Revisiting Carbeth

I’m not going to mince my words here. The Carbeth site north of Glasgow is the flagship of hutting in the UK. It’s long established (since the 1920s), large (98 acres, 143 huts in 2013), and owned by the hutters themselves. The buyout by the Carbeth Hutters Community Company in 2013 and the site’s existence itself has helped fuel the Thousand Huts campaign, which in turn is leading to reform of planning and building control in Scotland in favour of new hutting sites. Visiting Carbeth and going to the 2014 Hutters’ Rally prompted me to start blogging about hutting.

I didn’t take any pictures during that first visit, but this month I had the opportunity to stop by and have a walk round the site with my camera, including up to the planted pine area on the higher ground (which I included in my post about root plates.) I believe the site was just sheep pasture when regular camping started in the 1920s, and it’s notable that like many other hutting and plotland locations, it’s acquired a lot of trees and bits of woodland across the site. Hutting is often an agent of reforestation elsewhere too.

Carbeth notice board

One of the things I try to look for when I visit a site are signs of organisation. How is the place run? What is provided? How well does it work? Is it self-organisation, or some external landowner or local government? As I mentioned above, Carbeth is now run by the hutters’ community company and this first picture is of the noticeboard as you go in with an AGM notice.

Community hut at CarbethThere’s also a community hut nearby with plastic chairs stacked outside and from what I remember of 2014 there’s a small library, board games, tables, and a little kitchen. At the very least you’re going to need so somewhere to hold meetings even when it rains, and it’s a good idea to have a use for it the rest of the time. Some allotment clubs have a village-hall sized shed too. The Humberston Fitties, which is the most similar site to Carbeth in terms of scale, have a Community Room hut (or rather, North East Lincolnshire Council does, and they’ve kept it locked when in disputes with the hutters in the past.)

Water pipe at CarbethFinally, there are basic services like the roadways and water supply, if any. One of the great battle grounds for English plotlands either side of the Second World War was whether the
plotlanders or the council would have the right or the responsibility to maintain roads and water pipes. At Carbeth I could see evidence of roadway repairs and here is a picture of one of the water standpipes and buried pipes that run across the site.

One of the constant questions for hutters is how to provide the services that the site doesn’t.  I saw a few clues indicating septic tanks and people collecting rainwater in IBCs. Quite a few TV aerials and even one satellite dish. Some roofs have solar panels or even miniature wind turbines. Almost every roof had a chimney pipe and cowl, and I could smell wood smoke but also coal, and I saw lots of firewood stacks. For many people, self-reliance and spending time relying on simpler technologies that you can maintain yourself is part of the attraction of hutting.

Huts are still being built and rebuilt, often with modern techniques for wooden buildings including waterproof membranes. The oldest huts, that look just like the ones in Humberston from the 1930s and 1950s two hundred and forty miles away in Lincolnshire, tend to be shiplap which needs factory-machined boards. The next four pictures show Carbeth and Humberston huts side by side, both shiplap and overlap.

Carbeth hut Humberston chalet Humberston chalet Carbeth hut

Concrete blocks foundations at CarbethThe majority that are overlap can be built with much less regular boards than shiplap, even including foot-wide boards with wavy edges done on a portable chainsaw mill at a felling site. I don’t know if that method was actually producing some of the timber for the Carbeth huts, but it does look as if it would be viable. Concrete block foundations were common, including this set laid out on one plot currently without a hut.

DSC_0248The distribution of huts is quite varied. The site averages two thirds of an acre per hut, but each hut’s plot is much smaller than that. The older ones have acquired fences or hedges, and maybe a few trees and outbuildings. Some are arranged in rows, plot against plot, especially on the hillside near the entrance above the Carbeth Inn. Others are in little groups, including some by crossroads or greens beside the roadways. A few are comparatively isolated, especially on the higher ground.

Carbeth has had it’s ups and downs, but it’s certainly on the up now, with solid collective ownership of the site and new huts being built. Above all, its existence demonstrates that hutting communities can work, and can be thriving almost a century after their foundation.

Root plates

I really love root plates. They’re the disc of earth, stones, and roots that you often see when a big tree falls over. They reveal something otherwise hidden: a snapshot of what was going on a bit underground, directly under the trunk itself. The most surprising thing is just how shallow they are. Twenty metres of substantial tree trunk laid on the ground but only a foot or two of substantial roots.

Root plates naturally have a mention in Oliver Rackham’s magisterial “Woodlands”:

“until 1987 few English people understood what a tree’s root system looked like; some thought roots went as nearly as far below ground as stems above it. As the great storms of 1987 and 1990 showed, most trees in England are shallow rooted. It may be argued that deep-rooted trees were never uprooted, but anyone digging holes in a wood seldom meet roots more than 3 feet (1 metre) down. A giant beech can have a root-plate only a few inched deep, much less than the diameter of the trunk.”

