The Shepherd’s Hut offers the ultimate rural retreat for city dwellers anxious to escape the millstone of high-speed Internet connectivity – and it allows visitors to see the Isle of Wight from a different perspective, says Fiona Sims.
Blame Thomas Hardy. If it weren’t for Gabriel Oak in Hardy’s 1874 classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, then maybe the shepherd’s hut wouldn’t be the glamping icon it is today. In case you hadn’t noticed, the shepherd’s hut is the latest must-have for your garden or campsite. Add the Isle of Wight into the mix, with its long summer days, and you have the perfect canvas-free night under the stars.
The shepherd’s hut has what your shed, however posh, hasn’t – wheels. You can move your hut wherever you want (also rather handy for circumventing planning permission). And your hut boasts something else your shed can’t give you – a sense of history.
References to huts on wheels dates right back to Elizabeth I. By the 19th century shepherds’ huts were de rigueur in farms across the country – before modern farming techniques made them obsolete. In 1939 many old huts found a new lease of life as home guard outposts, but by 1950 most were either pushed into a wood to provide somewhere for the gamekeeper to store his pheasant feed, abandoned at the edge of a field, or just broken-up entirely.
So what is a shepherd’s hut, exactly? The hut provided a simple yet mobile shelter for a shepherd, which was particularly important during lambing season. It was somewhere he could keep warm – there was always a wood-burning stove set on a steel plate in the corner, somewhere to keep his tools, and it was a refuge for orphaned or injured lambs, with small windows on both sides to keep an eye on his flock.
The construction of your shepherd’s hut hasn’t changed much either. Made of materials that were easily obtained, they varied in design, but were generally fairly basic inside. The curved roof was usually made of corrugated iron sitting on top of a wooden or corrugated iron structure (just don’t call it a shed on wheels – enthusiasts won’t thank you). The chassis was formed from a strong and durable cast iron, sometimes recycled from other farm machinery.
The once ubiquitous architectural engineering firms that constructed them in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries have long since gone, replaced by a new wave of artisans whose raison d’être is the shepherd’s hut. One such artisan is James Bradley, of Jim’s Cabins, based on the Isle of Wight, who has been making shepherds’ huts on the Island for the last few years.
Says Bradley: “I’ve always loved small spaces and making things. When I was young, I’d make dens and wooden boxes. Then I read Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Danny and his father lived in a gypsy caravan. I think that book must have lodged somewhere in my mind. I stayed in a gipsy caravan on holiday, and it was a magical time. So when I got a garden I built a summerhouse and a workshop. Then some friends asked me to make them a cabin and one thing lead to another. A few years down the line and the Island has a scattering of my cabins and shepherds’ huts in some lovely locations.”
Bradley’s family owns a meadow and woodland in West Wight and he often builds the huts there, or in a client’s garden. “I think it’s partly the curved roof that makes them so special,” he says. “It’s a very practical shape, and very pleasing to the eye. It’s also that sense you get when you’re in one of being protected from the elements, whilst still being able to enjoy nature.
“The huts I make tend to be quite quirky,” says Bradley. “I like to use reclaimed wooden windows and doors, which are often better made than new ones. I use local timber for the cladding rather than the more traditional corrugated tin. I’ve used driftwood, coppiced hazel from our land, and many salvaged items to make huts. I like working with clients to create something that suits their needs. These days huts are used for so many things – holiday accommodation, an extra bedroom, a studio to paint, draw or write in, a magical play space for children or just an escape from the modern world.
“Location is important. One of my greatest pleasures is waking up in my own cosy hut on a summer morning, pinning the doors back and sitting on the step with a cup of tea, watching the birds and the clouds.”
And if you’re not already seduced, then you will be after a stay in one. Godshill Park Farm House, in Godshill, offers a shepherd’s hut complete with woodburning stove in one of its meadows. “It’s very popular,” reports owner Kathy Domaille, who offers breakfast for guests in the main house. “We decided to offer accommodation in a shepherd’s hut as it enables people to enjoy the lovely secluded parts of our farm. We positioned it right next to a small lake which just adds to the experience,” she says.
Stewart Dungey is no stranger to offering a quirky bed for the night. The owner of Froglands Farm in Carisbrooke caused a stir last year when he converted an old Westland Wessex helicopter into holiday accommodation, so adding a shepherd’s hut – or three – wasn’t such a big leap.
Overlooking the picturesque Bowcombe Valley, ‘Ellie’ sleeps two, while ‘Hector’ and ‘Millie’ both sleep two adults and two kids. And there’s a new shepherd’s hut on the way, he promises. “Expect our new hut to be a little more diverse, so watch this space,” adds Dungey, with a grin.
Though Fiona Headington reckons she is the first in the country to offer a ‘corral’ of shepherds’ huts, with each hut offering a different room, all part of one accommodation unit, sleeping two to six people, at Into the Woods.
Located on the north east of the Island, just outside Whippingham village, the huts are surrounded by farmland and woods and offer a master bedroom with en-suite bathroom in one hut, with a bunkroom, also en-suite, in another hut. Two more huts form the kitchen and living room, the lot arranged around a decked area with outdoor seating, with the additional benefit of Wi-Fi for those who can’t live without it. Though a few days off the grid might be just what the doctor ordered – and if it’s good enough for Lynda Snell in The Archers, then it’s good enough for me.
To Buy: In case you are already counting out the coppers, one of Bradley’s huts will set you back anything between £5k-£12k, jimscabins.co.uk
To Stay: The Hideaway at Into The Woods costs from £300 for two nights, isleofwighttreehouse.com, 07769 696464
The Shepherd’s Hut at Godshill Park Farm costs from £100 a night, godshillparkfarm.uk.com, 01983 840781
‘Ellie’ costs from £125 for four nights, windmillcampersite.com, 07957 572221
If you want to see an original shepherd’s hut, head to the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury, where they are renovating an old one.