence logo doctored with fangs, dripping blood and the caption, “Prudential, Up yer Rental”.

Tiny, impeccable, usually in large dark sunglasses, Wood owned a second home in Littlehampton overlooking the seafront, the delightful view spoiled only by an “ugly concrete box” selling burgers. When in 2004 her daughter Sophie spotted that the kiosk was up for sale, they snapped it up, without much of an idea what they were going to do with it.

For a year, mother and daughter ran the business much as it was, just adding white tablecloths and learning about the clientele. All the time, though, Jane’s designer mind was whirring with possibility. “I couldn’t think of one architectural solution,” she says. “It’s a very exposed position, so it couldn’t be glass, and I didn’t want pastiche, and how would it weather?” Nothing felt right.

Then, one evening at Goodwood Sculpture Park, she met Thomas Heatherwick. This was long before the designer’s triumphant London 2012 Olympic cauldron. Back then, his best-known work was a pergola in Terence Conran’s garden.

It was a meeting of minds. Jane: “I said to him, ‘I’ve done this crazy thing and bought this beach kiosk in Littlehampton’. He said, ‘I know it, I’ve been there, it’s a beautiful beach and I bought an ice cream there’.

“Then he said, ‘can I design your building?’ and straight away I said, yes.”

The result, the East Beach Cafe, is an outrageous sculpture-cum-building inspired by a piece of driftwood that Heatherwick picked up off the beach. Long and narrow, with a cavernous interior, it feels as if it craves the sea and, with giant, peristaltic steel gradations, is slowly crawling back to where it belongs. It is certainly not the kind of building you’d expect to find in Littlehampton.

The East Beach Cafe altered perceptions of the town utterly. No longer “quintessential England”, Littlehampton was now an architectural destination. Londoners and middle-class folk from the Sussex hinterland flocked to the town, intrigued by this extraordinary creature-building. Car park takings by the East Beach Cafe rose eightfold in the years after it opened. Vogue magazine named Littlehampton as Britain’s “hippest” seaside resort in 2006; local officials still boast about that today.

There were no objections to the East Beach Cafe, but it did divide the town. “Marmite,” says a local cabbie, somewhat predictably. “Some people love it, some people hate it. I love it.”

Other wonders followed. Jane secured the rising star Asif Khan (the only British architect on the shortlist to design the Helsinki Guggenheim) to create her tiny, startling West Beach Cafe, its huge doors gaping onto the sand. With her daughter Sophie and Arun District Council, they conceived The Longest Bench, which weaves playfully along the seafront. Jane also dissuaded the council from restoring an old bandstand so instead they put up Stage by the Sea, two curvaceous white “acoustic shells” that can be used as free performance platforms. And she built five John Pardey-designed houses on the Arun riverfront that blend maritime heritage and contemporary style.

This delightful stretch of coast was already architecturally important – nearby Sea Lane House is the only British building fully designed by the Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer – but Jane Wood took it to a new level. Modest Littlehampton, the town so unassuming that it added “Little” to its name to distinguish itself from nearby Southampton, was now home to several of the most celebrated pieces of seafront design in the world.

Soon, town planners from all over Britain were in touch, dreaming of their own “Guggenheim effect” and begging Wood to roll out her magic in their town. It could have been the start of a triumphant procession along Britain’s tatty resorts, yet Wood’s energy has been sapped by bureaucracy and a myriad tiny obstacles. She’s locked in a long battle over the lease to her West Beach Cafe, the local development control committee apparently more concerned by the cafe’s toilets than the chance to drive the local economy. She’s subject to persistent, nasty, local abuse. Jane Wood may be naturally unclubbable and disinclined to play politics, but you can’t help sensing a missed opportunity about all this.

More astonishingly still, she recently had to abandon plans to bring another Thomas Heatherwick masterpiece to nearby Shoreham-on-Sea because the local authority there wouldn’t grant a long lease and insisted that the new restaurant have 12 toilets (yes, 12 toilets). “They don’t realise how difficult it is to attract someone to take on these kind of developments,” she says. “The footfall isn’t consistent or high enough for the corporate chains; and individual entrepreneurs may not see the potential or have the finance to undertake this kind of development.”