This month I took pictures of pine and birch root plates in the woods above Carbeth and in the Black Wood of Rannoch in Scotland.

First these pictures from a stand of trees near the top of the Carbeth hutting site. You can see a double root plate with two trunks and then a single root plate. The third picture shows how shallow the root plates are, and the final picture puts them in context: right on the edge of the wood by an area of marshy ground before the huts start.

carbeth_rootplate_3 carbeth_rootplate_2 carbeth_rootplate_1 carbeth_rootplate_5

These next four are from the Black Wood of Rannoch just to the south of the Cairngorms national park. I’m writing a separate blog post about the wood, as it’s an important survival from the ancient Caledonian forest, but for now, let’s just look at some birch root plates. It striking how similar they look despite pine and birch being completely different species.

rannoch_rootplate_4 rannoch_rootplate_5
rannoch_rootplate_2 rannoch_rootplate_1

Finally, another pine root plate, taken in the rain in Grizedale Forest in the Lake District national park:
Root plate of fallen tree in Grizedale Forest

Root plates are formed when trees are unstable and fall over. A storm can help this, especially one in summer when deciduous trees are in full leaf. Rackham explains that trees have a lot more roots than they need to draw water and nutrients, and the excess is there for stability. Trees that can grow fewer roots than they want are more at risk. So being up against a river bank, or a road, or other trees doesn’t help. Paradoxically, it is more often the trees inside a wood than on the edges that get blown over by the wind, especially if the wood has been planted with an artificially high density.

There are lots of videos of trees falling and root plates forming on YouTube. This compilation is “Trees falling in nature”, although mostly they’re in gardens or struggling to balance in the grass verge beside a pavement:

 

Carbeth videos

The Carbeth hutting site north of Glasgow is probably the most prominent hutting or plotland site and is often referred to in media coverage, both mainstream and independent. I’ve collected some of the YouTube videos about Carbeth that I’ve come across in this post.

There’s also a small collection of short clips from the hutters themselves from a few years ago:

https://www.youtube.com/user/CarbethHutters/videos

Hut, cabins, chalets, or sheds?

One of the features of this whole subject is the number of names there are for very similar types of buildings. Last week I visited the beach bungalows in Braystones (blog and pictures coming next week) and so added a fifth word to my growing list even if “bungalow” is more normally associated in Britain with conventional brick buildings.

“Hut” is the preferred term at Carbeth north of Glasgow, and is used by Reforesting Scotland’s “Thousand Huts” campaign and has a definition the  Scottish planning policy:

Hut: A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.

Not all huts (even at sites like Carbeth) meet those conditions, but you get the idea. “Hut” also gives us “hutting” and “hutters”, and connects to the Norwegian “hytte” tradition and on to the wider northern European practice of owning huts or summerhouses for overnight stays in the countryside or even on allotments.

Beach huts, which are concentrated on the southeast coasts of England although not exclusive to them, are also huts but mostly on the shed end of the spectrum, often with no windows and just double doors on the beach side. Sheds in gardens and allotments are a world in themselves, with sites like Readers’ Sheds organising annual competitions which are covered by Channel4.

Along with “hut”, the name “log cabin” is naturally associated with woodland structures due to the traditional way of constructing buildings from whole trunks or sections of them.

Finally,  “chalet” is a word borrowed from the Alps and suggests something a bit more sophisticated than a hut. The Plotlands preferred chalets to huts, and the Humberston Fitties still do.

Despite the name and the differences, there’s still a common “hutting” thread. When I visit these sites, so many of the buildings have a look to them. Here I’ve picked out some of the pictures from my blogs, showing huts in East Yorkshire, Cheshire, Humberston, West Midlands, and Cumbria – spread over hundreds of miles but all clearly part of the same tradition.  I could have included pictures from Carbeth to extend this a hundred miles further north too.

 

 

 

Land Reform vs Planning vs Hutting

There’s been a lot in the news recently about Land Reform in Scotland, and many people involved in the hutting movement have been supporting this and connecting the two issues. In particular Donald McPhillimy wrote a blog post imagining sitting in a hut and reflecting on the impact of different types of landlord. It’s good that freehold land ownership has now come to the fore as it didn’t feel that was a particularly favoured model at the Hutter’s Rally last year. However, I think the real impediment is still planning law and practice, although at least in Scotland the planning policy recognises huts and requires councils to include them in their strategy “where appropriate”. Last year I roughed out some numbers about how to create a Carbeth style site, and I think they bear repeating in this context.

The Carbeth site is about 100 acres with about 140 huts, giving a density of about two thirds of an acre per hut. The actual plots assigned to each hut are smaller than this but the plots themselves are also well spaced which gives the site its semi-wooded character.

What are the costs involved if you wanted to create such a site from farmland? The Carbeth Hutters had to raise £1.75 million to the freehold of the site, but that was for land with planning permission for all those huts remember.

