For these men, the garden shed is an extension of their home where the rules don’t apply. Anna Tyzack discovers the appeal of escaping (almost) out of doors. Photographs by Jake Eastham and Clara Molden.
It might be creaky, cold and hung with cobwebs, but a simple garden shed can be a powerhouse of creativity. Cut off from domesticity, these four walls provide a space in which to think, to potter or to immerse oneself in a task in blissful isolation. Roald Dahl, Dylan Thomas and Benjamin Britten all found inspiration in their humble accommodation and recent studies suggest that sheds can help men to live longer by reducing their stress levels.
‘Just walking a few steps across the garden from the kitchen to the shed makes all the difference in terms of my ability to think clearly,’ explains illustrator Thiago de Moraes, who works from his shed in south-west London.
For all these reasons, a shed has become something of a status symbol for the modern gentleman. Ben Fogle adores the rustic ‘man cave’ he’s created in his London garden and David Cameron writes from a shepherd’s hut at his home in Oxfordshire. There’s even an online magazine that runs an annual competition to find Britain’s best shed.
Women are also catching the bug, according to Andrew Wilcox, founder of readersheds.co.uk, although there have always been female ‘sheddys’: Virginia Woolf and Barbara Hepworth both found creative inspiration in theirs.
Kate Donald, who with her husband, Duncan, holds the National Plant Collection of pre-1930 daffodils and has no fewer than four sheds at her croft in Wester Ross, Scotland, describes herself as more of a ‘sheddy’ than her husband.
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‘I’m removed from all the boring drudgery I should be doing in the house and I can’t be distracted by it, however hard it beckons,’ she says. ‘A well-stocked potting shed with neatly hung, cleaned tools is a source of satisfaction and serenity. They radiate a sense of steadfast, quietly rewarding purpose.’
Her words might shame those men whose huts are cluttered and chaotic, but then tidiness and cleanliness have never been prerequisites of the garden shed – and this is part of their appeal. ‘They’re extensions of the home without the normal house rules,’ enthuses Mr Wilcox.
The leather shed
When leather designer Bill Amberg moved from London to Bruton in Somerset 13 years ago, the first thing he did was convert his garage into a shed with all the equipment needed to work in leather, wood and metal. ‘I needed somewhere to do my thinking,’ explains Mr Amberg, whose latest project is for the Royal Academy, reupholstering the lecture theatre in saddle leather.
He enjoyed having a space of his own so much that, three years ago, he bought some neighbouring barns and created an even bigger shed, with more lathes and machinery, a substantial sound system and a whisky cabinet. ‘As my studio grew and I became more involved in business management and less involved in the making process, I became frustrated,’ he says. ‘My shed is the perfect escape – it’s my own space, where I can develop and make things and everything is where I want it to be. Getting back on the bench changed everything.’
While he works, often late into the night, he’ll play jazz and reggae and his friends and three daughters might drop in for a chat. ‘My children grew up in my shed, making bags and belts,’ he remembers.
However, it’s not all about work – the equipment is mounted on wheels and can be pushed aside to make space for a dancefloor. ‘It’s a great party venue and we’ve had some late-night knees-ups,’ Mr Amberg laughs. His collection of vintage motorcycles now occupies one of the other barns and he’s in the process of transforming the adjacent shed into a bathhouse. ‘I’m lining it in wood and there’s going to be a cold plunge, a hot tub and a sauna,’ he reveals. ‘It’s terribly indulgent.’
The gin shed
Until recently, Walter Micklethwait’s shed on the Inshriach estate in the Cairngorms National Park housed chickens. Now, it’s an award-winning gin distillery. Using juniper berries and other plants foraged on the nearby hills, Mr Micklethwait produces batches – 500 bottles at a time – of Original 43% Speyside Dry and 57% Navy Strength in hand-hammered stills from Portugal.
‘Scottish juniper is so much more intense than European varieties,’ he contends. Picking the juniper in October is a fiddly ordeal and the distilling process requires concentration, particularly at the beginning and the end. ‘I’ll start on a batch first thing in the morning and won’t be finished until midnight.’
The shed itself contains not only the distillery, but also a piano bar with armchairs known as ‘the ladies’ waiting room’, a general store for the estate and a saloon bar serving up gin cocktails to glampers staying in yurts and shepherd’s huts in the surrounding fields.
