A hut of one’s own

Photo by Nachelle Nocom on Unsplash

A guide to the building, living in and politics of your own log cabin

What if the room of your own you’ve been longing for also had a view overlooking the forest, a log burner keeping you warm, and all you could hear was the occasional soft thump of snow falling off the trees? What if you had chopped the firewood, as part of a simpler life lived enveloped by nature? What if you yourself had built your own cabin?

This is the flight of fancy many of us have been having even before the pandemic. Henry David Thoreau’s influential description of living in a log cabin next to Walden pond in Massachusetts dates back to the 1840s, long before the blogging phenomenon of Cabin Porn sold us the dream of a hut in the mountains overlooking a lake.

Andrew Salter at his home in Kent. Photo: Nick Donovan

Walking up to the front door of Andrew Salter’s two-room wooden barn, nestled against a slow-moving river in Kent, my first impression isn’t visual however. I’m struck by the sheer intensity of birdsong. Surrounded by concentric circles of garden, meadows, and his neighbour’s farms, “I feel like I’m living in a field. I’m constantly aware of the surroundings,” said Andrew. “I’ve got French doors this side, and a window on that side and sometimes I’ll get swallows just flying through.”

Inspired by Japanese culture and reading Walden when he was 16, at the recommendation of a singer being interviewed on Radio 1, the tiny size of Andrew’s home has forced him to shed distracting possessions. But his isn’t a hair-shirted life. Just as Thoreau left out three chairs for visitors, Andrew has found himself spending more time on the porch, getting to know his neighbours.

Andrew’s tiny house in the snow. Video by Andrew Salter.

For Cath Sherrell and Beccy Foley too the idea of living in a tiny house is about setting aside what Beccy describes as “the materialistic side of our lives and just focusing on what is actually important.”

I met Beccy and Cath at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, where the friendliest carpenter in Wales, Carwyn Lloyd Jones, hosts a ‘Build a Tiny House’ course. Before the pandemic a group of us, some of whom hadn’t used a saw before, gathered to learn how to build a small wooden cabin in a week.

As one of the wettest places in Britain, Machynlleth is the perfect place to learn how to keep warm and dry. The overhang of the roof and the cladding of your walls are important when the rain becomes horizontal. Carpentry is interspersed with sessions on how to choose solar panels, how to balance ventilation with insulation and what size log burner to buy for a tiny house.

The tuition is practical and step-by-step, literally from the bottom up: floor, walls, then roof. Carwyn is the most approachable tutor you could imagine. When we mis-measure the window frame, leaving a letterbox sized hole underneath the window sill, he chuckles gently and then helps us fix it.

How to build a tiny house – course at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales.

There is a simple joy to be had from building something – whether well or badly. For Toby Philips and Matteo Sanguinetti Bird, what started off as a hobby became an obsession. “We source each bit of wood really carefully. We spent hours when we’re laying out the floorboards thinking about which ones look nicest in which part of the room. It’s a bit over the top!” said Toby. They love using  Douglas fir, both for its heady scent and a light pink hue which greys gently with time. One of their favourite moments in the build comes seeing the frame erected “you start to see the shape, it’s really satisfying.”

Reforesting Scotland’s 1,000 Huts campaign won a battle to get a definition of a hut into Scottish planning law. Campaigner Donald McPhillimy says that a hut “can’t be your principle residence, it’s for intermittent recreational use, it’s a temporary structure to be removed at the end of its life, it’s largely off-grid, it’s something completely different from a house.” This difference has helped to reassure some planning authorities that a building a hut won’t lead to urban sprawl.

Donald is confident that eventually these reforms will lead to the building of thousands of cabins in Scotland. Both Scotland and the rest of the UK are starting from a low base. According to Lesley Riddoch, author of Huts, a place beyond, Scotland has just a few hundred huts, compared to Norway’s 400,000. While 93% of second homes in Norway are wooden huts, and just 7% converted barns and farmhouses, in the UK the reverse is true. Through a long tradition of more equitable access to land and a law against turning primary residences into second homes, Norway has created a more democratic hutting tradition.

“Friluftsliv”

A word first used by Ibsen in 1859 meaning “a state in which recreation, rejuvenation and the restoration of balance are achieved through immersion in nature”

Lesley Riddoch, Huts, a place beyond.

The result is culture which values leisure as more than ‘time-off.’ The Norwegian word Friluftsliv, which Lesley writes was first used in print by playwright Henrik Ibsen in 1859, describes “a state in which recreation, rejuvenation and the restoration of balance are achieved through immersion in nature.” It is hard to think of an English equivalent.

