"If you want me; I'm in the shed"

Alex Johnson examines the appeal of our outdoor spaces that are embedded with emotion.
June 23, 2022

It’s that time of the year again when the world gears up for the finest competition on the planet. No, not Wimbledon. Nor the Tour de France. Not even The Strongman Classic at the Royal Albert Hall on July 9. Hushed tones please instead as the shortlist is announced this week for this year’s Shed of the Year. 

The competition, now sponsored by Cuprinol, was set up in 2007 by Andrew Wilcox. Together we judged the first winner to be Tony Roger’s Roman Temple (other judges since then have included novelist Neil Gaiman and television property gurus Sarah Beeny and George Clarke). Known more affably as Uncle Wilco, Andrew is also the brains behind the genius website readersheds.co.uk which holds the now internationally-acclaimed shed contest (nip along now and vote for your favourite). The site and competition alike celebrate shed like structures of all shapes, sizes, and uses, and over the last couple of years has introduced a very popular new category, Lockdown. 

One of the most noticeable ways in which these incomparable structures have come into their own during the pandemic and its aftermath is in the boom in garden offices. Since March 2020, there has been an evident sea change in how thousands of people are arranging their working lives to include an office which requires only a 30 second commute. People who don’t normally work from home are suddenly discovering the attraction –I’ve watched musicians perform concerts from inside their garden studio, auctioneers turn their garden sheds into salerooms, and national television broadcasters host their shows from their timber retreats. 

“For decades we have known that people like working from home because it increases the control they have over their lives,” says Dr Frances Holliss, an architect and academic who is an expert on the architecture of home-based work at London Metropolitan University. “Most employers are celebrating the fact that their staff are happier, healthier and equally or more productive – and that, simultaneously, they need less office space and so can reduce overheads. Being able to close the door on work at the end of the day is important for many, which is why garden offices are flying off the shelves.” 

But the beauty of sheds is that they are so versatile. People often talk about sheds as sanctuaries and recently that’s been especially true. “We see sheds as an escape most of the time,” agrees Uncle Wilco, “but right now they really are proving to be a oasis.” 

Three northern examples from this new Shed of the Year shortlist indicates how varied these builds can be and also that the cliché about sheds that they are an all male preserve has been entirely blown apart. Indeed, while the mainstream media continues to delight in what they call ‘manspaces’ and ‘mancaves’, recent years have also seen the introduction of the term ‘she shed’ to acknowledge the huge growth in women redefining shed life. 

The Dog, Merseyside. (Image: Cuprinol.)

First of all The Potting Shed, owned by Kelly Haworth and located on her allotment in Lancashire. Here, it’s the spec that’s especially intriguing since Kelly has made the entire shed from old doors, mostly obtained for nothing. Then we have The Dog. Julie Ward’s chill out space in Merseyside which she uses simply for relaxation after work. And finally in Durham we have Ellie’s Rest named after Simon Jones’ old Spaniel who used to take a break here while walking up the slope in the field. 

Ellie's Rest, Durham. (Image: Cuprinol.)

Writer and artist John Ruskin contended that our buildings should mean something to the people who used them, that our spiritual concerns are as important as the material ones. For Ruskin, buildings were not just bricks and mortar, they were embedded with emotion. Or to put it another way, sheds are a statement of intent as much as an example of architecture. As Lake District-based cartoonist Colin Shelbourn points out: “You can hide from your loved ones in your shed. Build secret models of the Millennium Falcon. Instigate a whisky still. Hold solo Max Geldray parties, and play air harmonica.” 

Alex Johnson runs Shedworking (www.shedworking.co.uk) and is the author of Shedworking: The Alternative Workplace Revolution, and the Haynes Shed Manual. His most recent book is Rooms of Their Own published by Frances Lincoln which features many writers’ sheds. 

Header Image: The Potting Shed, Lancashire. (Image: Cuprinol.)