‘We reroofed it in a blizzard and restored it using whatever we could get our hands on,’ Mr Micklethwait continues. ‘The oak-parquet floor was salvaged for nothing from a bar in Aviemore, the sash windows are from a house in Edinburgh and the Crittall window in the distillery was dropped off by our mortgage advisor when he came round for a meeting.’
Much to Mr Micklethwait’s delight, the former outhouse won Channel 4’s Shed of the Year competition in 2015. As for the chickens, they now reside in their own turret, built from the remains of Britain’s highest (and smallest) railway station.
The office shed
Architect Alex Kiszczuk’s shed in Peckham, London SE15, which he constructed himself using recycled builders’ pallets, is designed to be a beautiful and thermally efficient working space. ‘Getting to create my own shed was a major incentive for setting up my own architect’s practice two years ago,’ he reveals. The shed is unashamedly industrial in style, with Edison-bulb lighting and exposed wiring. ‘It’s my place of work, so I didn’t want it to be too comfortable,’ explains Mr Kiszczuk.
After stripping down and denailing the pallets, he used them to clad energy-efficient structural insulated panels. Inside, further pallets have been used to create half-height panelling and the dark-grey floor is made of a levelling compound, more commonly used under bathroom tiles, mixed with sand to give it a marbled appearance. There’s also underfloor heating, ensuring that Mr Kiszczuk can use his shed throughout the year. ‘It’s great to be able to work so close to my wife and children, but also to be detached from the family home.’
Although the shed, with its dartboard on the wall, is very much his territory, Mr Kiszczuk permits the occasional guest to sleep on the sofa bed. The verandah, which is made of railway sleepers, conceals two garden cupboards and provides space for a fire pit, a barbecue and a bench. ‘The shed doubles up as a summer house when we have people over and has given our garden a rustic feel, as if it’s not in London,’ he concludes.
The archive shed
Mike Ford’s cowshed in Yarcombe, Devon, is not so much an office – although there is a (rather dusty) computer on a desk – as the archive of a country gentleman. The exposed stone walls are hung with maps, stalking trophies, hunting photographs and fishing rods – there’s a freshwater fishing lake on Mr Ford’s farm, which used to form part of Sir Francis Drake’s estate. Propped up against a pillar is his luge from the Cresta Run in St Moritz (he came off at Shuttlecock) and there’s an old sea chest, a First World War radio and a gas mask and helmet from his time in the Royal Marines on an occasional table.
‘The dust is gathering, but I enjoy being surrounded by all my things when I work or read,’ reflects Mr Ford, who founded the Conservative Rural Action Group and whose wife, Caroline, has been district commissioner of the Cotley branch of the Pony Club for the past 25 years.
His bookshelves are groaning with notebooks, folders and photo albums belonging to both him and his ancestors: one in particular shows his father-in-law, 2nd Baron Nelson of Stafford, on Britain’s first trade mission to China 50 years ago.
His most prized possession? It’s a toss up between his maps, his directory of country businesses and photograph albums from his trip to a shed containing even more historical artefacts than his own: Scott’s Hut in Antarctica.
The railway shed
For Somerset-based railway fan Melvyn Marshman, a garden shed resembling a railway carriage made perfect sense. ‘I didn’t want the usual boring thing,’ explains Mr Marshman, a technical manager for Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton. ‘I was going to be using it to build a steam engine, so the length and shape of a carriage was perfect.’ A full-size replica of a Somerset and Dorset first-class carriage on the outside, with all his tools and machinery inside, he built it himself 10 years ago.
Unfortunately, Mr Marshman’s other hobbies – carpentry, model railways and astronomy – have got in the way of him finishing the steam engine, but he hopes to complete the 20-year project soon. ‘I’d like to run it on a track and chauffeur the grandchildren about,’ he says. ‘The eldest likes to come into the workshop and help me work on the engine. I’m indoctrinating them both into loving Thomas the Tank Engine.’
On average, he spends one evening a week in the shed, ostensibly to work on the engine, but often he’ll simply drink a bottle of beer and daydream. ‘It used to get cold in there, but I insulated it last year and it’s now really quite cosy.’
And what will become of Mr Marshman’s shed once the locomotive is complete? ‘I’ll just start building another steam engine – if I live long enough,’ he laughs.
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