Andreas Sparsis is another emigre-entrepreneur making waves in Littlehampton. His family was originally from Famagusta on the east coast of Cyprus, but was forced to leave after Turkey’s 1974 invasion. His childhood memories are of tinkling goat bells, afternoon naps and family tables stacked with food. Hospitality is almost passive-aggressive in Mediterranean culture, explains the big, loud, hospitable Sparsis.

He started his Littlehampton Fish Factory restaurant in 2009, in the teeth of recession and against the advice of his accountant. The first year was a battle, but his Proto Restaurants have since grown into a £4.5m-turnover group, with five outlets, in Littlehampton, Worthing and Brighton, and 110 full-time staff. Sparsis recently leased a 5m x 5m patch of beach from Worthing council to offer customers special, candlelit beach dining experiences. He’s planning a food market – “Fortnum & Mason meets Moroccan bazaar” – in Worthing, where he also sits on the town’s regeneration steering committee.

“I’m a man of the coast,” says Sparsis. “In my internal compass, I can’t move far from the sea; I get disorientated.” For him, seaside businesses must trade in nostalgia. “All of us tell stories about places we ate in when we were on holiday by the sea.”

Sparsis has been frustrated by smaller towns along the Sussex coast. “In Brighton, the local authority actively supports entrepreneurs, but here they actively block entrepreneurialism.” His plans for a river festival in Littlehampton have been stymied by bureaucracy. He was infuriated that no senior council representative turned up to the Fish Factory’s opening.

Arun District Council officials insist they’re “100%” behind local entrepreneurship. “We’re not frightened by new,” says Miriam Nicholls, business development manager in the council’s economic development team. In 2014, the council oversaw a £22m refit of the town’s flood defences, which has reintegrated the riverside’s commercial and residential community. The Arun Business Partnership encourages local businesses to work together; there are town centre managers to support local retailers. Banksearch data on the rate of growth of new businesses puts Arun third out of 326 English districts, says Nicholls.

There are just 1,900 active local companies and, like many seaside resorts, this is a seasonal, fragile economy. At one of the town’s biggest companies, Littlehampton Welding, turnover and profits were sharply down in the latest filed accounts.

Gary Smart understands the limitations of making a living in such a compact English town where the weather is the kingmaker but the sun doesn’t always shine. The grandson of the famous circus showman, Billy Smart, Gary’s family moved to Littlehampton in 1977 where they bought a small amusement park from the Butlin family.

Like all traditional circus families, the Smarts had to adapt – first from travelling to fixed circuses, then moving into amusement parks. Gary’s spruce Harbour Park in Littlehampton is constantly evolving, introducing new rides, formats and games. There’s a sepia picture on his office wall of him and Prince Charles swimming in a waterpark with a killer whale, as a reminder of how much fashions change.

The pressures on the English tourism sector are intense. School holidays have gradually shrunk from eight weeks to six, squeezing the peak season. “The economic impact of cutting even one day off the summer holiday period is huge,” says Smart. The imminent introduction of a new £1 coin will mean an expensive overhaul of his tuppence-pushers and games machines.

Though he’s hardly an establishment figure, Smart started serving as a local councillor because he thought it was the best way to look after his business and the town’s interests. It’s meant many moments of frustration, including a notorious late-night council session spent arguing over a £40 bin. “I had young kids and was probably a bit sleep-deprived, so in the end end I just yelled, ‘I’ll pay for the bloody bin myself’!”

In his poacher-turned-gamekeeper role, he’s learned that local politicians operate in a different world to entrepreneurs. “They’re not used to entrepreneurs with their energy and wanting to get things done straight away,” he says. Confrontation isn’t the answer. “You can’t be on at them every few minutes.”

What this town of extraordinary individual talents seems to need is a common purpose. Even the outsider-entrepreneurs recognise this. “We need to work together behind a central goal,” says Andy Sparsis. Smart says that “entrepreneurs bring in new thinking, expertise and finance; most councils are freeholders. We need to work together for the long-term local good.”

As a long-stay resort, Littlehampton’s fortunes have declined, and it probably won’t see a return to its Victorian-era tourist peak. The town’s ambition, “to be a holiday resort for the 21st century” is catchy though it’ll be a stretch. But it does have natural seaside and architectural assets that give grounds for optimism. It’s also a town of warmth and charm.

And in a relentless 24/7 world, towns such as Littlehampton reconnect us all to a deep yearning. “We all want to reclaim the innocence of childhood,” says Gary Smart. “Littlehampton can take you there, even if it’s just for a long weekend.”