Converting a lifeboat station in Tenby

Transforming a Grade II-listed lifeboat station on a South Wales beach proved challenging

By Luke Tebbutt | 7 August 2020

The Grand Designs Tenby lifeboat station, located on a very public site and at the mercy of the elements, presented a set of unique challenges. Kevin McCloud’s bemused face said it all when he asked Tim and Philomena O’Donovan, ‘Why?’

Why would they want to turn a crumbling lifeboat station, under constant attack from the elements, into a home? Tim said they did it for the same reason that people climb Mount Everest – ‘because it’s there,’ adding, only half joking, that it’s the only way to get a mooring in Tenby.

But now they’re having the last laugh – their converted home gives them an unimpeded view across the harbour all to themselves. Plots don’t get much more spectacular than this. They don’t get much more difficult either.

Lifeboat house on wooden pier overlooking South Wales beach and stunning mountains

The building is Grade-II listed, so the exterior cladding was replaced like for like. Photo: Chris Tubbs

Slow progress

It took Tim and Philomena seven years just to start building, which involved negotiations with the Crown Estate to buy the freehold for their strip of the beach (a first for the UK, to Tim’s knowledge), and then a competitive bid against others (including a café and a lobster hatchery) to prove they had the wherewithal to convert – and more importantly, maintain – the Grade II-listed building.

‘We can all be daft, but they wanted to make sure the daft person taking this on would have enough resources to see it through,’ says Tim. ‘And as you know, money talks, and when it does, it usually tells the truth.’

Next came the hard part: getting steel, glass and other heavy materials on site, with no road access – just a coastal path and the beach. Most had to be transported across the sand and craned up the 40ft-high pier, which meant regular dashes between the tides. Not a bad thing necessarily – after all, there’s nothing like the immovable deadline of high tide to encourage speedy work.

However, once all the materials had arrived, things became very slow. Trying to fit straight steel and skirting boards into a warped Edwardian building was a challenge and a half. Subsequently the initial nine-month build time for the Tenby lifeboat station conversion doubled to 18 months.

tenby lifeboat station from grand designs is not for sale

Local residents have been visiting the building since its restoration, and the new RNLI lifeboat station next door has seen its donations from visitors double. Photo: Chris Tubbs

The Grand Designs Tenby lifeboat station, located on a very public site and at the mercy of the elements, presented a set of unique challenges. Kevin McCloud’s bemused face said it all when he asked Tim and Philomena O’Donovan, ‘Why?’

Why would they want to turn a crumbling lifeboat station, under constant attack from the elements, into a home? Tim said they did it for the same reason that people climb Mount Everest – ‘because it’s there,’ adding, only half joking, that it’s the only way to get a mooring in Tenby.

But now they’re having the last laugh – their converted home gives them an unimpeded view across the harbour all to themselves. Plots don’t get much more spectacular than this. They don’t get much more difficult either.

Lifeboat house on wooden pier overlooking South Wales beach and stunning mountains

The building is Grade-II listed, so the exterior cladding was replaced like for like. Photo: Chris Tubbs

Slow progress

It took Tim and Philomena seven years just to start building, which involved negotiations with the Crown Estate to buy the freehold for their strip of the beach (a first for the UK, to Tim’s knowledge), and then a competitive bid against others (including a café and a lobster hatchery) to prove they had the wherewithal to convert – and more importantly, maintain – the Grade II-listed building.

‘We can all be daft, but they wanted to make sure the daft person taking this on would have enough resources to see it through,’ says Tim. ‘And as you know, money talks, and when it does, it usually tells the truth.’

Next came the hard part: getting steel, glass and other heavy materials on site, with no road access – just a coastal path and the beach. Most had to be transported across the sand and craned up the 40ft-high pier, which meant regular dashes between the tides. Not a bad thing necessarily – after all, there’s nothing like the immovable deadline of high tide to encourage speedy work.

However, once all the materials had arrived, things became very slow. Trying to fit straight steel and skirting boards into a warped Edwardian building was a challenge and a half. Subsequently the initial nine-month build time for the Tenby lifeboat station conversion doubled to 18 months.

tenby lifeboat station from grand designs is not for sale

Local residents have been visiting the building since its restoration, and the new RNLI lifeboat station next door has seen its donations from visitors double. Photo: Chris Tubbs

Creating more space

Local architects Michael Argent and Adam Chandler’s design led to a two-storey lifeboat station house. Tim’s original vision was for a single-storey arrangement. The trick for getting more space upstairs was to remove some of the original roof trusses. This gave headroom for Tim and Philomena’s en-suite bedroom at one end, and a library overlooking the sea at the other. There’s a bridge between them that floats over the kitchen below.

