Saturday, July 30, 2011

Of sheds and dens and being a boy

Last week we had the builders round. Ostensibly they came to mend the fence, but before that I had a couple jobs which needed sorting in the potting shed. Just a bit of a tidy up, I said to Jane, and the electrics look ropey too. (I find that dodgy electrics is never questioned).

There followed a trip to B&Q: reels of cable, new sockets, masonry paint, thirteen lengths of 'two by four', three plywood boards, door hinges, polyfilla, junction boxes, woodstain - and a bill for two hundred quid (shhh...). Like I said, just a bit of a tidy up.

My grandfafther had a good shed; he called it his cabin. It was a gimcrack lean-to, painted pillar-box red and furnished with a bed for his afternoon naps after a few pints at the club. The shelves were stacked with jars of string or screws and bottles of unspeakable potions; he'd pasted the walls with our childhood drawings and we played there while he snored and the afternoon sun filtered through the net curtains. I'd have stayed there forever had there not been a time to go home.

My grandfather was clinically blind, and yet he had knack for dens. Once, he took us 'camping' (effectively a day trip to some wasteland) and we cooked sausages on an open fire, baked potatoes in the embers. I'll show you the tramps nest now, he said. And he led us to a tree with a whacking great platform of straw - it was big enough for two small boys, or a tramp, to sleep in I suppose. I remember him leaning on the trunk as we climbed the boughs; I'll just close my eyes, he said. I've never found a tramps nest since, and I've always wondered how he knew it was there. Wonderful man.

All my life I've delighted in sheds and tents, even mountain bothies. In a way they are all the same - a haven from the stress and pomp of the everyday world. It's an irony that by cutting out all the 'stuff' we work so hard to accumulate, we find a simpler, more profound pleasure.

But let's not get too philosophic. For there is something very uncomplicated about building dens. When my boys were small I taught them how to make shelters from sticks and bracken - now they are older they do the same with their younger brother. And when they get too distracted by their girlfriends or just generally surly, I and the little one go camping. Mostly we go a few miles from home, sometimes to the garden; it's as much about process as place.

All of which is long digression from my builders and the cost of materials. I left them to it as we headed to London - posh hotel, chaotic tubes, expensive restaurants - had enough after a couple of days. And driving back I mentioned casually, wonder if they've finished the fence?

As it turns out they did. But more importantly my new den was ready. My grandfather would have built it himself, before he lost his sight. But I'm time poor and I think he'd at least approve of the design. It has storage locker that converts to a bed, electrics (no longer dodgy) for a kettle and and a bench for writing. There's room for some homebrew, walls for Dylan's pictures, even shelves for a printer, books - perhaps jars with string and unspeakable potions.

And on Thursday night, before we'd even unpacked, Dylan and I tried it out. Your great grandad had a shed like this, I told him, his eyelids closing. He called it his cabin and I used to ...

Welcome everyone, to the new home of the bike shed.


  1. I'm wistfully envious. My granddad's shed was too packed to the gills for us to play in as kids but we did play in the cupboard under the stairs and his garage when the car was on manoeuvres elsewhere... happy days.

  2. What is it with men and their sheds? And before you throw back at me, what about women and shoes/bags, I don't get that either!!!
    But, I love the idea of an outside den... we call ours the summerhouse and I love to be shut away in there when it's raining outside. There's something extra cosy about this type of building/hideaway when it's raining, don't you find? I like being shut away from the world, being a loner this suits my temperament. Now if it just had a loo, and a day bed, I'd be set up!

  3. a haven from the stress and pomp of the everyday world. It's an irony that by cutting out all the 'stuff' we work so hard to accumulate, we find a simpler, more profound pleasure.

    I agree completely, thats how I felt about our caravan, but you have summed it up perfectly.

  4. Very elegant!
    I had a den under the tree in the corner of the garden when I was small...I used to go there with the dog and read in peace.

    I have just the sudetenland sense....the pig shed - before a pig could be moved in - in order to work in peace, far from the pathetic cries for cups of tea...

  5. I always had a den of some kind as a kid....and even now there is nothing I enjoy more than going to the 'shed' for some peace and reflection time..
    I am sure this post hit a chord with a lot of us!


  6. Oh what pleasure to read this, to find out about your grandad...his life and the joy and mystery he gave you... which you are passing along to Dylan.

    May your new Bike shed bring you both an even deeper bonding, as dad and lad should have. This is what memories are made of.

  7. I need a shed.

    I drew up plans for a proper live-in shed earlier this year, or as they like to be called now "a home office", I was going to buy a log cabin but for two grand I could build a shed for everyone in the street.

    Anyway, the plot in my garden where the "home office" was going to stand still stands bare and empty for whenever I mention a trip to the wood yard the wife remembers something else that needs buying that is much more important.

  8. What is it about small and cosy, ramshackle dens just like this, that continue to entice and pleasure us well beyond boyhood. For many years I ran my own design and build business in the south, and one of the elements that I enjoyed most of all, was the opportunity to design or re-design small habitable living spaces to make them more interesting, spacial and usable.

    I always used to say a real Englishman's home is his shed. We're not as distanced from the long era of cave dwelling as we often like to think.

  9. I have serious shed envy now. We were always building dens as kids. I suppose my beautiful wooden greenhouse is one sort of retreat now and I do love it and I do use it every day but I would love a den I could sleep in from time to time. My particular yearning is for a shepherd's hut.....