For Donald the appeal of a hut is simple. It is a “place to get away. Place to switch off. Place to simplify life. Ideally you’d leave your phone and laptop behind. A place to slow down. Centre yourself, get a balance. Cook some food. Read a book. Have a sleep. Take your time.”  While for Cath Sherrell the pull of a cabin “goes back to us being kids. Whether it’s a treehouse, or a Wendy house, we all loved having a play house. I think adults always need a play space, or a den, or a hideaway, and that’s what those small spaces are about.”

A taxonomy of cabins, huts, treehouses and sheds
Cabin, shed or treehouse? A taxonomy of huts by Nick Donovan.

Top 5 books to read in a cabin

  1. Walden, Heny David Thoreau, the original simple-lifer.
  2. A room of one’s own, Virgina Woolf, the feminist classic.
  3. Huts, a place beyond, Lesley Riddoch hutting politics in Scotland and Norway.
  4. Cabin Porn, edited by Zach Klein, to dream.
  5. Misery, Stephen King, for when it all gets a bit too twee.

Listen to Donald McPhilimy discuss the 1,000 huts campaign in episode one of The Cabin:

The British anti-homosexual laws still devastating the lives of millions

Above: Divina Lorinda, a queer living in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by Stuart Tibaweswa.

Activists and victims say the colonial-era laws lead to violence, extortion, wrongful arrest and hinder the fight against HIV/AIDS

British colonial-era laws were used to arrest Eric Ndawula, above.

Download article, sized for mobile, to send by Whatsapp or Signal.

Just after dark on 21 October 2019 in Kampala, Uganda, a homophobic mob gathered outside the gate of a homelessness shelter, set up to help young people shunned by their families. “They had sticks, they had stones, they were throwing all sorts of things,” said Eric Ndawula, one of those inside. “They were shouting, ‘we need to kill them’.”

After Eric called the police, rather than arrest any of the mob, officers charged 16 victims with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, a law Uganda inherited from the Indian Penal Code written by British colonial administrators in 1860. During their four-day imprisonment police searched the 16 for evidence of penetration through a “degrading” forced anal examination, before finally dropping the charges, said Eric, now the 25 year old director of Let’s Walk Uganda, an organisation dedicated to improving the livelihoods of young LGBT people.

The Indian Penal Code was one of a series of Victorian laws which clamped down on homosexuality. Another in 1885 criminalised sex acts between men short of penetration as ‘gross indecency’. This amendment was debated for only four minutes, one of which was spent increasing the punishment from one to two year’s hard labour. Both Oscar Wilde and second world war codebreaker Alan Turing fell foul of this law.

Colonial-era laws spread from the British Parliament throughout the Empire. Photo: Nick Donovan

These laws spread throughout the Empire. Of 71 countries which outlaw same-sex relations, half are Commonwealth members. Téa Braun of the Human Dignity Trust, a charity campaigning for LGBT rights, says such laws create “vast global devastation in the lives of hundreds of millions of people – men and women.”

Victorian England never outlawed lesbianism. However, of the 43 countries which criminalise sex between women some, like Uganda, are influenced by British gross indecency laws. “In some countries, ironically, it came about as an attempt to make the laws non-discriminatory. So a country that had a law which specifically criminalised men, rather than being seen as discriminatory in criminalising anybody,” said Téa Braun, governments decided “we have to capture both male and female same-sex conduct.”

Failed amendment in UK Parliament to criminalise gross indecency between women,1921
In 1921 Conservative MP F.A. Macquisten introduced a new amendment to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act to criminalise female same-sex sexual acts. It failed after the House of Lords worried that it would lead to blackmail and that the “more you advertise vice by prohibiting it the more you will increase it.” Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow Library.

On 17 February 2021 the Himalayan state of Bhutan joined Commonwealth countries such as Fiji, Belize, Trinidad and Botswana, in decriminalising homosexuality.

Activist Tashi Tshten from Rainbow Bhutan said, although the country was never colonised by the British, “Most of the laws were basically copy-pasted from the Indian Penal Code. So when you look at those laws and see language like sodomy and unnatural sex, these are very common words that you can find even in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and some parts of Pakistan. These laws came from the colonial era.”

The gross indecency law became known in Victorian England as ‘the Blackmailer’s Charter’. Tashi became a victim of that colonial legacy. “I was blackmailed because he found out that I was gay. He told me that he would tell the police that I engage in this type of activity and he would call the police unless I pay him the money.”

