“Henry builds a cabin” by D.B. Johnson

“Henry builds a cabin” shows a bear called Henry building a cabin in the woods near a lake, just like the house that Henry David Thoreau built by Walden Pond in 1845. We meet the bear’s friends (Bronson) Alcott, (Ralph Waldo) Emerson, and Miss Lydia (Emerson), and Henry explains to each of them how his cabin isn’t too small because he has the woods to enjoy too. This lovely book has become a family favourite that we now read together in our own cabin 🙂

“Huts: a Place Beyond” by Lesley Riddoch

Lesley Riddoch has been a long standing supporter of the Thousand Huts campaign in Scotland, and an advocate for a resurgence of hutting. For the past decade she was working towards a PhD from the University of Strathclyde on hutting, and her new book, “Huts: a place beyond”, is her thesis reworked into a more popular format. I think the book will be a very helpful contribution to the movement, but there are some significant problems with it.

Continue reading ““Huts: a Place Beyond” by Lesley Riddoch”

Lake Isle of Innisfree

I don’t know about you, but poetry at school was a hit and miss business. Looking back, it feels as if a lot of verse was thrown in my general direction, some of which has stuck and some of which just bounced off – even when committed to memory overnight to placate a teacher. W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is one that stuck, and a couple of years ago I realised its connection to hutting and to Walden in particular. The poem is short enough to quote in full here:

Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Until I came back to the poem a couple of years ago, I remembered the island but not the cabin. Perhaps as a boy I imagined escaping from the pavements of my own city to the island, but as a man I think ahead to shelter and the cabin. Yeats thought even further, to food, with his nine bean rows and bee hive. Rereading it I then saw the connection to Thoreau’s account of two years living in a hut by a lake, in “Walden”. Thoreau grew his own food, and sold the surplus to pay for other necessities. He talked at length about cultivating rows of beans in particular:

Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.

Which is more prosaic and more extensive than Yeats’ nine rows of beans, but represents the voice of experience!

Some digging of my own turned up passages in Yeats’ autobiography which spelt out his childhood connection between Walden and the island, starting with a conversation with his father:

When I said to him, echoing some book I had read, that one never knew a countryside till one knew it at night he was pleased (though nothing would have kept him from his bed a moment beyond the hour); for he loved natural things and had learnt two cries of the lapwing, one that drew them to where he stood and one that made them fly away. And he approved, and arranged my meals conveniently, when I told him I was going to walk round Lough Gill and sleep in a wood. I did not tell him all my object, for I was nursing a new ambition. My father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood where I meant to sleep. (Part I, xvii, p.43)

Years later walking on the grey pavements of London in 1888, he remembered the island and composed the poem:

I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. (Part II.I, xv, p.94)

One of the impulses of hutting is not just to go to more natural places, but to go back to them. Repeatedly. To maintain a connection to them, even when walking the grey pavements of cities. To carry part of them inside you, “in the deep heart’s core”.

The hut at Walden Pond

In 1845 Henry David Thoreau built himself a hut beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts and started the process which led to “Walden; or, Life in the Woods” in 1854. This book has gone on to become a classic of American literature, held up by advocates of self-reliance, resistance to the power of the State, naturalism, and conservation; and studied by generations of school children. Even in the UK, it’s often quoted, with its mixture of philosophy and the outline of Thoreau’s efforts to lead a self-reliant life from the land around his hut.

I’ve been meaning to write about Walden since I started this blog, but the more I thought about it, the bigger the task became. Walden is a treasury of ideas connected to hutting and nature, and a single post or even a sequence written at the same time won’t do it justice. So instead I made a page about Walden and will make blog posts as I add material to it. For now that page has a collection of key passages I selected while reading the book, with a focus on hutting.

A few of them give you a flavour of his intentions:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.

Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth,  for timber.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, 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.

Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.

Walden Pond is now a Massachusetts state park and visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year. There is a reconstruction of Thoreau’s hut near the car park and the footprint of the original hut is also marked out.

As well as the obligatory Wikipedia article, there’s also an excellent episode of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” radio programme dedicated to Walden.

“Feral”, Rewilding, and Hutting

feralSome books I pick up and march straight through in a quick campaign, forcing short or long engagements at every opportunity until the matter is concluded. Others I pick away at in a form of guerrilla warfare. Now I mostly read on a Kindle app, the temptation to neglect one book for another is greater too. George Monbiot’s book “Feral” has been subject to my hit-and-run tactics since I started it last year, after the publicity surrounding the launch of Rewilding Britain in July. This month I devoted some proper time to it, and now I’ve finished it I thought it would be interesting to look at the book from the point of view of hutting.

