Outer Sanctum: Why we love to step outside the box to think inside the shed

For some, it's a place to find a hammer; for others, a place to find their creative soul.
By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, September 19, 2010

When I was 16, I decided I would pen a novel that would alter the course of Western literature. But where to write it?

I lived in a small house that was filled with love. In 1970s England, it was also filled with people: my mother, my father and three of my five siblings. The answer lay in a wee garden shed whose concrete floor was cluttered with horticultural implements and strewn newspapers. I cleared a space, set up a desk, and was soon tapping out the masterpiece on a manual typewriter. I wrote by a candle. The air was filled with the odor of a kerosene heater, which tried but never quite succeeded in chasing away the damp. The walls were whitewashed brick but dusty and full of cobwebs and earwigs.

For all its mess, the space did work a kind of magic.

I was within the comforting orbit of the family home but isolated from the distraction of other people's lives. I was able to write the book, even if it would forever lack one essential element: a publisher. The point, though, is that the shed, makeshift and musty, became an incubator for creativity.

Rooms have their own spirit, and in sensitive souls, that essence can be felt deeply. Garden sheds seem to have a special resonance, when you think about their role in the lives of various artists. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote some of her best poems in a bare-bones shack in the woods. Dylan Thomas had his "wordsplashed hut" on a Welsh cliff, where he wrote "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." George Bernard Shaw, ever the eccentric, had a writing shed that could be swiveled to follow the English sun. Then there was Mark Twain, who found his muses in a vine-clad garden pavilion, his "cozy nest."

In Northwest Washington, the novelist and journalist Christopher Buckley works in a writing shed converted from a one-car garage that is just big enough, he figures, to accommodate a Model T Ford. His father, William F. Buckley Jr., "was fond of a Spanish word, querencia," he said. "It's a bullfighting term, the part of the ring where the bull feels safe. It also denotes a loved space. So, it's my querencia."

Perched in a corner of his garden, at the end of a lane, the shed was rundown when Buckley came to it in the early 1990s. He renovated it after giving up his home office to his growing family. He had the floor tiled, basic heating and air conditioning installed, and a porthole window added. Nowadays, he could return to the house, but the shed offers that vital psychological separation. It is quiet and breezy. Jake, the Labrador, lies across the threshold while the writer teases words from the keyboard. A desk fountain adds soothing white noise.

Of course, you don't have to be a writer to realize the value of creating a familiar, quiet place of one's own. Woodworkers, gardeners and other hobby tinkerers have known the value of the shed for generations.

That same cossetting quality turns the shed into a sanctuary for anyone willing to think outside the box but very much inside the shed. In his book "Men and Sheds," Gordon Thorburn shows us the transforming powers of the simple larch hut: a stargazer in his observatory, a bishop in his chapel, a fellow who displays 4,000 milk bottles. Or take Gareth Jones's "Shed Men," where the reader is introduced to Brian, whose mock Tudor shed is a loft for racing pigeons.

These men and their sheds are in Britain, where ordinary blokes lead lives defined by peculiar interests. Case in point: a shed pub called The Gardener's Arms, where three guys named Dink, Robbo and Prem gather amid the seed trays and potting benches to enjoy the pub experience. Bans on smoking in actual pubs have driven a number of smokers to their own bars at the bottom of the garden. From the outside, The Gardener's Arms is nothing more than a wooden box with too many windows and not enough paint. Inside, it's a place where Dink, Robbo and Prem quaff home brew, put flame to their Nicotiana tabacum and discuss the relative merits of carrot varieties.

It seems reasonable to suggest that sheds developed their dual role as utility space and hermitage at a time when houses were smaller, families were bigger, and the shed occupant found a refuge that was cheap and available. Why then, in an age of small families rattling around in big houses, are sheds still so alluring? In the United Kingdom, at least, aficionados have even entered the language, as "sheddies."

"It's going a bit mad," said Andrew Wilcox, a 38-year-old Web developer and, avocationally, the UK's Sheddie Supremo. He rattles off the defining attributes of his own shed in South Wales. "Chair, electricity, radio, dog."

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