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:

Higher car bonnets on SUVs risk ‘front-over’ accidents, say campaigners

SUV compared to small Fiat 500, London 2018.  © Richard Baker

British drivers and parents should beware of ‘front-over’ accidents to toddlers caused by the blind zones in front of the high bonnets of 4×4 vehicles, American campaigners have warned.

“The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the blind zone,” said Amber Rollins, of US car-safety campaign Kids and Cars. “You can’t avoid hitting what you can’t see.”

“We brought out my son’s pre-school class. We wanted to see how many kids we could line up sitting in front of one these vehicles,” said Rollins. “We got up to 17.”

Very young child playing in front of massive SUV
Very young child playing in front of large SUV. Image courtesy of Kids and Cars.

Kids and Cars term the incidents ‘front-overs’, to distinguish them from ‘back-overs’, where a slow-moving car reverses into pedestrians. “We’re seeing thousands of children being hurt or killed every year in front-overs,” said Rollins. “On a weekly basis here in the US at least 60 children are run over in a front-over accident. On average two of them die and 58 are seriously injured.”

To test the claims of Kids and Cars, PA Diploma News measured how far a traffic cone the height of a toddler (74cm) had to be moved away from the front of a car, in order for a woman of average height (5’4”) to spot the top of the cone, and compared the results with a similar study done in America.

Image comparing the blind zones in front of various car models.
Comparing front blind zones of various car models. Source: PA Diploma News and WTHR.

We found that American car designs had significantly bigger blind spots than models widely available in the UK, such the Nissan Qashqai. The angle and length of the bonnet significantly affected visibility, with the front blind zone of the Volkswagen Touareg being one-third larger than the that of a Qashqai. Some of these American models, such as the Cadillac Escalade, are occasionally available to buy in the UK.  

Rollins warns that such models could become the norm in the UK, as they have in the US. “They’re trendy. I live out in the suburbs, all the dads are driving in these giant trucks, they don’t need this big truck that you would expect to find out in rural areas where they need the truck for hauling stuff.”

One-in-four of all new cars sold in the UK is now an SUV or 4×4 vehicle. Over the last decade the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported a 260% increase in the number of sales of what it calls ‘dual purpose’ cars, such as Range Rovers, from 156,552 in 2010 to 562,360 in 2019.

BMW said, “We consider issues such as those highlighted in this report during the design process of our vehicles and all models conform to legal standards. Many BMW models offer features to further enhance pedestrian safety. Examples include front cameras and proximity sensors which are available during low speed manoeuvres.” Other car manufacturers did not respond to a request for comment.

Kids and Cars began its mission to improve car safety when its founder Janette Fennell and her husband were robbed at gunpoint outside their home in 1995. The attackers locked them in the boot of their own car, leaving their 9-month-old child in the back seat, and drove off in a different vehicle, leaving them trapped for hours. After their eventual release, Fennell began campaigning for mandatory luminous emergency release levers inside car boots.

Fennell collected her own data, finding that 1,082 Americans had been trapped in a car boot over the preceding 20 years, either children locking themselves in accidentally, or kidnap victims. In one in four cases the victims died of suffocation, heatstroke or hypothermia.

Kids and Cars eventually won that campaign in 2001. This success led to other car-safety campaigns on the dangers of suffocation from power-assisted windows, carbon monoxide poisoning and hot car deaths.

As deaths and injuries caused by cars in driveways and car parks are not recorded in official statistics, the group began collecting data from media reports. They found that in America non-traffic accidents involving cars, including front-overs, “is likely in the top 5 killers of very young children in our country,” according to Rollins. Similar data is not collected in the UK.