You can get a flavour of Monbiot’s argument from a piece he wrote at the time for his Guardian column:

We are surrounded by such broken relationships, truncated natural processes, cauterised ecologies. In Britain we lack almost all large keystone species: ecological engineers that drive the fascinating dynamics which allow other lifeforms to flourish. Boar, beavers, lynx, wolves, whales, large sharks, pelicans, sturgeon: all used to be abundant here; all but for a few small populations or rare visitors are missing.

The living systems that conservationists seek to protect in some parts of this country are a parody of the natural world, kept, through intensive management, in suspended animation, like a collection in a museum. An ecosystem is not just a place. It is also a process. I believe their diminished state also restricts the scope of human life. We head for the hills to escape the order and control that sometimes seem to crush the breath out of us. When we get there, we discover that the same forces prevail. Even our national parks are little better than wet deserts.

“Feral” was published a couple of years earlier in 2013, and starts with four chapters describing experiences Monbiot has had in wild places (at least from the point of view of urban Britain) which have shaped his argument. My guerrilla warfare was conducted in these chapters, and that may be because they didn’t work so well for me: I knew where he was going and wanted to read about that.

Lynx photographed by Bernard LandgrafThe fifth chapter takes on the complete implausibility of hidden populations of big cats in Britain, and then turns the controversy on its head to explain that not only would Britain be a very suitable place for the introduction of cats like lynx, they were probably here into the early middle ages until finally removed by hunting.

There’s a whole chapter devoted to engaging with hill farmers whose sheep are the “White Plague” in Monbiot’s view and are suppressing the natural regeneration of scrub and then woodland, and providing the habitats that would encourage lynx and the other larger animals like wild boar and wolves that are on the agenda. There’s a description of the economics of hill farming, the subsidies that are needed to keep it going, and the management rules that are imposed to ensure uplands don’t become overgrown with “unwanted vegetation” – which is a euphemism for the progression back to woodland. It becomes clear that far from being a naturally barren landscape, there are seeds of local species all around waiting for opportunities to grow. Ritchie Tassell’s practical experience of reforesting in Wales bears this out:

They had planted trees, but soon discovered that, in much of the fenced land, this was unnecessary. Where they had turned over the turf, the exposed soil was colonised by birch seed, which blew in from a few surviving trees further down the valley, which had themselves returned, Ritchie explained, as a result of an agricultural depression around a century ago.

“Almost every tree we planted has now been overwhelmed by native birch. It grew so densely it looked like the cress you grow on your windowsill. Even when the trees we planted survived, the local birches did much better. They’re genetically suited to this site. Seeing the way the birch recolonized was a real awakening. I saw that nature is far more adept at doing these things than we are.”

But he’s very clear about the need to persuade landowners rather than to enforce rewilding changes: that we should be working to change the system of subsidies and remove the requirements to suppress natural regrowth, which will then give farmers and upland communities the option to rewild their land and their businesses.

A big part of the ecology underpinning rewilding is the trophic cascade: a chain of predators, prey, and plant species which together keep part of the environment in a stable equilibrium. A striking example is the way in which the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 led to reduced flooding: wolves control deer numbers and make them avoid open spaces, which allows trees to come back on hill sides and river banks which acts as a slowly-draining reservoir in heavy rain or snow melts. Riverside trees encourage beavers, whose dams in turn slow the rivers. Alongside these practical (and rather topical) benefits, wolves suppress coyotes which along with the increased tree cover encourages a wider range of smaller mammals. So one rather controversial species (the wolf) leads to a much richer ecosystem overall.

Monbiot’s motivation for rewilding isn’t rooted in any kind of naturalistic fallacy. It’s our shared human self interest:

If rewilding took place it would happen in order to meet human needs, not the needs of the ecosystem. That, for me, is the point of it. Wolves would be introduced not for the sake of wolves but for the sake of people. If rewilding happens it will be because we value a biologically rich environment more than we value an impoverished system which continues, with the help of public money, to support sheep.

And this is where, for me, rewilding starts to connect to hutting. A revival in hutting in the countryside has the potential to give many more of us the chance to engage more directly and more deeply with that enriched natural environment. Hutting is intentionally low-impact, and locating it in new native woodlands accentuates that. Hutting also allows people and their families to develop a continuous, long lasting relationship with a specific location and its surroundings – some Scandanavian huts stay in families for generations. This in turn allows people to learn how that environment works and that knowledge can then spread out through family and friends into wider society. We can dream that instead of having school children who don’t know where eggs come from, we can have school children who know wild boar won’t attack you (unless you provoke them.)

