Posted in Rural Heritage

Britain’s Rural Heritage – The Shepherd’s Hut

Restored 19th Century Shepherd's Hut in the grounds of Mottisfont Abbey, Romsey, Hampshire.

‘The little speck of life he placed on a wisp of hay before the small stove, where a can of milk was simmering. Oak extinguished the lantern by blowing into it and then pinching the snuff, the cot being lighted by a candle suspended by a twisted wire. A rather hard couch, formed of a few corn sacks thrown carelessly down, covered half the floor of this little habitation, and here the young man stretched himself along, loosened his woollen cravat, and closed his eyes. In about the time a person unaccustomed to bodily labour would have decided upon which side to lie, Farmer Oak was asleep.

The inside of the hut, as it now presented itself, was cosy and alluring, and the scarlet handful of fire in addition to the candle, reflecting its own genial colour upon whatever it could reach, flung associations of enjoyment even over utensils and tools. In the corner stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side were ranged bottles and canisters of the simple preparations pertaining to ovine surgery and physic; spirits of wine, turpentine, tar, magnesia, ginger, and castor-oil being the chief. On a triangular shelf across the corner stood bread, bacon, cheese, and a cup for ale or cider, which was supplied from a flagon beneath. Beside the provisions lay the flute, whose notes had lately been called forth by the lonely watcher to beguile a tedious hour. The house was ventilated by two round holes, like the lights of a ship’s cabin, with wood slides.

The lamb, revived by the warmth began to bleat, and the sound entered Gabriel’s ears and brain with an instant meaning, as expected sounds will. Passing from the profoundest sleep to the most alert wakefulness with the same ease that had accompanied the reverse operation, he looked at his watch, found that the hour-hand had shifted again, put on his hat, took the lamb in his arms, and carried it into the darkness. After placing the little creature with its mother, he stood and carefully examined the sky, to ascertain the time of night from the altitudes of the stars.’

Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874) – Chapter 2

Interior of a 19th Century, restored shepherd's hut at Mottisfont Abbey, Romsey, Hampshire.

This is a charming description of the life and living conditions of a fictional shepherd (Gabriel Oak) in nineteenth century rural England.  Thomas Hardy’s description of the interior of the hut is pretty accurate. The life of a shepherd was tough, solitary and rewarding.  Shepherd’s huts have been part of rural life in this country since the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1.  In the pre-industrial age, many farms had pastures that were inaccessible to the manure wagons which contained the vital nutrients to fertilize the soil.  Sheep were kept in enclosed wooden hurdles, a process known as ‘folding’.  The animals would leave their droppings, the shepherd would pack-up the hurdles and they all moved on.  The fertilized soiled was then ploughed and crops of wheat, barley or oats sown.  The nineteenth century was known as the era of ‘The Golden Hoof’, shepherds were much in demand and their huts a common sight in remote parts of the countryside.  The huts were not cheap, often costing the equivalent of six month’s wages for one shepherd.  This was a cost borne by the employer and not the shepherd himself.  The huts were a huge, but nonetheless important, investment to a farm or estate.

View from one of the tiny windows in the restored, 19th century shepherd's hut at Mottisfont Abbey. The shepherd would have kept a close, watchful eye over his woolly charges.

After the First World War advances were made in farming practices and Ammonium Nitrate, instead of manure, was used to nourish the land.  Tractors were now commonplace on farmsteads, powerful enough to reach the previously inaccessible pastures.  In World War II the British were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ and many meadows were ploughed over for this use.  The Homeguard used the huts as outposts and Prisoners of War were often housed in them.

In the twenty-first century, restoration of the traditional shepherd’s hut is now big business.  In the last few years, so many companies across the country have been set-up to rescue and restore these charming mobile structures.  The restored huts are not cheap, with prices ranging from £8,000 to £12,000.  At Mottisfont Abbey, Romsey there is a beautifully restored example of a nineteenth century hut. However, there are no original fixtures and fittings now left inside.  The hut was found at Cadbury Farm on the Mottisfont Estate and has been restored with help of funds from the Reading National Trust Association. If you can’t afford to buy one of these huts, then there are plenty of opportunities to stay in one for a mini-break or holiday.  If you stay on a b&b basis, some places offer you the option of sleeping in the hut and then having a full English breakfast brought-out to you in the morning. Now that is my idea of a perfect weekend break, bring on the Summer weather I say.