Movable feast: Kitty Morris, four, with her mother, outside their restored hut near Salisbury Photo: ANDREW CROWLEY
There’s something about a shepherd’s hut; something transcendental, some Proustian tug to the past. Once seen, never forgotten and eternally desired. You could imagine Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel Oak sitting inside one of these simple little structures, feeding a sickly lamb in front of a warm stove while picturesquely pining for Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd.
The shepherd’s hut was a simple yet comfortable wooden home on wheels. In the past it was a common sight during lambing on the Wessex Downs when shepherds watched their flocks by night and day. It was kitchen, dining room, bedroom and parlour all rolled into one. When the sheep needed moving the hut came too – it was the ultimate rural mobile home. But times and farming practices change and the majority of huts ended up stranded in hedges, alone and isolated in woodland or serving out their days as hen coops. Until now.
The past few years have seen shepherd’s huts become the countryside must-have; a luxury item, an upmarket shed, the perfect present for the man who has everything. Whether it’s a restored Victorian hut or a freshly built one with all mod cons, the hut is enjoying a new lease of life. You could say the shepherd’s hut is the new (rural) beach hut.
They are used as offices, children’s play houses, writing rooms and even mini shooting lodges. All sorts of people have them, according to David Cherrington of the Shepherd’s Hut Company: “I have sold huts to lords and ladies, scrap metal dealers, amateur painters and everyone in-between.” Everyone, it seems, except shepherds, although fantasy author Terry Pratchett, a famous hut nut, is said to have purchased one for its original purpose.
I can see the appeal. I caught sight of my first hut several years ago, parked on a bank behind a Georgian farmhouse on the Dorset Downs outside Blandford Forum. It conjured up images of the perfect childhood: the Famous Five, lashings of ginger beer in stone bottles, long, hot, drowsy summer afternoons, snug autumnal evenings drying mittens in front of the stove. Originally built in the early years of the 20th century, it had enjoyed a brief turn as a gamekeeper’s hut before sliding into decrepitude. However, it had been lovingly and painstakingly restored by its farmer owner and looked fabulous. I craved that hut and lobbied long and hard for a hut of my own. “We don’t have sheep,” replied my wife, completely missing the point.
However, William Morris, who farms beef cattle near Salisbury, understands totally. He had a hut as a child (lucky man) and has been restoring them for the past 20 years. He used to do it just for friends, but now supplements farming by restoring old huts for the odd client. To him the hut is a simple pleasure and a memory of days gone by. “There is something very magical about shepherd’s huts,” he muses. “Kids love them because they are high up and they can feel that they are the same height as adults, while for adults they can act as a sort of retreat. You feel at peace. It’s a holiday on wheels and a room with a view – you can move them to a beautiful place.”
There was a time when old huts could be found languishing in the countryside in Dorset and Hampshire (where they were primarily used: sheep farmers in Exmoor and North Wales preferred stone cottages), but those times have long gone. Morris says it’s virtually impossible to find unrestored ones lying about now, while the price of an unrestored hut has soared. “Ten years ago you could have got one for £50,” he says. “Five years ago you could pick one up for several hundred pounds. Now several hundred pounds might get you an old iron wheel.”
There are hut snobs who wouldn’t countenance anything other than an original hut. But if you’re not that fussy, you could shell out upwards of £10,000 for a brand spanking new one.
It sounds a lot but, as their champions point out, it’s less than the average extension – and far more atmospheric. David Cherrington’s company produces around 20 huts a year. “It’s actually more economical to build huts from scratch,” he says. “My main problem when I started the business several years ago was sourcing the cast iron wheels. Eventually, I found a foundry in Somerset to produce them.”
New or old, shepherd’s huts are a pure dollop of nostalgia on wheels. They’re tough as old boots and, with their cosy stoves, pretty much an all-weather retreat (much cosier than a tent). They’re movable feasts and yet much cooler than a caravan. Best of all, you get to fling off the trappings and traumas of everyday credit crunched life and make believe – at least while you’re snug inside – that you’ve been teleported back to a simpler, more honest time. There’s a lot to be said for getting far from the madding crowd.