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: