Alex Johnson on the sanity-saving oasis of the garden shed
People often talk about sheds as sanctuaries. At the moment, that’s especially true. “We see sheds as an escape most of the time,” agrees Uncle Wilco, founder of the Shed of the Year competition, “but right now they really are proving to be a oasis.”
Sheds are now performing all kinds of functions. People who don’t normally work from home are suddenly discovering the attraction – I’ve watched musicians perform concerts from inside their garden studio, auctioneers turn their garden sheds into salerooms, and national television broadcasters host their shows from their timber retreats.
As shedworking photographer and writer Chris Routledge who lives in the north west of England puts it: “It’s going to be a long summer. Keeping work and home life separate is always a good thing, but our shared garden office is now being used as a studio for video conferencing. It’s providing the constant, professional atmosphere that you need to stay productive, as well as a place to get some peace and quiet when your treasured lockdown companions have decided to entertain themselves with ukelele lessons.”
Sheds make wonderful offices. But there’s much, much more to them than that. Shedworkers have enjoyed shed-based balm throughout history. One of my favourite writers, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), devoted himself to working, building, and writing his bestselling book Walden in the hut he constructed himself. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” he wrote, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau wanted to experiment with cutting himself off from the everyday life of Concord, Massachusetts, in order to discover the inner truths of being. His cabin lifestyle was relatively cheap and he lived simply so that earning money could become a less important part of his life. It also gave him a spiritual retreat in which to be alone with his thoughts (as well as a place to work).
To put it simply, sheds offer us a chance to save our sanity. “Just give me four other walls,” says cookery writer and owner of Otter Farm, Mark Diacono, who works from his shepherd’s hut in East Devon. “Even the change of cell makes all the difference. I find something profoundly comforting about even that short journey from home to shed – it transforms my mood somehow. I’m going somewhere else to do something else and be a slightly different version of myself than I was a few metres away. It sounds tiny but when you can’t get around normally, even pleasing habits and routines can become heavy. A shed changes all that, just by being able be somewhere and someone else for a while.”
Novelist Christi Daugherty, who writes in her what she calls ‘The Wordshed’, agrees. “A shed gets you out of the house without leaving your property. It’s a new view, at a time when those are becoming quite precious.”
However you use it, as an oasis or an office, you’ve now got the opportunity to get creative with your shed. Andrew Martin writing in the Financial Times this week has explained how he has turned his into a pub shed (naturally, he’s named his The Lockdown Arms), calling it his “port in a storm”. I’ve just seen a garden shed turned into a giant pinhole camera. As cartoonist Colin Shelbourn, based in the Lake District, points out: “You can hide from your loved ones in your shed. Build secret models of the Millennium Falcon. Instigate a whisky still. Hold solo Max Geldray parties and play air harmonica.” It’s time to blow those cobwebs away, take a deep breath, and head to the shed.
Alex Johnson runs Shedworking (www.shedworking.co.uk) and is the author of the Haynes Shed Manual. His most recent book is How To Give Your Child A Lifelong Love Of Reading, published by The British Library, which features an essay by Tom Hodgkinson on the Idler’s approach to raising a reader.