Ahhh, living in the wild… with just cornflowers wafting in the breeze, sheep gently grazing… and a rolltop bath.
These are not just shepherds’ huts – these are Plankbridge shepherds’ huts – the original, and arguably the best.
Just over 20 years ago Richard Lee, now 52, built his first shepherd’s hut in his garden, aiming to create a lovely home on wheels. He found he liked creating them so much that after a few years he gave up the furniture making and his other offerings and turned his hand exclusively to making high-end huts.
In 2011, shepherds’ huts shot into the mainstream after Richard won silver at Chelsea Flower Show with a mini-hut in an artisan garden.
Plenty of firms have since followed suit, with the huts going from an essential shelter to protect shepherds from the elements while minding their flock in the 19th century, to a status symbol coveted by many. They have ovens, sometimes solar panels (and occasionally, baths).
Once, Richard Lee would have to explain what a shepherd’s hut was. Now, he has 37 full-time members of staff busy fulfilling orders over thousands of square feet on a farm in the Piddle Valley.
Plankbridge remains a family firm, with Richard’s wife Jane as co-director and daughter Hannah, 21, doing the social media. Staff seem to love working here – they are able to bring their dogs in and each of them is cracking on purposefully and cheerily as I wander around.
A careful businessman, it was only when the family simply couldn’t accommodate all their work at the family home Richard moved the business to larger premises.
Staff had been making their lunches in the family kitchen and parking their cars outside – they could only work on two huts at a time and orders were growing fast.
In 2010 they moved into their new premises, which allowed them to accommodate a forge for the various bespoke artisan metalwork in the huts, plus a paint workshop, an oiling room and an upstairs office.
The pandemic forced production to stop for weeks. However it also created a thirst for home offices, so when staff were allowed back to work the orders streamed in.
He said: “The original shepherds’ huts were built in the 1840s and 50s to provide shelter for shepherds so they didn’t have to bring all the sheep back to the farm. They were very simple, with a stout floor of thick wood bound with iron, a simple bed, a stove and maybe a small cupboard.
“We have blueprints for two of those from the old Lott and Walne Foundry in Dorchester (next to the former Exhibition pub on London Road).
“They were meant to be as light as possible because they were often horse-drawn.
“We used to restore old shepherds’ huts, but we don’t now.”
All the huts are bespoke, with a range of different features and sizes. They use oak, as it’s hardwearing and sustainable.
The wood is weathered before being oiled once the grain opens up. The largest hut they produce is 26ft long – the maximum size Plankbridge can accommodate. The firm has made all the huts for the celebrated The Pig hotel chain, and I spotted a rolltop bath being installed in their latest hut – some change from the simple furnishings of the original huts. The interiors are breathtakingly beautiful – a miniature dream home.
One hut was being created for a daughter to live in her parents’ garden in Cornwall. The accommodation may be bijou, but it’s so well appointed you can imagine being very contented in the space.
Creating mini-homes has certainly made Richard contented. He is happy with his lot, and his plans for the future only involve building on what they have.
“We can tackle anything,” he says. “It’s exciting. We will continue to grow and build a team around us who love what they do.”
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