The Garden Shed
Posted on 30th December 2020 at 17:34
I got a new garden shed recently and the interest in it took me by surprise. What was I going to do in it? Will you use it for potting? Are you transferring your office there? Will it be the music studio? Such was the excitement and enthusiasm, I hesitated to share the simple, pragmatic truth - that it was going to be used for storage, just like its predecessor, only more of it since it is bigger. The predecessor had been there twenty-two years and despite fraying at the edges and punctuated with holes, it still continued to give. Indeed, even after a very swift dismantling that was at odds with its apparent sturdiness over the years, someone wanted it! Oh yes, very much so! They had creative plans for it and lovingly removed it off site. The shed that keeps on giving…
It got me thinking though about the ‘place’ of the garden shed in our culture. That ‘split off’ extra room of the house. And yet not entirely split off, but connected to the mother ship by ‘the path’ in all its forms. It has a refuge capacity and acts as a container when escape from the main house is required, for whatever reason. It is a therapeutic space where, in addition to refuge, thinking and creativity can take place, largely uninterrupted. “A shed is somewhere where you find out about yourself while doing the work of creating…” writes Henry Cole in The Life Changing Magic Of Sheds . For Cole, an essential criterion of a shed is for it to distinctly be “another space,” remote from the house and to which a “pilgrimage” is made. It similarly must be “leavable,” including any work in progress it contains. Adding a loo to a shed is sacrilege and must remain the property of the mother ship at the other end of the path of pilgrimage. He says it all in the book’s dedication when he states that the ability to retire to his shed makes him a better husband and father.
No surprise then that the garden shed has acquired such titles as ‘man cave,’ ‘she shed,’ ‘den’ and in such incarnations, became the subject of the ‘Shed of the Year’ competition which has run for four years on Britain’s Channel 4 television. The concept of the shed as a space “where men can come together to learn, share skills and make long-lasting friendships” is the central tenet of the Men’s Shed movement, originating in Australia in the 1980s but with Ireland now boasting the most sheds per capita. The movement has contributed greatly to supporting mental health, not least by reducing loneliness and boredom.
Great literary works have emerged from garden sheds. Poet, Dylan Thomas, used to write in a small shed which he termed his “word splashed hut” as did children’s author Roald Dahl who described the shed as his “little nest.” Author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres, writes from a garden studio prizing in particular “the quintessential smell of sheds.” We can identify with this sensory aspect of the shed’s material structure, usually wood, as well as its contents. The art studio of Sylvia Antonsen is a wooden garden room. She often paints structures “associated with shelter or safety” among them beach huts. An extension of the garden shed perhaps?
With the advancing, pandemic accelerated, concept of flexible working, more people are moving into their sheds to work. The common issue of fudged boundaries between work and home can be alleviated by the short commute to the shed. You may even engage the senses along the way, admiring the flowers, smelling the freshly mown lawn (even if it is the neighbour’s) or picking a berry off the brambles. While moving the daily workspace into the garden shed offers significant benefits, I wonder if it confers a seriousness to it that undermines the ‘play space’ potential of the shed in which to experiment, to revisit childhood and create new existences which collectively balance our work life? This of course can be addressed by having another shed, a ‘work free zone,’ a creative space, where only the magic happens!
Another magical aspect the garden shed has is hidden treasure. How many times have we experienced or heard stories of things being found in sheds, originally squirreled away for sanctity and then in time forgotten, to be discovered later, often by relatives long after the curator has departed this world. Coin and medal collections, memory boxes, letters and even money. Which brings me full circle back to my own use of the garden shed, that of storage. But who knows? Maybe the extra space will allow some potting to occur within the pots stored there, a task previously performed outside, due to lack of space!
As it’s December, the month is which Christmas is celebrated, it would be remiss of me not to mention the most famous shed of all, that of the crib in Bethlehem where the son of God was born. Simple and functional in structure, it provided the shelter and refuge needed for this most celestial of births and became a place of pilgrimage and homage. The shed that keeps on giving….
1. Cole, H. (2020) The Life Changing Magic of Sheds: A Pilgrimage to the Bottom of the Garden. Quercus Editions Ltd. London
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