Extortion by corrupt police officers was one of the sparks for the two-decade legal campaign to repeal section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by Anjali Gopalan of the Naz Foundation, an Indian HIV/AIDs organisation. “The police would say ‘we’re arresting you and we’re going to call your family, we’re going to tell them you were with another man.’ We have one of the most corrupt police systems in the world, so they would just make money off these men.” said Anjali. Section 377 was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2018.

Elsewhere the British colonial legacy continues. Last year two Zambian men, Japhet Chataba and Steven Sambo, received a Presidential pardon after serving three of their 15 year prison sentence for “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”.

Such laws deter people reporting hate crimes. “LGBT people are labelled by the state as criminals,” said Téa Braun. “People die because of these laws: at the hands of the state, at the hands of the community, at the hands of, sometimes, people’s own family.” Sometimes LGBT people are raped, including by members of their own families, in order to ‘cure’ them. Amber Fatmi from the Lawyer’s Initiative Forum in India said, “Such cases come in where you report against the family for corrective rape, then the police also book you for unnatural sex. So largely because of that the LGBTQ community do not come up and say that rape has happened.”

These laws also hobble the campaign against HIV/AIDS, according to Téa. “The HIV prevalence rates in many criminalising countries is notably higher than in non-criminalising countries. Why would someone go and report their sexual conduct to a health practitioner if that person might report them for committing a crime?”

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that the response to HIV/AIDS created movements to end criminalisation.

“On the one hand the government was funding programmes for men who have sex with men”, said Anjali, “and on the other the police were” locking up HIV outreach workers. According to Vivek Divan, a lawyer involved in the campaign, the first challenge to section 377 occurred in 1994 when prisons refused to distribute condoms, arguing they would be aiding and abetting a criminal sex act. Eventually public health officials became proponents of decriminalisation. When Vivek originally filed cases the Home Affairs ministry argued to retain the law but “a few years later we get an affidavit from the Health Ministry saying ‘this law must go, because it’s an impediment to HIV work’. So the Supreme Court asked government, ‘make up your mind, because your ministries are conflicting’.” Similarly, in Bhutan, according to Tashi, their biggest allies were in the health ministry, while the influential Minister of Finance worked in HIV/AIDS prevention.

Photo of bhutan's Minister of Finance with members of the LGBT+ community
Bhutan’s Minister of Finance with members of the LGBT+ community. (L-R) Dechen Selden, Lyonpo Namgay Tshering (Finance Minister), Sonam Choden, Ugyen Y Lhamo & Kencho Tshering. Image courtesy of Rainbow Bhutan.

So what would Eric Ndawula say if he came face-to-face with one of these Victorian lawmakers?  “People refuse to accept that people could be different than them. You never know that LGBT people exist until you know that your son is gay, or your wife, or you yourself.”

The British anti-homosexual laws still devastating the lives of millions

Divina Lorinda, a queer living in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by Stuart Tibaweswa.

Download article, sized for mobile, to send by Whatsapp or Signal.

Laws criminalising homosexuality in the British Empire still devastate millions of lives today, according to activists. Of the 71 countries which outlaw same-sex relations, half are members of the Commonwealth. Victims of such laws say they hinder the fight against HIV/AIDS and lead to wrongful arrests, extortion and violence.

Map showing the 71 countries which still criminalise homosexuality. Those influenced by British colonial-era laws are shown in red.

Just after dark on 21 October 2019 in Kampala, Uganda, a homophobic mob gathered outside the gate of an LGBT homelessness shelter, set up to help young people shunned by their families. “They had sticks, they had stones, they were throwing all sorts of things,” said Eric Ndawula, 23, one of those inside. “They were shouting, ‘we need to kill them’.”

After Eric called the police, rather than arrest any of the mob, officers charged 16 victims with “carnal knowledge against the order of nature”, a law Uganda inherited from the Indian Penal Code written by British colonial administrators in 1860. During their four-day imprisonment the 16 were searched for evidence of penetration through a “degrading” forced anal examination, before police finally dropped the charges, said Eric.

Timeline showing the introduction of laws outlawing homosexuality in Britain and its Empire, and the steady stream of countries decriminalising same sex intimacy in recent decades

The Indian Penal Code was one of a series of Victorian laws which clamped down on homosexuality. Another in 1885 criminalised sex acts between men short of penetration as ‘gross indecency’. This amendment was debated for only four minutes, one of which was spent increasing the punishment from one to two year’s hard labour. Both Oscar Wilde and second world war codebreaker Alan Turing fell foul of this law.