There’s also a kind of economic cascade, led this time by us. Instead of suppressing and eradicating the top predators, we would be introducing and encouraging them, and in turn enjoying them, either by seeing them, experiencing the richer ecosystem of other animals and plants they help maintain, or even just by knowing they’re there – somewhere. Hutting is another route for money to be injected into the rural economy, presumably in addition to increased conventional tourism as B&Bs and hotels, shops, cafes, and pubs – which are typically much higher impact than hutting. This all makes land uses with rewilding more viable. More politically viable as subsidised activities (instead of subsidising sheep) and more viable economically by persuading land owners to participate in rewilding schemes – perhaps so they can sell or lease land for hutting, convert a barn to a B&B, or become rangers or guides on their changing but familiar land.

But above all, since hutting in the countryside involves that deeper connection between ourselves and land in nature, I think it should be an important part of rewilding us too.

“How to build your dream cabin in the woods” by J. W. Fears

How to build your dream cabin in the woodsThe full title of this book is “How to build your dream cabin in the woods: the ultimate guide to building and maintaining a backcountry getaway”. In some ways it’s quite similar to “Cabinology” in that it’s about design decisions and fitting out a log cabin rather than the detailed plans of “Rustic Retreats”. However, “Dream Cabin” is squarely focused on much more modest and hut-like cabins of a similar scale to “Rustic Retreats” and a bit bigger, with just one, two, or three rooms.

There are introductory chapters devoted to cabins of increasing size, from the three-sided Adirondack shelter up to a wilderness club house for a hunting or fishing group. Subsequent chapters deal with kits vs custom builds, options for toilets, heating and cooking, lighting, beds, security, water supply, managing woodlands, legal aspects of land ownership, setting ground rules for visitors, and choosing a name for the cabin. Some of these details are specific to North America but many are applicable to huts and cabins in UK woodlands and other off-grid sites too.

You can read more reviews on the book’s Amazon page.

“Rustic retreats: A Build-it-yourself Guide” by David and Jeanie Stiles

Rustic Retreats“Rustic Retreats” is an American book from 1998 and has twenty four designs for wooden structures you can build yourself. These include ten types of hut, but also lean-to shelters, tree houses, lookout towers, and rafts. There are also sections on basic skills including making joints, doors, window frames,  skylights, and using living trees as structural elements in tree houses.

The full list of huts in broadly increasing order of complexity is: Garden Cordwood Hut, Bent-Pole Hut, Bark Pyramid Hut, Hillside Hut, Sauna Hut, Ivy-Covered Grow Hut, Stacked-Log Hogan, Log Cabin, Writer’s Retreat, David Hense’s Little House.

Each design is accompanied by detailed advice about the building process including some tips based on the authors’ experience and a fully itemised list of required materials. Both the materials list and the explanatory diagrams include dimensions.

You can see more reviews on the book’s Amazon page.

“Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties” by D.C. Beard (1914)

179“Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties” is a quite remarkable book from 1914. Daniel Carter Beard was one of the founders of scouting in America and wrote and illustrated the book based on his first-hand experience organising scout camps. It is packed full of sketch plans and practical details of structures that can be built in woodlands with nothing more than axes and knives – and an army of fearless, enthusiastic teenagers. The designs are also readily adaptable to those of us armed only with chainsaws and smaller groups of enthusiastic hutters. Some of the details of felling trees and handling heavy logs would also need updating to present-day ideas about safety and acceptable ways of working.

Since the book is out of copyright it has been reprinted by various publishers, including the obligatory good-quality reprint you can get from Amazon.

However, you can get it online immediately in several formats from Project Gutenberg.


“Cabinology” by Dale Mulfinger

"Cabinology" by Dale Mulfinger“Cabinology” is an American book that aims to cover every aspect of planning, owning and enjoying a cabin. It is well-illustrated with everything from log-cabin huts to grand, multistory cabin houses. Realistically, most of the advice in the text is aimed toward the latter and many of us hutters are not burdened with dilemmas like whether or not to have a “mud room” specifically for removing boots. However, there is also some useful advice and reminders, including the point that a covered porch or verandah is really useful when quickly unloading a car in the rain.

The book doesn’t deal with the details of designing a cabin or provide building plans. It is very much the kind of book an architect would give to a client to read when deciding what kind of cabin the client really wants to pay for. This should be no surprise, as the author is an architect who has built over 50 cabins for clients.

