Once a safe place for newborn, orphaned lambs, a lovingly restored shepherd's hut now provides cherished sanctuary for one man and his dog
Tucked within a quiet Norfolk garden, the curved iron roof and silver-grey weathered wooden walls of
a traditional shepherd’s hut contrast gently with the greenery of spring. Chickens and ducks shelter beneath it, while homemade preserves are stored inside it.
Today, it is a quiet, peaceful place for owner Ian McDonald and his wife, Carol. In its heyday in the late 19th century, however, it would have provided much needed shelter for a working shepherd. Towed out to the fields in early spring by horses, the hut was the solitary shepherd’s home throughout
the lambing season.
There were few home comforts. Measuring 9ft high, by 7ft 6in wide and 12ft 6in long (2.75 x 2.3 x 3.8m) it was big enough to house its single occupant and one or two lambs. There would have been a rudimentary wooden bed but no mattress, a stove, storage box for medicine and food, and possibly a cage for orphan lambs. This was often placed under the bed, allowing
the shepherd and lambs to share body warmth on cold nights.
Ian and his family have owned the hut since 2003. It was in a derelict state when he and Carol first saw it at School Farm in their village of Barford, Norfolk. Rotting away, trees were growing out of the roof. The hut’s neglected state and obvious need for care instantly attracted them. “I just saw the hut and thought it was interesting,” says Carol.
History in the making
Using a forklift truck and a trailer, they transported the hut back to their house on the other side of the village. “Unfortunately the front axle fell off when we lifted it up as the wood was so rotten,” says Ian. Undeterred, he set about a thorough restoration. At the same time he started research to find out more about shepherd’s huts and their history.
Several months were spent carefully taking the crumbling structure apart, recording every detail. “I measured and drew everything.” This was done so he would know exactly how to
put it back together correctly. He also visited the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse rural history museum in nearby
Dereham. They had two huts, and also gave him the number
of a woman who had researched the subject. She put him in touch with former shepherd and shepherd’s hut enthusiast, Gerald Beavis, from Cambridgeshire. All provided useful information for his restoration work.
Eventually, Ian was ready to begin the task of rebuilding his hut. An electrical engineer by profession, he was helped by what he learnt during a four-year coach-building apprenticeship in his youth. This provided him with the woodwork, metalwork and welding skills needed for much of the work. The restoration took approximately two years. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” he says.
“It was a way of coming back from work and unwinding.”
A hut with heart
Today, the hut is warm and cosy. On a bright spring day, it is full of sunshine, with a gentle woody smell. Birdsong is heard through the open door. The interior is lined with pine and the floor is made from pitch pine salvaged from a chapel in Suffolk. There are two comfortable wicker chairs and a set of shelves.
“I love coming here,” says Ian. “When you step inside, you could be anywhere. It is so peaceful. As a child, I always wanted a den, somewhere to go and hide, and to keep my treasures. Even as an adult, it is great to have a hideaway.”
Over the years, the hut has been used to hold parish council meetings and children’s sleepovers. Carol uses it as an art studio, her paint box and jars of brushes sitting on a small folding table. Underneath is a large wooden box. “It is a genuine shepherd’s chest and was given to us by a shepherd,” says Ian. Hanging by the door is
a selection of old tools accumulated over time, including sheep shears and a crook. In one corner is a small Victorian coal-burning stove.
“We have tried to keep it as authentic as possible,” he says.
A varied past
As part of his research, Ian traced his own hut’s story back to 1945 when it was bought to house a German prisoner of war, Hans Lenzen. He had been sent to work for Eddie Simmonds, of School Farm. Towed 15 miles by tractor from Hall Farm, Rackheath, it cost £7.
Hans appears to have lived in the hut until he was declared free of his PoW status in 1947. He married a local woman and remained in East Anglia. Ian managed to contact him, but Hans’ age prevented the pair meeting. Instead, his son Robin visited and gave Ian copies of his father’s papers. These included his PoW documentation and discharge form from the Luftwaffe. He recalled his father describing the hut as a basic, cold place where he struggled to dry his clothes in winter.
