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Page last updated at 15:54 GMT, Friday, 3 September 2010 16:54 UK
A History of the World: Shepherd's hut is a work of art

By Thordis Fridriksson
BBC Norfolk

Shepherd's hut
Ian MacDonald's shepherd's hut echoes its former glory

At first glance you may mistake it for a garden shed, but the structure in Ian MacDonald's garden is anything but usual.

With four large cast iron wheels, a curved corrugated iron ceiling and three sturdy steps to the door, this is Ian's very own shepherd's hut - something you may only see in an overgrown hedgerow or abandoned in the corner of a farmyard.

The 49-year-old, who's a technical director of a transport firm, has taken two years to give the hut a new lease of life as an art studio, which irresistibly takes pride of place in his garden in Barford, near Norwich.

For a 'shed on wheels' it's not done bad, inspiring a national online archive, featuring in various magazines and even making an appearance in an upcoming BBC dramatisation.

To understand what makes shepherd's huts so special to Norfolk and the UK as a whole you have to look at the beginning of the sheep industry more than 8,000 years ago.

Valuable animals

It all began with the domestication of wild sheep. From the outset, it became clear that sheep were valuable animals and various civilisations benefitted from breeding them.

However, two countries flourished more than any other off the back of their sheep production. By 1,000 AD England and Spain were the two centres for the wool trade.

Unlike Spain's sheep management, which saw flocks driven across the country from season to season, England's methods were more sedentary.

Shepherd's hut
Ian bought a ruined shepherd's hut from a farm in Rackheath

Over here flocks moved, but not as great a distance as their continental cousins. They moved from pasture to pasture, and their shepherds followed suit.

Eventually, in the mid-1400s, somebody designed a hut to move with them.

The shepherd's hut was small and compact. Pulled by a horse, it and the flock could get to places that heavier farm vehicles, like a manure cart, couldn't.

As the sheep moved through a field, so their droppings fell behind them, ready to be worked in as a fertiliser.

The shepherd's hut proved the perfect base at this time and also during lambing season, when it was a shepherd's home, day and night, for weeks.

Heyday

By the 1700 and 1800s, sheep production in Norfolk was at its heyday.

Flocks of sheep ballooned between 2,000 to 3,000. Farms took two to three shepherds to manage them, each with their own hut.

Such was the popularity of shepherd's huts that farms would fork out up to the equivalent of six months' shepherd's wages for each one. Whether or not they threw in extras like windows or a stove was another matter.

Shepherd's huts continued to be popular into the 20th Century, but with World War I things began to change.

As the demand for armaments increased and money was poured into researching nitrates for bombs, inorganic fertilisers were introduced to the market.

Shepherd's hut
The shell of the hut was in dire need of repair and devotion

Later, with the popularity of synthetic fibres, the price of wool began to plummet and with competition from foreign imports, the price of lamb fell too.

The sight of tens of thousands of sheep scattered across the Norfolk countryside was a thing of the past, and so too was the need for shepherd's huts.

Unusual uses

Many were abandoned, left to rot in fields. Some were downgraded to store pheasant feed. And some found unusual uses, like the one which now belongs to Ian MacDonald.

"This hut was brought from Hall Farm, Rackheath, in 1945," said Ian.

"It was owned by Eddie Simmonds, who bought it from his father who farmed in the village of Barford, for the princely sum of £7.

"It was used to house an Austrian prisoner of war, a gentleman called Hans Lensing. Hans came from the PoW camp at Kimberley and he was one of two PoWs who worked on the farm."

This small shepherd's hut was Hans' home for two years until he was freed. But once Hans moved on, the hut was no longer useful and it fell into disrepair until Ian finally rescued it.

"We had a phone call from the developers who were working on the farm. They knew we wanted the hut and said 'If you're willing to make a small donation to charity, come and get it. If not, it will go on the fire'," said Ian.

"So thankfully one of the haulage companies in the village had a forklift truck. The gentleman himself could remember as a young boy coming into the hut and choosing a puppy that had been born there, so he brought it up from the other end of the village."

Shepherd's hut
Piece by piece, the hut was lovingly restored by Ian

It took two years of painstaking restoration, but now the shepherd's hut has a second lease of life.

Nowadays, it sits snugly in Ian's garden, nestled amid the chickens, the ducks and the flowerbeds, and instead of being home to a shepherd, it's a cosy art studio for his wife, and it provides a rather unique location for his daughter's sleepover parties.

Should it ever fall into disrepair again, Ian's made sure any future restorers have all the information they need at their fingertips - quite literally.

"In the woodwork," Ian tells me, "embedded in the hut's roof itself, the entire history of the hut is written down.

"In 50 or 100 years, if all the paperwork, and traces and radio programmes are gone, the next person to come along and say, 'I like that, I'd like to restore that', as soon as they start pulling the panels down the whole history is all recorded above your head."

But for the time-being at least, this shepherd's hut and the fascinating story it tells are safe and sound.




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