The wooden beach house on Morecambe Bay that inspires its artistic residents
PUBLISHED: 09:55 31 May 2012 | UPDATED: 18:05 03 December 2015
Artists John Fox and Sue Gill have seen their work develop as a result of their remarkable home. Amanda Griffiths reports Photography by Kirsty Thompson
‘There’s an amazing quote by JFK, who was also a sea-lover,’ says Sue Gill. ‘He said we’re drawn to the sea because the percentage of salt in the ocean is exactly the same as in our blood, our sweat and our tears. So, when we return to the sea, it is like coming home.’
Nothing could be truer for Sue and husband John Fox. When this couple return home they are quite literally returning to the sea, living in a wooden beach house on the edge of Morecambe Bay. The fact that John’s father was a sea captain and Sue’s ancestors were fishermen on the Yorkshire coast could also have something to do with their joint passion for the ocean.
The couple, who were pioneers of ukcommunity art and street performance, have been living here full time for six years, although they bought and rebuilt The Beach House 12 years ago.
The permanent move coincided in a step back from their past work to, as John puts it, reconnect with his hands by creating paintings, wood cuts, some sculptures, short stories and poetry. All of which are influenced by the environment they live in. Take for example a sculpture of an elk made from plastic containers washed up on the beach:
‘Living here, we have become more aware of nature and what’s happening around us,’ he says. ‘We have been shocked at how much waste plastic washes up on the beach. In the past we have used degradable materials like cloth, wood and paper, but plastic will never degrade. It gets into the lowest of the food chain and poisons everything.
‘I believe it’s our responsibility now to educate the younger generation of these and other dangers through our art projects. For 100 years, we have seen ourselves as superior to nature but we’re organically a part of it. What we do has a long lasting effect.’
Their home reflects this ethos. ‘We never wanted an ‘in-your-face’ building but one that merges into its surroundings,’ says Sue, who changed her surname to Gill for professional reasons.
‘People often ask if it was built out of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the beach but that wouldn’t be stable enough really,’ adds John. ‘There are some bits and some of the artwork on the deck but the majority of the wood used in the house is coppiced from local woods.’
The Beach House today is very different from its previous incarnation. Sue and John first fell in love with it 30 years ago when they settled in Ulverson after a nomadic life in a trailer travelling nationally and internationally with their company, Welfare State International, which took performance art to communities who had no access to the theatre.
‘We decided to settle in Ulverston in 1979, mostly so our children Dan and Hannah could go to school,’ says Sue. ‘It was on random walks down the beach we saw this place. It was basically a holiday cottage like the ones around it and we fell in love with it. We were always slightly envious of the people who lived here.’
After looking at a number of other properties the couple came across The Beach House again, almost derelict and after some research discovered the owner was someone they’d met and become friends with years before. Another two years and they had finally persuaded him to sell.
‘The living area now was an extension built on in the 1970s,’ says Sue. ‘That was sound but the back part of the house was in a terrible state, which in a way was good for us because we were forced to knock that part down and start again.’
The couple had already helped build a timber cruck barn extension at Ulverston’s Lanternhouse, the base for their company, and used these principles to submit what Sue calls ‘radical plans for a timber framed, grass roofed property’ to the local planning authority.
Their luck was in as planners were keen on environmentally friendly builds and their plans were passed. A few short months after the building was demolished the timber frame was hauled into place by 12 strong men using ropes and pullies as access to the site ruled out heavy machines.
A month later and the fitting out started, there was already a septic tank, electricity and plumbing to the property and the building took on a largely open plan space with double height kitchen and mezzanine level running around the top. For a number of years John used one part of the property as his studio while they used the other end to ‘sort of camp in’, before they made the decision six years ago to have the property remodelled and live there full time.
On entering the house you can’t help but notice the beautifully carved staircase by local furniture maker and interior designer Duncan Coppley, described by John as ‘a genius with wood’ who helped them remodel their home.
The mezzanine level above had walls put in for the first time creating a private bedroom for John and Sue and a separate sleeping space for their grandchildren, Reuben, Rosa and Rowan, when they come to visit. Stepping away from Lanternhouse in 2006, the couple needed a home office and Duncan suggested putting a floor above the kitchen to create that space upstairs.
The house is furnished simply but comfortably – there’s no ultra fancy walk-in-wardrobes here but the house is a true collection of the couple’s most precious possessions. It is, John says, like an ark.
‘I think the relationship between house and home is interesting,’ says Sue. ‘Anybody can have a house and furnish it, but I think that only when virtually everything in your house has a story or memory attached to it that you can call it a home.
‘This is such a dynamic environment there’s no doubt it has influenced our work. It’s so changeable, from storms to sunshine it can change within ten minutes. People often say if they lived here they would just stare out of the window all day and never get any work done. I suppose there is an element of that - we certainly don’t need a television here!’
For more information about Sue and John’s work please see
The print version of this article appeared in the June 2012 issue of Lancashire Life
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