For the following 20 years, the hut was used as a farm store and dog house. Rodney Brown, the owner of the haulage company that moved the hut for Ian, recalled choosing a puppy from a litter born in it in the 1960s. “He helped me move the hut for free as he had fond memories of it,” says Ian.
The hut’s past uses are an important part of its attraction for Ian. “The history really gets me,” he says. “I love the fact it has evolved from a shepherd’s hut to a home for a PoW to a farm store and a dog house, and now we have prolonged its life. It makes it something special and gives it an atmosphere.
“I am fascinated by the history of how and why these huts were used, as well as the huts themselves. Sometimes there were notes written in the huts themselves, as the shepherds recorded information they might need onto the wooden walls.” Unfortunately, this was not the case with Ian’s hut as the original lining was tarred sackcloth.
Saving farming heritage
Ian is keen to share his knowledge to encourage others to rescue these huts. To this end, he has set up a website with links to the specialists who helped him. The site also records historic hut manufacturers and has a section on their history as well as practical tips.
“I want people to save these pieces of our industrial heritage while they are still out there,” he says. “I love the skill and craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into building the huts in the first place, but it’s their history that makes them so special.”
A labour of love
Ian restored his hut in sections, starting with the ironwork. Most of this was reusable, apart from the bolts, which had been corroded by the tannin from the wet oak. The four cast iron wheels and the axle swivel plate were sandblasted to remove rust. Next they were sprayed with hot zinc to protect them from future damage. Replacements for the bolts were commissioned from a company in Sheffield to old Imperial standards. “I wanted the hut to be built how it was originally. Where that wasn’t possible, I used new parts made to old specifications,” explains Ian.
The original wooden axles had to be replaced. Plywood patterns were cut, then new ones were made from solid oak at a nearby sawmill. These were bolted to the chassis with specially made 16in (41cm) bolts. Wrought iron pieces came from the Sheffield ironworks.
“The chassis sat on wet ground for at least 40 years as the wheels and axles sunk into soft soil. A screwdriver could be pushed through the 4in thick timber,” says Ian. Four new side panels were made from oak and pine. A new curved corrugated iron roof was sourced from a specialist who makes pig arks. The door was made of larch and the window frames of oak. He then assembled the hut with the help of some friends.
Finally the outside cladding, made of green or unseasoned larch planks, was attached. Butted together vertically, a much narrower larch plank or joining strip was placed over the gap between each plank. This allows for movement in the wood. In the summer the planks shrink, opening up a gap between them. The joining strip ensures the walls remain sealed. The wood has room to expand with the winter wet without buckling. The woodwork is now treated annually with preservative.
Huts on wheels
The earliest known mention of shepherd’s huts dates back to 1596. English writer Leonard Mascall mentioned a ‘cabbine upon a wheel’ used
by shepherds in a work on rural life. Their popularity peaked in the 19th century, with some continuing in use until after
the First World War.
Thomas Hardy gives a detailed description of Gabriel Oak’s shepherd’s hut in Far From the Madding Crowd. “The inside of the hut was cosy and alluring... In the corner stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side were ranged bottles and canisters of simple preparations pertaining to ovine surgery and physic... On a triangular shelf across the corner stood bread, bacon, cheese and a cup for ale or cider which was supplied from a flagon beneath... The house was ventilated by two round holes like the lights of a ship’s cabin, with wood slides.”
Out of lambing season, the huts were used to supervise sheep folding at the end of the year. This was the practice of using sheep to fertilise fields. A small area would be fenced off and the animals left to graze on root crops. Once these were consumed, the flock would be moved onto the next section. The land would then be ploughed and the nutrients in the sheep droppings returned to the soil. The ammonium nitrate fertilisers developed after the First World War rendered this process obsolete.
As changing agricultural practices saw shepherd’s huts fall out of use, many slid into disrepair, gently rotting away where they stood. Some were even broken up and burned. A resurgence of interest at the end of the 20th century has seen many surviving huts rescued and renovated for use once more.
Words: Diana Woolf Photography: Richard Faulks