THE EDGE OF GLORY
After capturing the imagination of the public in 2019 when it first featured on Grand Designs, Chesil Cliff House at last nears completion. Rosa Smith heads to North Devon to learn more about its incredible journey
As you travel along the B3213, having just passed the beautiful three-mile stretch of Saunton Sands, a sense of anticipation builds as the road curves around a small peninsula before you reach the picturesque village of Croyde. It’s hard to miss Chesil Cliff House, a striking part-Art Deco, part-lighthouse inspired home taking shape on one of the most unique locations in North Devon, a precipice that promises a truly extraordinary lifestyle.
And it’s a precipice that Edward Short has been standing on, both literally and figuratively, for the past decade. Engineered by HOP Consulting, the firm behind marine developments such as Brighton Marina, the lighthouse-replica passion project has become one of the most watched and talked about episodes of Grand Designs after its first airing in 2019. However, Chesil Cliff’s future has hung precariously in the balance since the journey began in 2012, with building work often at the whim of the elements due to its unique clifftop position. Fast forward through the consequential seven-figure- overspend, uncompromising vision, and breakdown of his marriage, and any lesser mortal may have been forgiven for abandoning ship. But giving up was simply never an option for Edward, and now, as the property finally nears completion, rising phoenix-like from the ashes, one question remains to be answered: Was it all worth it?
When I arrive on a gloriously sunny day, it doesn’t take long to understand what has tethered Edward to this spot for so many years. The seemingly never-ending merging of blue sky and glistening sea stretches the length of the property, with surfers’ paradise Saunton Sands backed by the impressive UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Braunton Burrows to the left, and the idyllic cove of Croyde, beyond which sits National Trust-owned Baggy Point, to the right. Directly in front of you, some 12 miles out into the Bristol Channel, stands Lundy Island, a haven for rare seaweeds, corals and wildlife – becoming Britain’s first Marine Conservation Zone in 2010.
We sit down on the decking outside The Eye, the smaller annexe accommodation that Edward completed in 2017. What a journey it’s been. Edward perhaps articulates it best: “Well, first there was fear, then hope, and then ambition, confidence, but then came the collapse. But low points lead to the fight. I’ll always be proud to have finished this. I owe it to my family to have a real end result.”
It was the decision to up sticks from their London home and return to Edward’s native Devon which brought the family to the site on which Chesil Cliff House now stands. But despite setbacks along the way, it was a choice that resulted in an unbeatable childhood for his two daughters, Nicole and Lauren, now aged 21 and 20.
“There’s a whole world of outdoors here that you can only discover properly when it’s your home,” he muses, looking out to the shimmering sea. “We did things daily that a lot of people rarely get to do with their children. They would come back from school, jump off the bus, wetsuit straight on and then in the sea. Kayaking, fishing, mucking around and just jumping off various places, it really was a dream lifestyle.
“We did things daily that a lot of people rarely get to do with their children. They would come back from school, jump off the bus, wetsuit straight on and then in the sea . . . it really was a dream lifestyle.”
“We had all these kind of adventure areas down there that discovered; one of them was called the rollercoaster, which was this wonderful gully which would toss you up in the air. My god, the fun we used to have there. We’d often have parties down on the rocks when the kids were young, coasteering and treasure hunts. They’re experiences unique to coastal living.”
But, as anyone knows, the sea demands respect, something which Edward quickly ensured his daughters learned: “When you live by the coast, they often have what’s called Surf Life Saving Clubs which the kids can start from the age of seven. They teach children all there is to know about the sea: how to read the conditions, how to get out of trouble, how to enjoy it, and what to do with rip currents. They’re invaluable organisations and both my daughters learned so much.”
An active and healthy lifestyle is also top of the agenda in a location like this. “We all love to surf and kayak and swim, but also play volleyball. There’s a local beach volleyball club in the village (Croyde) and it keeps you so fit. Both my girls play, and we absolutely love it, we have such a laugh.”
In many ways, the timing of the property’s completion could not be more felicitous. The Covid-19 pandemic has set the wheels turning on a mass lifestyle shake-up – with many people reassessing where they want to live, thanks to flexible working options – and being by the coast is certainly proving to be one of the most popular options. When I ask Edward why he thinks this is the case, he gestures around him and responds simply, “It speaks for itself. I was born by the sea, so I’m addicted to it. When I moved to London, it was great for the money and lifestyle, but I always wanted to be back by the coast.
“For your mental health, it’s incredible. The sea is so constant, yet ever-changing. I can sit here and just empty my mind and become small again. When things get on top of me, I look out here and just think ‘you’ve got first world problems’. You can so easily obsess over your own little nightmares in life, but the sea, it brings you back.”
It’s clear to see over the course of our conversation that the crashing waves on the private rocky beach below are incredibly evocative of the years of carefree fun spent here with his family, something which I imagine must be hard to let go of. He shrugs. “The time has come to move on. I will have achieved what I set out to do, never deviating from the plans, and for that I’ll always be proud.
“There will be a hole in our hearts, but we have our memories. That feeling of holding my daughters, one in each arm, and just jumping off the rocks into the sea – into absolute freedom – screaming with laughter. In the hot spells, floating on our backs, the buzz of catching a mackerel for lunch.
“The real value of living here is down on the beach. You look at the main house and The Eye and think of the millions I have spent, but the lifestyle aspect, it’s all down there – in the water.”
There’s a whole world of outdoors here that you can only discover properly when it’s your home.
Of course, he’s right. Water seems to have a way of getting under our skin. As W.B. Yeats reflected in his 1888 eponymous poem on the subject of his beloved Isle of Innisfree, “I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; / While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, / I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” How pertinent his words remain in our modern world, particularly in Edward’s case it would seem.
A few weeks later, I catch up with Lauren, Edward’s younger daughter, to talk about her memories of growing up in such a unique spot. “We grew up with the best neighbours you could possibly imagine – two beautiful beaches! My playground was the sea, sand and rocks. We knew we were lucky, but I don’t think you fully appreciate until you’re older how amazing growing up on the coast is. Combine that with the imagination you have when you’re a child – it was just the best.”
And what about seeing the site of her childhood home on the market? Her tone is resolute. “I will be over the moon to see it completed and know that we did it eventually. What a lot of people don’t realise is that our original house was falling apart. That spot – the point – it deserved a building as beautiful as its surroundings. And that’s what we will have created.”
As Chesil Cliff House reaches completion, the mixture of emotions is heady, but one thing is certain: it is now somebody else’s turn to sample the extraordinary lifestyle on offer here and take this landmark of the future into its next chapter. As for Edward Short, well perhaps he can have a long-overdue rest, knowing that at last his legacy has been bored into the rock-solid foundations of this remarkable stretch of coast, holding fast for generations to come.