Not many 32-year-olds would relish the thought of leaving their independent urban lifestyle and moving back into their familial home – still complete with parents – with a view to it being forever. Yet it was a proposition that artist Dora Dewsbery didn’t have to think twice about. Deciding to leave the bright lights of London last April, she returned to The Beacon in Hastings, the sprawling clifftop mansion she last left at 19. ‘I feel such a connection with this place,’ she explains, showing us the warren of rooms squirrelled over four floors. ‘I spent my formative years in this house. I feel free here.’
Today the set-up is fascinatingly unconventional, as is every bit of this marvellous space. Dora, her boyfriend Tim and their one-year-old Schnoodle puppy, Nico, live on the fourth floor of the house. On the third is aunt Sarah. The second floor belongs to mum Judy, with Dora’s dad – who separated from her mother a decade ago – renting Dora’s childhood bedroom across the hallway. Another room is earmarked for Tim’s brother, due to move in next week, with the final floor a patchwork of kitchens, a bar and other rooms stuffed with elaborate, vibrant materials and hired as studios by local artists. It’s a commune of highly creative people, all drawn to these walls: walls that are hung with artwork, dusted by dog tails and heavy with stories.
The family bought the house some 21 years ago, having sold their two-bedroom maisonette on a London council estate to move to the seaside town. Dora, 11 at the time, couldn’t believe her luck, a childhood wonder that you can still see in her eyes now. ‘The thing I most remember was the sheer size of it. My parents had moved their bedroom into the sitting room in London to give us bedrooms of our own, so my brother and I were beside ourselves with excitement. We basically had a floor each.’ A magical Halloween party is a stand-out memory, the evidence – a framed picture of them all dressed as The Adams Family – hanging in one of the downstairs toilets. ‘My mum had gone to town creating this ghost walk around the house and the grounds,’ she recalls. ‘There were jelly-filled gloves on the washing line and she’d rigged up a skeleton on a bicycle and one on a swing, rocking in the moonlight. The trail ended in one of the outhouses, which was decked out as a terrifying vampire’s den with bottles of blood everywhere. People came miles to be part of the evening. It was quite something.’
And people are still coming miles for a variety of art classes, pop-up suppers, garden parties and events that the house regularly hosts and that Dora, when she isn’t creating artwork in her bedroom, commits her time to organising. ‘We’ve had speakeasies, weddings and even a funeral. People see the house as a completely blank canvas – there are few rules here. It can be anything you want it to be.’
And it would appear that the walls really do have stories they can speak of. Not long after the family moved in, back in the early 1990s, a group of elderly people arrived on the doorstep explaining that they’d lived in the house as children and asking if they could enter and ignite old memories. ‘My mum spent the afternoon showing them around, letting them explore,’ remembers Dora. It was only when the group came to leave that they noticed one of the ladies was absent, coming down from upstairs some 15 minutes later. ‘She told us she’d spent a long time talking to the ‘grey-haired lady’ who was living on the fourth floor and how this lady was thrilled that our family had moved in and had brought so much joy to the house.’ Of course, there was no such lady and she hasn’t appeared since. ‘But we were glad she approved of us being here,’ says Dora.