A row of quirky and individual beachfront Fishermen’s Cottages provides a unique perspective on the sea. Sarah Millington meets a resident who is reluctantly packing up and heading for Australia

ANNE CURTIS holds up a picture taken from her front window. It shows a white mist above a sea whipped up in the maelstrom of a storm. It’s easy to see how looking directly out onto the beach at Whitburn, as she does from this window every day, gives Anne a real sense of being part of nature. “You do have a sense of the power of storms and the sea from here,” she reflects. “It’s very good for the soul – it’s very healing. You feel small in relation to nature and there’s also a sense of freedom because you aren’t hemmed in at all. I’ve lived next to the sea all my life.”

If they could be bottled and sold, no doubt these feelings would make someone a fortune, cancelling out the need for medication or therapy. As it is, homes at The Bents, where Anne lives, are pretty expensive for two-bed terraces in the North-East, reflecting their location. But people don’t buy them for being good value for money – they fall in love with them. This was why 63-year-old Anne came to buy her cottage three years ago.

“I grew up knowing these cottages,” she says. “We call this ‘Walrus Cottage’ because Lewis Carroll was inspired to write The Walrus and the Carpenter by the rocks there. He used to come and stay at Whitburn Hall. I’d admired the cottages for most of my life, but I didn’t envisage that I would live here one day.”

This reverence didn’t put Anne off when it came to making changes. She describes the cottage, built in 1937, as “old-fashioned, higgledy-piggledy and very small” when she moved in, so she set about completely reconfiguring it. “We decided it would be easier to take all the walls, floors and ceilings out and start with a shell,” she explains. “The only original parts are the bricks in the front wall.”

The result is a Tardis-like home in which every nook and cranny has been put to clever use – like making dead window space into a bookcase. It’s also extremely quirky and individual – a testimony to Anne’s creativity – with things like decoupage pen nibs and pairs of vintage shoes on the stairs and paintings of flowers in jars throughout. This is Anne’s latest project, she explains. “I’m just a maker – that’s how I describe myself,” she says. “I make hats, I do textiles, I’m teaching myself to paint – so I set myself the task of painting flowers in jars. I’ve just had my cushions printed (with designs copied from the paintings) ready to sell them.”

Having started as a teacher, Anne progressed into advising on creative approaches to teaching and learning. This culminated, in 2003, in her setting up a small publishing company, Shoo Fly, specialising in creating digital resources for schools. It won several awards for its animated books with themes that could be explored across the curriculum – then Anne decided it was time to bow out. “Shoo Fly is still on the go, but I’m not working with the company anymore,” she says. “The demand is for software and not creative content.”

She now plans to use the legacy of her time in publishing to complete a PhD. “I’m doing a PhD through creative and published works,” says Anne. “The intention is also to paint more. I’ve always had to make money for the family, but now I feel it’s time to push my skill as a painter.”

This new direction in Anne’s career coincides with a move to Australia, where she plans to establish a live-in studio. She’s bought a property on 50 acres of land shared with her son William and the idea is to be nearer him and her other two children – Sam, who lives in Japan, and New Zealand-based Ruth. This, of course, means leaving the cottage.

“I refuse to be sad about it,” declares Anne. “I’ve learned that it’s bricks and mortar and the important thing is family and people you love and care about. I’ve learned that you can create a home anywhere so I’m not sentimental about it.”

This confidence stems partly from having once lived in a former electric substation. Prior to buying the cottage, Anne and her husband converted the building at The Hawthorns, East Boldon, into a home, doing a lot of the work themselves. Such was the scale of the project, it was featured on the TV show Grand Designs. “Building doesn’t faze me,” she explains. “I like building. It’s like a big sculpture.” Anne has also been a quarter finalist in the BBC’s Great Interior Design Challenge.

Her vast experience has underpinned Anne’s decisions at the cottage, both practical and aesthetic. For example, because of its location, she chose ceramic tiles for the downstairs floor. “I wanted it to be really durable because you get a lot of sand getting into the house and that would scratch wood,” she says.

A lot of the furniture – including the marble-topped kitchen table and the German filing cabinet standing next to it – is antique, and Anne hasn’t been afraid to experiment with it. “The lights are from a snooker table,” she says, pointing upwards. Then, showing me a door with a decorative glass plate in the middle, she adds: “I had that door and this piece of art just fitted in.”

While the ground floor – crammed with an eclectic mix of art and antiques – assaults the senses, the two-bedroomed upstairs does the opposite. Designed to induce calm, it’s pale and carpeted with minimal decoration. “I like a restful feel,” says Anne. “You just want to go to sleep.”

Before she leaves at the end of July, Anne plans to host a charity open day – a tradition she’s kept for the past three years – where people can call in for coffee and cake in exchange for a donation to help fight breast and prostate cancers. She did a similar thing at Christmas in aid of homeless charities. “People came on Christmas Day who normally would have nowhere to go,” says Anne. “People said, ‘This is amazing. This is what Christmas is about,’ so there was a lot of benefit – not just raising money.”

She accepts that the move will be a big step, but is looking forward to it – especially the prospect of designing another new home. “Of course I will miss the North-East because it’s my home, but I’ve also got to acknowledge that my life has taken a different path and perhaps I need to create a new home,” says Anne. “It will be a very small space, very light, with lots of glass and a mezzanine bed because I’ll live and work there. Also, I’m going to invest in a swimming pool. I love swimming. It’ll be about living outdoors.”