It’s easy to find agricultural land for sale online these days. For example, uklandandfarms.co.uk : scotland (change the sorting to “Low to High”) has bits of woodland and pasture starting for a few tens of thousands of pounds. Using one of these websites last year I found this field very near Carbeth, and so in the kind of location where we know a hutting community can thrive. That was 76 acres for about £125,000, which is a lot less than well over a million.

Let’s say we had created a hutters’ co-operative to buy that land, and then marked out 100 plots on it, to give a rather low density very like Carbeth with lots of space between plots. Everyone who became a member of the co-operative would get a plot. Half the available memberships would require a contribution of £125 per year over ten years; the other half require a one-off contribution of £2500 at the start. This means there would not even be a need for the co-op to take out a loan itself as the upfront payments would pay for the land purchase.

Add some rules to stop people reselling memberships in a way that drives up prices. Also some kind of common fund contribution: maybe £125/year, which the £2500 people don’t have to pay for the first ten years. This way after ten years everyone has paid the same in total, and there aren’t two classes of members. Some of the capital is used to put up huts owned by the co-operative available for £10/night to make the experience accessible and also so people can see if they really like it.

People would need to put up huts on their plots, but they could camp to start with while they did that. You can get log cabin kits for £2000-£4000 if people didn’t want to bodge together something themselves. But the co-op buying timber and fittings in bulk and then selling them at cost to members on site would be a great way of spreading the cost and letting people feel their way through the process of putting a hut up by trial and error.

We could do all that tomorrow in as many fields as there is the demand for huts if the planning environment was right.

In my view reform of property ownership is a worthy goal in itself. The option to buy rural land by local communities when it comes up for sale extended to tenant farmers would be a good thing, and not just in Scotland. The right of long-standing urban tenants to buy their own homes is also a worthy goal, as it is not good for people to be renting for any length of time and not getting equity in return: they’re just paying off someone else’s mortgage in most cases, whether the landlord is a private or public body, and they risk paying far more than the cost of the property if their family stays for decades. Long term renting is a con, rather like Currys selling maintenance contracts for £10 toasters.

But as I think the above links and example plan shows, all those issues about land and property reform don’t need to be resolved to restart hutting. Probably to do as much hutting as there is demand for it. It’s the planning environment which stops us doing it all over the place tomorrow.

Scottish Hutters Rally

I went to the Scottish Hutters Rally earlier this month, organised as part of Reforesting Scotland’s “Thousand Huts” campaign. They’ve now posted a report about the day which gives a flavour of the enthusiasm that was in the air at the event. Coming back to England afterwards and doing some digging around into the history of “hutting” here has prompted me to start this blog. I’m intending to record some of the things I’ve been finding out, and also post about wider topics related to small woodlands and forestry too.

The Rally started on a high with the newly published Scottish Planning Policy which explicitly mentions and defines huts:

Plans should set out a spatial strategy which … where appropriate, sets out policies and proposals for leisure accommodation, such as holiday units, caravans, and huts. … Hut: A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.

That’s a pretty good definition of the kind of building a lot of people with small woodlands would like, but the hope in Scotland is now to persuade planning departments to allow that kind of low impact development on various types of land, both individually and in groups. Planning law and planning officials is a theme we’ll keep revisiting on this blog.

One of the themes of the Scottish hutting movement is community, and I think that is heavily influenced by the model of the Carbeth hutting community just north of Glasgow, which has about 150 huts on 90 acres. There was an organised trip out to Carbeth by coach on the afternoon and we were shown round by some of the hut owners and welcomed into their huts.  It’s very hard to put into words what the huts were like: very individual and personal, and not the semi-manufactured environments that people’s houses often are now. It’s like the difference between a city street of long-established local shops, versus a street of multinational chains. Carbeth is a partially wooded site on a hillside, with conifer plantation on the higher ground, and from some of the early photographs in the 1920s it looks as if it was originally mostly open grazing land. Another theme we’ll be revisiting in this blog is the idea that hutting provides a motivation for creating and managing small woodlands.

I did notice a lot of concern at the Rally about tenancy issues, and reform of tenancy law is one of the issues mentioned in the report of the event. There did seem to be an implicit assumption in many of the talks and conversations that it’s not practical to buy land to hut on in Scotland due to the resistance of large landowers to splitting up their estates. I’m not sure how true this is though, as there do seem to be small parcels of woodland for sale, for example, in the same way they are in England and Wales. So it may well be practical for individuals or families to buy (the Scottish equivalent of) freehold land for hutting. However, for creating communities like Carbeth, some form of collective purchase of the land and then tenancy from the legal body created to hold the land would seem to be a good way forward, such as people in apartment buildings and New York style co-ops do.

For the future, a Scottish Hutters Federation is being formed to support people doing hutting, and to carry the campaign on.