In Northumberland, the huts in the dunes at Low Newton are a well-known landmark. From their vantage point overlooking Embleton Bay the view is spectacular: yellow sand, a big sky, and the ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle in the distance. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to stay in one for a weekend with some old school friends. The huts were built in the 1930s on land belonging to the owner of the nearby golf course (the land is now owned by the National Trust), and still have a chirpy mid-twentieth century atmosphere about them. While they have running water, and most are comfortable enough even for extended stays, they are not habitable year-round. In any case, the water supply is turned off for half the year, there is no vehicle access, and no mains electricity. The lack of electricity probably didn’t matter much to most people in the 1930s, and it is surprising, when it is not available, how little it matters even now. It wouldn’t be in the spirit of things anyway. Supplies are carried in over the dunes by wheelbarrow, and rubbish carried out the same way. It makes you think hard about what you need, and what you don’t, and reminds you that, for a while at least, you don’t actually need very much at all.
In 2005 Alex Johnson began publishing a magazine called The Shed for those of us who, like him, work from home in outbuildings and sheds. The magazine was soon joined by a blog called Shedworking, and the blog became this beautifully made, smartly written book, which landed here yesterday. What a lovely, passionate, well informed book this is. It is difficult to read it and not want to build a shed and get to work.
Like the blog that inspired it this book is essential reading for anyone considering setting up to become a shedworker; if you are already a shedworker you’ll want it on the shelf too. It contains a history of shedworking and famous shedworkers, from Pliny, to Gustav Mahler and Roald Dahl, musician Peter Gabriel, human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, and journalist Andrew Marr. There are many, many marvellous pictures of sheds and garden offices, shedworkers’ stories (a lovely surprise was finding my own shed on page 56), advice on building your own, what you might do there, on green shedworking and possibilities beyond the shed: canal boats, railway carriages, airstream caravans and treehouses. What comes across most of all is the happiness shedworking brings to the lives of those who have arranged to be able to do it.
The Long Arctic Night is a fictionalised account of William Barents’ third voyage to the Arctic in search of the Northeast Passage, a voyage from which he did not return. I credit this book with turning me into a reader. It wasn’t the first ‘chapter’ book I read for myself, but it is the one I remember most clearly. I was a bit worried that reading it again would be a disappointment but it is every bit as clear and well paced as I remember.
Barents set out on May 6, 1596, from Amsterdam, only for his ship to become trapped in the ice, forcing the crew to overwinter in a tiny wooden hut they built on Nova Zembla:
Meanwhile we had made good progress with the building of our hut, and the four walls were almost completed, so that everyone could see there were to be three doors, one facing east, one south, and one west. The north wall, however, was entirely solid, as the rawest and coldest winds generally blow from that direction; and Piet, well aware of that, had, with foresight, provided for it in his construction plan. … On the following day we added the slanting roof, which sloped at an oblique angle from north to south, and covered it thickly with mud paste, which froze as usual the instant it was applied.
The men encounter bears, live on seal meat and develop scurvy. When the ice finally melts the following Spring they find the ship has been crushed, forcing them to sail back to the mainland in two small boats.
Amazingly the hut itself was rediscovered almost 300 years later, in 1871; many artefacts were recovered and are kept at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The photograph shows how it looked in 1881, but the site is now marked by a memorial and is visited by arctic cruise ships. In recent years, as global warming melts the ice, the Northeast Passage has become passable to shipping, shaving around 3000 miles from the journey between the Netherlands and South Korea.
I spent the summer of 2003 building a shed at the bottom of the garden to use as an office. Since that first effort I’ve thought a lot about building things with wood and it seems that after a while the urge to build more just gets too strong to resist. In 2007, with the ‘help’ of my daughter–then aged three–I built a bike shed extension to the main shed. She was almost as excited about it as I was, especially when it came to painting it blue, and by the time we had finished she was pestering me for a shed of her own.
It has taken two years to find the time and inclination to do it–it was nearly scuppered by a neck injury which has been bugging me for the past year or so–but I thought I’d share a few pictures of the build. Some of these were taken by the incumbent herself, a regular little Thoreau who says she likes having a place to think. Grown-ups are allowed inside on high days and holidays, but only if they leave their shoes on the mat.
Most of the wood is new, from a local merchant, Newlands, but quite a bit of it is reclaimed from scraps that have been lying around for a while. This caused a few problems as wet wood decided to uncurl in situ and it means the ply for the roof is not as tidy as it could be; I didn’t want to buy an entire sheet of ply just to cover a small space. Part of the plan was to build something that would serve as a store for garden furniture during the winter and outlast its life as a playhouse, so while the roof is low the door is disproportionately wide to allow large items to be kept inside. I’m pleased with the result. The problem now though is that we have run out of garden, so if in a year or two my thoughts turn once again to shed building, we’ll have to move house.
Update 20/05/10: Move to WordPress.com meant the slideshow stopped working. Replaced with a gallery.
I spent part of last week in Oslo and discovered that Norway is arguably the shed capital of the world. I’ve posted two sets of photographs on my photoblog, Ingrahap, of waterside huts from around Oslo Fjord here and here. Shed week starts on July 6th this year. Go and vote for your shed of the year, right here. I’m backing Bletchley Park hut 6.
I’ve just spent half an hour digging up an area of the garden where I’m planning to plant some peas and while I was doing it I caught up with BlogTalkRadio’s interview with Alex “Shedworking” Johnson. I’m an enthusiastic shedworker and it was great to hear Alex explaining the advantages of small garden buildings dedicated to work. He does a fine job of promoting shedworking as a way of life. I was particularly interested to hear him talking about ‘balance’ and how shedworking enables him to see more of his kids. Lots of people will identify with that. All the links are available here. Well worth a listen.
Lots of us are trying to find ways to make our favourite online reading available in other forms and the Tabbloid service from HP aims to help by converting RSS feeds into a pdf. You can add as many feeds as you like (at least I can’t see a restriction) and a nicely formatted pdf ‘magazine’ is emailed to you at intervals you specify. There’s no sign-up and the service is free, but you do need to give your email address, for obvious reasons.
Good news at the Shedworking blog, where Alex announced this morning that he has found a publisher for his book Shedworking: the alternative workplace revolution. The project was a casualty of HarperCollins’s takeover of The Friday Project last year so it’s great to see this book back on schedule:
After a long search for the right publisher, I’m delighted to announce that ‘Shedworking: the alternative workplace revolution’ will be published during National Shed Week in July 2010 by Frances Lincoln. It’s a natural home for Shedworking … [Read more]
The Shedworking blog is publicising the campaign to save the rapidly crumbling Bletchley Park huts. These were home to the most strategically important shedworkers in history: they cracked the codes used by the Germans during World War II and helped bring the war to its conclusion.
Edit 9 February 2009. Bletchley Park Hut 6 has been entered for the 2009 Shed of the Year competition. The entry on Readersheds is here. And it’s in a sorry state. A good showing during Shed Week, which begins on July 6th, might help save this historic hut.
Not all well known garden offices and shedworking atmospheres are actually real. Naturally, sheds feature heavily in many children’s stories – in my case Jennings’ Little Hut by Anthony Buckeridge is probably ultimately the inspiration for this magazine – from the rustic simplicity of the Secret Seven’s meeting hut and Hagrid’s single room live/work timber building in the Harry Potter stories, to the rather splendid back garden laboratory which belongs to Charlie Ashanti’s mother in Zizou Corder’s Lionboy.