"Unidentified Rolling Objects"
We often receive enquiries about shepherds' huts wrongly confused with Gypsy caravans.
Over the past few years there's been a resurgence in interest in these vans, but they were intended to stay put in fields and moorlands, to be used by shepherds tending their flocks - not by
roads of Britain. Adam Breakwell explains below.
by Adam Breakwell
The shepherds’ hut may be reminiscent of a Gypsy caravan but it is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Shepherds’ huts were designed purely as temporary accommodation for a farm’s most valuable worker, rather than as the permanent mobile home of a Romany. Having said this, both hail from around the same period (the late 18th to mid 19th century) and were once common sights throughout parts of the United Kingdom.
Predominately, the shepherd's hut was designed to shelter the shepherd during the lambing season and when out folding sheep on infertile hills far from the farm. As such they were never designed as a permanent home. For this reason the interior of a hut was relatively sparse: enough to shelter one man, his dog and the occasional orphaned lamb. Many surviving interiors are totally empty, although the majority have evidence of a stove being fitted at some time plus a single bed.
As with gypsy caravans, not all huts were manufactured in exactly the same way. In a single county alone, there were variations. For example, G. and J. Farris both made huts in Dorset but idiosyncrasies exist between them.
Moreover, some huts are unique in that they were commissioned for a specific client and have personalised fittings, whilst others were made up on farms themselves.
In the following descriptions I refer to original shepherds’ huts and not those manufactured in recent times, which retain the basic concept but have often been built using smaller wheels and incorporating additions to suit a more modern age.
Shepherds’ huts sit on iron wheels attached to either solid metal axles or more often stub axles. The wheels sit outside the body, which increases stability, especially when used on steep inclines. The wheels below the turning circle are usually smaller than those at the back.
Originally designed to be towed by a horse for short distances, most huts spent their working lives on just one farm, moving only a few miles each year. For this reason, the running gear didn’t require springs, and a simple design sufficed.
Axles are either metal or wood. The huts of G. Farris have oak axles whilst J. Farris’s axles are iron. On both (indeed most huts), the turning circle is a simple affair, with two cast plates joined by a pin and attached, top and bottom, to the axles. This turning plate measures no more than 16 inches (40 cm) in diameter.
The framing is made entirely from soft wood and follows a number of designs but is usually visible from the inside, with all cladding being applied from the outside.
Some huts have metal ties to brace the body. These run across the width of the hut - two at either end, one on the floor joists and one just before the roof begins to curve.
Roofs have two main shapes depending on where they are built. In Norfolk and the Lincolnshire Wolds most have a pitched roof. In the South Country and further West most are built with barrelled roofs.
Once the structure has been made, it is clad in tongue and grooved boards, usually running vertically and with a Victorian moulding or beading at the join. On top of this cladding, corrugated tin is added to protect against wind and rain. The whole thing is designed to be hard-wearing and allow little room for the penetration of bad weather!
Simple straight steps are used for entry, and the door is usually a stable type with lock. Unlike the vardo, the door is positioned above the fixed axle at the rear. Being pulled only short distances, the driver did not require access to the hut in transit or need a place from which to drive.
Interestingly, many huts have horse shoes above the doors, suggesting they were seen not merely as tools but also as homes, at least for short periods.
"People who visit my home on wheels fall into two camps: those who love it instantly, and those without souls who just can't understand why anyone would want to live this way."
"It's a small space but with a little organisation it's very comfortable, with all a man needs: a bed, chair, table, heat, and a bit of space to store essentials." (Bilbo Masters)
Once over the threshold you usually find a stove to your right, with a tin surround fastened to the corner’s walls to protect against heat. The flue goes directly up and through the roof, often surrounded by a metal plate as it rises. In the past, lighting would have been basic, only candles and an oil lamp. The window is a simple slide type and usually on the same side as the stove.
A table is sometimes present - a few boards braced and then hinged to the wall so that the table can be lowered and raised to create more room. Often there are shelves and a medicine cupboard, not for the shepherd but for the sheep and lambs!
The bed was a simple affair, with a sliding section underneath made of vertical wooden slats. This was called a ‘lamb rack’ and housed orphaned lambs.
Graffiti is often found on the walls of original huts. Sometimes this records names of previous occupants, dates and information about the weather.
In one hut there was evidence of a single family owning it for several generations. Also there were the names and addresses of German prisons of war, who presumably used it for accommodation whilst working on the farm, and each entry is begun PoW.
Once inside, with the fire lit, a hut is a wonderful and homely place to be. In my opinion they are best left with little modern affectations - preserved rather than restored. Many huts have been broken up over the years, and many that remain are in a sorry state.
"I specially liked havin stove in the hut. Made a difference, I can tell ee. Some nights up on the Downs, cold would git right in yer bones. I didn't have no fleece, like ma sheep! But when boss got us stove, I were cozy as an old barn cat... And bein up there all on yer own, big starry skies hangin over the roof, used to think I were the luckiest man in the world. Yar, when I come back next time, make me a Wiltshire shepherd agin Lord." (Percy Tristram, Shepherd, 1922 - 1987)
I and other members of the Shepherds Hut Preservation Society gain great satisfaction
from rescuing and preserving these wonderful pieces of history for the future.
So if you know of one that needs saving, we are always happy to "talk hut".
With Special Thanks :-
Text / images copyright Adam Breakwell 2011.
Additional quotes © Bilbo Masters and Percy Tristram.
Additional images © Bob Franklin, David Quick and NJ Clemance.
Edited by GypsyWaggons / UK Vardo Project.
Article © ValleyStream Media 2011.
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