Strange Passions of the English Countryside

I suppose this title might bring to mind Midsomer Murders, or maybe even a saucy British-equivalent of Peyton Place. But no. I’m talking about the curious English fascination with steam-powered traction engines. And shepherd’s huts. Especially shepherd’s huts.

As a California transplant, I don’t get it. (Ok, maybe I partially get it.)

Traction engines: Most of them are lovingly restored lumps of hissing, belching cast iron that roll (slooowly) on massive, gaily-painted wheels. Any one of which could crush your SUV while backing up in the carpark and not even notice.

Many of these still-purposeful engines are quite beautiful, in their proudly Industrial Revolutionish way. Seeing a dozen or so lined up in one place is really something. It’s a sooty, smelly, exceedingly noisy and moderately thrilling spectacle.

The largest annual gathering of these behemoths takes place at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, an extravaganza spanning 5 full days and 600 acres, with thousands of exhibits devoted to all things Steam. Let’s just say it’s well-attended.

But in the months leading up to that genuinely awe-inspiring steam-gasm, there are dozens, if not hundreds of mini-steam events that take place in towns and villages all over the UK. Our local pub, The White Horse, just held theirs this past weekend. A dozen or so beautiful traction engines lined up in the carpark. (The selfsame carpark you’d have been advised to keep your SUV well clear of.) The weekend-long event was, you’ll be unsurprised to hear, well-attended.

These engines are splendid old beasts—in an eco-nightmarishly, coal-and-grease-based sort of way. They hark back to a long-gone era of brilliant craftsmanship, and the unfounded optimism that heavy machinery meant a better tomorrow.

I honestly do get the fascination with it all. I’m a bit fond of brilliant craftsmanship and things that last, myself.

I guess it’s just the endlessly unquenchable degree of interest that I don’t understand. Every year I’d happily go to one steam fair, maybe two if the weather’s nice and the cider is on tap.

But dozens? Yet, inexplicably, people do.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of shepherd’s huts.

How to explain the allure of the shepherd’s hut? I can’t. See photo, and decide for yourself.

Unlike the traction engine (which looks supercool and makes fascinating, farty smells and noises–and gives off STEAM, for goodness sake) a shepherd’s hut has nothing of the sort to recommend it. It isn’t even a little bit handsome. And it certainly isn’t a multi-sensory experience—not on purpose, anyway.

Basically it’s a smallish, tin-roofed shed. On wheels.

Back in the day, that shed had great purpose. It was a shepherd’s hardscrabble living quarters for certain parts of the year. He towed it to whatever part of the field the sheep were in; that way he could keep a watchful, 24/7 eye out to assist with lambing when needed, or equally important, to discourage sheep rustling.

(Which is still quite a thing, by the way. I read of 2 incidents in our local area, just in the past week or so. If you have any information to offer, the police would love to hear from you.)

Nowadays a handful of huts are still used by shepherds for their original purpose. But the vast majority are kitted out with newfangled luxuries like leak-proof roofs and insulation, and are popped onto a concrete pad in a domestic garden setting. It’s still a shed on wheels, with remarkably shed-like functionality. And everybody wants one.

And that’s what I don’t get. A shepherd’s hut is not the British equivalent of the American tiny house, which tends to be both comfortably livable and outrageously adorable in equal measure. Generally speaking, a classic shepherd’s hut might contain a cot and maybe a small pot-bellied stove. And a kettle, of course, for that all-important cuppa.

But that’s pretty much it. And that’s mostly all anybody wants it to be. (Although the glamping versions being produced nowadays are starting to be very 2.0.)

Anyway, this humble shed occupies a disproportionately large spot in the British heart and imagination. The original vintage huts are quite rare these days, as they were never built to last in the first place. So a roaring factory trade is now done in the construction of new huts made to order.

I mention all this because a client came to us several months ago with a huge and unusually sturdy antique shepherd’s hut that’s been in his family for generations. He asked us for a complete restoration from the ground up. It’s been a fascinating project that’s kept us occupied for much of the winter and spring. This particular hut is locally famous, and anticipation is building for its unveiling—because when it’s finished, he intends to display it at the Great Dorset Steam Fair.

Yes, that’s right. The aforementioned Steam Fair, with its cast of thousands. Bringing two quirky English passions together into one neat package. I’m really rather tickled about the whole thing, even though I still don’t quite understand what all the fuss is about. I do know it’ll bring lots of people lots of pleasure to see this grand old, meticulously refurbished hut in that setting—and really that’s a good enough explanation for me.

Anyway, Steve and I have enjoyed the process so much, we realized we’d love to do it again—but next time we want to build something other than the World’s Nicest Shed. Something infinitely cuter, something bursting with customized personality. We’ll be building this next one purely to please ourselves.

Not a tiny house (with all its overly modern American conveniences), and not a classic shepherd’s hut, either.

Next up, it’s a medicine wagon! Kind of like this one in the photo, which lives in a museum someplace. It’ll be entirely just for fun—and yet also built to last, with our usual degree of painstaking craftsmanship and attention to detail. Just because making things beautifully—whether it’s a sculpture or a painting, or an antique-style hand-lettered wagon—is what brings us pleasure. A little bit like those old traction engines of a bygone era. Whatever we make, we like to do it right.

Because, why not? Because we can.

As with everything we do, it’ll be made with love. And coming soon to a suburban garden near you.

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