Spectator: A place to call your own

Lucy Baring doesn’t need a shed.

Several years ago, we sketched out the design for Zam’s perfect shed on a piece of kitchen roll. To our surprise, the sketch became a reality of sorts: a long, low building made from corrugated iron, windows donated by the builder and a floor lovingly laid by Zam out of railway sleepers. We chopped a formica kitchen table in half, length-ways, to make worktops and he installed a wood-burning stove in one corner with very expensive pipework that led outside to a ‘smoker’ for fish. The thermodynamics of this distance, height, gradient required much maths and many drawings.

Our friend Robert made iron brackets that hung from the roof to support spare wood. It had double doors, single doors, shelves, power points and perfectly spaced hooks for different sized tools.

Then, we moved and he’s shedless. This isn’t strictly true as there are three wooden structures here, but they’re not what he needs and they’re in the wrong place. When I ask about their future, he says ‘Oh, we’ll keep them’ as he waves his arms expansively and says: ‘I thought we’d put one here… or possibly here… or perhaps both.’

Out of his former temple to DIY, to mending and making, to unfinished projects such as the quarter-sized trebuchet, has come a very large pile of packing cases marked ‘shed’ or ‘Pure Shed’. This reminds me of an editor I once worked for who asked journalists if their stories were fact or true fact. The contents of the boxes are, however, less ambiguous.

We discuss this need for sheds at lunch and remember how, at a birthday party, a remarkable number of teenage boys preferred to sit in Zam’s shed, which doubled as the cloakroom for coats, rather than taking part in the main event. Zam had been unsurprised by this because of course they’d rather be in the shed this was natural behaviour. When they broke a large bag of Portland cement, which blew over every surface, he became less understanding. The coats, and some of the tools, never recovered.

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The conversation had taken a ‘men and their sheds’ turn, but it wasn’t long before we were roundly chastised by the charming undergraduate daughter of our hosts. Sheds, she said, are not the last male bastion in a modern household because it doesn’t need such things.

As she’d also ticked off her mother (for describing the person selling The Big Issue outside their local shop as a ‘girl’ when she’s probably over 18 and to call her a girl is derogatory, she’s a woman) and admonished her father (for describing a mutual friend as ‘scatty’, which is a sexist adjective because it’s rarely used on men), you can see that lunch was quite exhausting.

Back home, I reminded Zam that I have a ‘lady shed’ in the form of an unfinished shepherd’s hut still sitting in Hampshire. He asked what I would do with it, should it ever reach here and be completed: ‘Music? Sofas?’ Well no, I’ve got a sitting room for those. ‘I think I’ll have a crafting table,’ I say, which makes me sound like a girl. Woman.  Alf suggests he keeps his BB gun arsenal in the hut.

Zam then noticed that I’d put a towel on the sofa. This was because I didn’t want Fletcher to ruin the ‘heirloom’, a beloved suzani on which I had once spent a small fortune and on which the dachshund likes to lie, especially when fresh from a muddy walk. Such precious behaviour on my part reminded Zam that much of the house feels like female terrain. ‘For instance, the bathroom is definitely yours,’ he stated. ‘And the kitchen.’

I think this is true and, despite my admiration for the undergraduate, who is right to question, prod and provoke the middle-aged, I watch Zam stride towards the vegetable patch to pace it out ‘One metre, two metres, three metres’ and have to accept that we’re not a modern household at all.