You can read more reviews on Amazon.co.uk

Two books about Basildon plotlands

Books about the plotlandsDeanne Walker has written two books about Essex plotland communities, first “Basildon Plotlands: The Londoners’ Rural Retreat” by herself and then “A Portrait of Basildon Plotlands: The Enduring Spirit” with Peter Jackson (who maintains a plotlands website.) The books are complementary pictures of plotland experiences and history and so I’m going to post about them together.

“Basildon Plotlands” is based on her own childhood experiences of her parents’ chalet in the 1960s to 1980s, and is primarily concerned with the “weekenders” who used huts as holiday homes in the countryside. “A Portrait” has more emphasis on the other group, the “residents”, who lived in their huts full time.

This division is still reflected in plotland communities that have survived into the 21st century such as Carbeth and the Humberston Fitties (where year-round occupation is the subject of a legal dispute with the council.) One of the strengths of the plotlands before the 1948 planning laws was the way in which boundaries between leisure and residential dwellings could be blurred to respond to the changing needs and wants of their owners.

“A Portrait” devotes a chapter to the plotlanders’ experiences during the Second World War when this flexibility allowed families to partially move out of their East End homes and occupy their huts to avoiding the bombing. For example by the mother and children moving permanently and the father joining them at weekends.

For some families the move became permanent if their home in London was bombed and when the housing shortage of wartime and its aftermath made their place in the country the most attractive option.

Both books describe some people’s transition from weekenders to residents when they retired, with familiarity of their chalet being more attractive (and cheaper) than a flat in the city. Again this is a testament to the flexibility of this kind of housing.

One of the important features of the plotlands was the ownership of their own plot of land by the individual chalet owners. This led to some very long periods of occupation, far longer than you might expect for a static caravan pitch for example. Many of the plots had stayed within generations of the same family since they were originally bought before the First World War. As “A Portrait” shows, this often led to groups of families being plotland neighbours for generations, even if only at weekends in many cases. The books’ co-author, Peter Jackson, is a graphic demonstration of this, as the son of parents who met as children on neighbouring plots.

Furthermore, the plotlands developed a strong community spirit including improvised entertainments, rudimentary services like water standpipes, and a supply of groceries by delivery boys (like Peter Jackson) who were willing to negotiate the unmade roads in all weathers. I’d not realised that the near universal practice of giving names to plotland chalets was needed to be able to receive the post in areas without properly laid out and numbered streets. This practice does seem to occur even in modern locations like the Humberston Fitties where the chalets are also officially numbered, so I suspect both the desire to name your property and the practicalities of receiving the mail are aligned.

The presence of residents helped sustain all this for both themselves and the weekenders, and they also appear to have significantly contributed to the security of the plotlands by their presence. As the efforts of the Basildon Development Corporation to destroy the plotlands came to their ultimate fruition in the 1980s, the last few owners experienced vandalism and break-ins at a level they were unprepared for.

“A Portrait” describes this process in its later chapters, although with less of the attention to the administrative and ideological background dissected in “Arcadia for all” by Hardy and Ward. One of the most chilling passages is a comment by the Labour minister for housing who revealed the government’s animosity to the mostly working class East Enders who had the audacity to own their own land. If the State decided they would be permitted to continue to occupy their plots after compulsory purchase, they would nevertheless be denied ownership on principle: “Freeholds should be in the hands of the community and transfer of land should be leasehold only.” As Walker and Jackson say “For the residents who had probably previously rented rooms or houses in London … and might therefore have been the first in their family to own their own piece of land, this edict from above constituted an intolerable outrage.”

Deanne Walker’s first book, “Basildon Plotlands”, touched on elements of this controversy, but also has more material about the weekenders that her own family represented. She begins with a vivid description of travelling out from London on a Friday night, opening up their chalet in the dark, settling in, and then waking up in the countryside with all the possibilities of a weekend stretching out before them.

It is the more personal of the two books, although both of them are well illustrated by photographs taken by the authors’ own families and friends. It also covers the practicalities in more detail, including experiences of constructing the chalets with “real DIY” (in a way which would have made Jonathan Meades proud.)

In my next blog post I will write about a visiting the preserved Haven Plotlands Museum in the one chalet the Basildon Development Corporation decided to keep as a historical record of what they had destroyed. But I’m going to end here with a comparison of the kinds of kits plotlanders were buying and building in the 1930s and today’s equivalent. The picture on the left is from Albert’s catalogue of chalet kits and one of the options was used to build the chalet “Eleanor” on the Berry Park Estate. On the right is a Lugarde log cabin you could buy today.

Lugarde log cabin

A page from "Albert's" catalogue of building kits from the 1930s. One of these kits was used to the build the plotland chalet "Eleanor" on the Berry Park Estate, Essex.