Victorian England never outlawed lesbianism. However, of the 43 countries which criminalise sex between women some, like Uganda, are influenced by British gross indecency laws. According to Téa Braun of the Human Dignity Trust, a charity campaigning for LGBT rights, “In some countries, ironically, it came about as an attempt to make the laws non-discriminatory. So a country that had a law which specifically criminalised men, rather than being seen as discriminatory in criminalising anybody,” she said, the governments decided “we have to capture both male and female same-sex conduct.”

Failed amendment in UK Parliament to criminalise gross indecency between women,1921
In 1921 Conservative MP F.A. Macquisten introduced a new amendment to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act to criminalise female same-sex sexual acts. It failed after the House of Lords worried that it would lead to blackmail and that the “more you advertise vice by prohibiting it the more you will increase it.” Image courtesy of the University of Glasgow Library.

On 17 February 2021 the Himalayan state of Bhutan decriminalised homosexuality. Activist Tashi Tshten from Rainbow Bhutan said, although Bhutan was never colonised by the British, “Most of the laws were basically copy-pasted from the Indian Penal Code. So when you look at those laws and see language like sodomy and unnatural sex, these are very common words that you can find even in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and some parts of Pakistan. These laws came from the colonial era.”

The gross indecency law became known in Victorian England as the ‘Blackmailer’s Charter’. Tashi became a victim of that colonial legacy. “I was blackmailed because he found out that I was gay. He told me that he would tell the police that I engage in this type of activity and he would call the police unless I pay him the money.”

(L-R) Dechen Selden, Lyonpo Namgay Tshering (Finance Minister), Sonam Choden, Ugyen Y Lhamo & Kencho Tshering. Image courtesy of Rainbow Bhutan.

Extortion by corrupt police officers was one of the sparks for the two-decade legal campaign to repeal section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by Anjali Gopalan of the Naz Foundation, an Indian HIV/AIDs organisation. “The police would say ‘we’re arresting you and we’re going to call your family, we’re going to tell them you were with another man.’ We have one of the most corrupt police systems in the world, so they would just make money off these men.” said Anjali. The Naz Foundation eventually won their legal battle in 2018.

Audio: Anjali Gopalan tells the story of the campaign against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised ‘unnatural offences’ as ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature.’

Elsewhere the British colonial legacy continues. Last year two Zambian men, Japhet Chataba and Steven Sambo, received a Presidential pardon after serving three of their 15 year prison sentence for “carnal knowledge of any person against the order of nature”.

Such laws make it more difficult for people to report hate crimes. “LGBT people are labelled by the state as criminals,” said Téa Braun, “People die because of these laws: at the hands of the state, at the hands of the community, at the hands of, sometimes, people’s own family.” Sometimes LGBT people are raped, including by members of their own families, in order to ‘cure’ them. Amber Fatmi from the Lawyer’s Initiative Forum in India said, “Such cases come in where you report against the family for corrective rape, then the police also book you for unnatural sex. So largely because of that the LGBTQ community do not come up and say that rape has happened.”

These laws also hobble the campaign against HIV/AIDS, according to Téa. “The HIV prevalence rates in many criminalising countries is notably higher than in non-criminalising countries. Why would someone go and report their sexual conduct to a health practitioner if that person might report them for committing a crime?”

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic created movements to end criminalisation. In India the campaign against section 377 grew out of groups educating people about safe sex. “On the one hand the government was funding programmes for men who have sex with men”, said Anjali, “and on the other the police were” locking up Naz outreach workers. In Bhutan, according to Tashi, their biggest allies were in the health ministry, while the influential Minister of Finance worked in the HIV/AIDS prevention. For a variety of reasons, over the last decade a succession of Commonwealth countries, such as Fiji, the Seychelles, Belize, Trinidad and Botswana have decriminalised homosexuality.

So what would Eric Ndawula say if he came face-to-face with one of these Victorian lawmakers?  “People refuse to accept that people could be different than them. You never know that LGBT people exist until you know that your son is gay, or your wife, or you yourself.” This is a point echoed by Téa Braun: “Whether intentionally or unintentionally they’ve created vast global devastation in the lives of hundreds of millions of people – men and women. Perhaps the lack of knowledge back then of people and of the diversity of the human species led to that. But that lack of knowledge and that prejudice lives on today in the lives of hundred of millions of people.”