‘The idea is that somebody could be in the library, somebody could be in the bedroom, and somebody could be in the kitchen, but they could all still talk to each other,’ says Michael Argent.

‘Michael was the find of the whole project,’ says Tim. ‘I found him, and he found another floor.’

Living area of Grand Designs lifeboat station with deep blue corner sofa, wooden coffee table and sliding clear double door overlooking the sea

The sliding glazed doors open on to uninterrupted views of Tenby harbour. Photo: Chris Tubbs

Interior styling a lifeboat station

Downstairs, a cluster of bedrooms and bathrooms is arranged around the entrance to the Tenby lifeboat house, which opens on to the open-plan kitchen-diner and living space, offering a clean sweep down to the water. It feels like the architectural equivalent of a waterbed, only without the movement. You can see and hear and smell the sea all around.

Philomena’s expert eye for interiors enhances the nautical feel – all blues and sandy browns inspired by the views, and lamps that look like they’re made of driftwood. There’s a coat rack full of life jackets, a viewing porthole straight through the floor to the crashing sea below, and a Shaker-style kitchen to fit with the seaside theme.

Kitchen space with island and dining table, looking up to clear gallow hallway

To work around the slope, a steel frame was used to support a steeped interior. Photo: Chris Tubbs

A once in a lifetime project

‘This property, I would say, would come up once in a lifetime,’ says Tim. ‘I cannot imagine anything else that would hold a candle to it. It’s the bee’s knees and the cat’s pyjamas.’

Tenby lifeboat station was one of the busiest in Wales during its heyday. Local residents have a strong attachment to the building which has received plenty of visitors since its restoration. And for Philomena it’s especially significant, since she grew up in a small coastal town like Tenby, with the RNLI at its heart. Friends and family volunteered, or were rescued, and her earliest memories are of running to watch the rescue boats being launched.

‘They would set off three flares, and we would run as fast as we could to the lifeboat station. There was always a feeling of reassuring calmness in these buildings. ‘Getting that feeling back was incredibly important.’

Double bed with blue tartan duvet and white furniture

From Tim and Philomena’s bed, there is a direct view out towards Tenby harbour. Photo: Chris Tubbs

How much did the Tenby lifeboat house cost?

But what of the cost? Kevin guesstimated more than £600,000 for the build alone on TV, but Tim won’t confirm. He’s not even sure he can. After all, any conversion is a leap into the financial unknown, especially one built on a rusting pier.

‘I didn’t budget. I didn’t keep a record of what this or that cost,’ he says. ‘I’d only be doing it to annoy myself. Instead of sitting down thinking, “Isn’t this lovely?”, I’d be sitting down thinking, “Isn’t this £84,000?”. And my spending isn’t finished yet anyway. All the steel beneath, supporting the pier, is going to be repainted.’

Tim planned to sandblast it to get rid of the rust, then add a super-protective coating to keep it in good nick for years to come, and reduce the estimated £6,000-per-year maintenance cost.

the bedroom in the tenby lifeboat station has views out to the sea

At the flick of a switch, the bedroom’s glass wall turns opaque to provide privacy. Photo: Chris Tubbs

What happened next?

So what happened to the Tenby lifeboat house once the cameras stopped rolling? ‘Since the house was shown on TV, I have to walk around Tenby looking at the pavement,’ says Tim. Rumours are constantly doing the rounds that the Tenby Lifeboat station is for sale. But it isn’t (the old Mumbles lifeboat station near Swansea is, however, for sale). Nor can you rent it for a holiday. But letters and emails have come aplenty, and a stranger at the door is no longer such a strange thing.

‘One man came last week and said, “Lovely programme, now can you answer me, is that a Welsh blanket in the master bedroom?”’ recalls Tim. ‘I said, “It is.” And he said, “Well that’s why we’re here. We’d like to buy it.” I told him it’s not for sale and he said, “Well if you won’t sell us your blanket, can we at least have a photo of you with our children?”’

Watch the Tenby lifeboat station episode of Grand Designs (2011) on All 4
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