As a nation we are obsessed with obsessions. Sheds are the latest. But the garden retreats featured on the new series of the Amazing Spaces spin-off, Shed of the Year – from a gorgeous owl-shaped shed on Merseyside to a Buckinghamshire “shedservatory” with a retractable roof for stargazing – are more than that: symbols of an age of affluence in which people yearn for simpler ways of living.
My father-in-law, a gardener, was dismissive of the spectacular “sheds” on show. “A shed has got to have tools in it,” he says, and the dictionaries back him up. Sheds are simple structures. Think Arthur Fowler down the allotment. Felt roof, rakes, creosote – not huge log bothies or luxurious two-storey garden offices.
These adult playhouses are luxuries for those with spare cash, space and time. They also cry out for another spin-off show: Sheds v the Neighbours (and Planners).It is easy to be snide, and yet sheds – ancient and modern – exert a real emotional pull. The most memorable buildings I’ve visited in the last year have been a tiny hut built from shipwrecked boat timbers in the cliffs of Morwenstow, Cornwall, and a wooden shed with papers scattered over the floor overlooking four estuaries at Laugharne, south Wales.
The former was a bolt-hole for Robert Hawker, a Victorian poet-vicar, who found great solace overlooking the Atlantic. The latter was the shed where Dylan Thomas wrote “Over Sir John’s hill/ The hawk on fire hangs still”. Thomas’s beautifully preserved shed is a fantasy of a writer’s den, a siren calling us to a simpler life.
Everyone loves a roundhouse, a horse-drawn caravan, a writer’s shed. But rather than actually renouncing material comforts and embracing the challenge of living in such a dwelling permanently, we site these escapist eco-pods alongside our over-heated, over-appointed homes.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that our love for sheds might yet transform our housing industry, planning system and building regulations to allow the creation of simpler, cheaper, low-consumption homes. But that passion should be a start. And Shed of the Year? My money is on the owl-shaped triumph of Merseyside.
In my previous home, I was lucky enough to live overlooking an overgrown urban cemetery. My toddlers and I roamed this woodland and wildflower meadow, climbing trees, watching butterflies, thinking about those laid to rest. Over the solstice weekend, residents of Southwark in south London similarly celebrated their “woods”, the 100-acre green lung of Camberwell old and new cemeteries, a place of peace for the dead and joy for the living. Southwark council wants to clear an area of Camberwell old cemetery of what it dismisses as a “scrubby” landscape to make space for 4,800 new graves. Local campaigners need support for a petition urging councillors to protect what has become a priceless urban nature reserve. Our responsibilities encompass the dead and the living.
A beast in the butt
I was revealed to my children for the first time as a massive coward when investigating the broken cover on a garden water butt. I peered into the butt and squealed at the sight of a huge bloated dead Thing floating on the water. Enormous rat or small cat? Unwilling to look again, I held up my daughter Esme, who unflinchingly peered in and pronounced it a pig. My mum and her friend Bernard volunteered to be the drowned-animal undertakers and tipped the butt so the dead Thing dived out: smaller and less gruesome than I imagined, a luckless squirrel. Before I can afford the shed of my dreams, I need to invest in a secure water butt, for my sake – if not for Esme’s.