A LONG-lost rural way of life is evoked in a new book, a labour of love which has been painstakingly researched over the past 16 years by a Bexhill resident and local museum volunteer.
Assisted by her husband, Alan, Gillian Beecher has traipsed across wet fields the length and breadth of the country.
Her quest? To track down 278 surviving examples of the portable huts that once provided basic shelter for hard-working shepherds.
The result of her labours is Shepherds, Huts and Sheep, an illustrated history charting the use of such huts from the 1800s to the 1940s and published under her own Beechtree Press imprint.
Gillian sets the scene: “I can remember when we were children we saw very little of my father during the busiest part of the lambing season.
“He would come home for a hot meal as soon as it was getting dark. First, he would want hot water for a good wash. The farm cottages in those days had no bathrooms or hot running water, but there would be a big saucepan full of water ready...The meal would often be a beefsteak pudding which had been bubbling away on the stove all the afternoon, filling the kitchen with a warm mouth-watering smell. After the meal he would sit in his armchair by the fire for a look at the newspaper and go to sleep.
“Meanwhile my mother would pack some food for him to take back with him; fried eggs in a little enamel dish that could be warmed up for breakfast, slices of bread and butter and probably cheese, in fact enough to last until the next evening.
“After an hour or so it would be time to warm some milk for the lambs, put on a thick overcoat and cycle back to the sheep where he would spend the rest of the night in his ‘house cart.’”
Typically timber-built, clad in corrugated iron and mounted on iron wheels, such huts were crude. Creature comforts were just a bunk bed, a small stove – and somewhere to warm and bottle-feed weak or orphaned lambs.
Gillian’s researches reveal the specialist manufacturers whose company names still adorn the surviving huts. She details the huts’ construction and their regional variations. But there is much more within these 103 pages - from veterans’ memories to the crooks and shears tools of their trade and the smocks and gaiters they wore. Gillian, a long-term Bexhill Museum volunteer, holds a book-signing at the museum on Saturday, April 26 from noon until 4pm.
A percentage of her book’s £7.50 price will go to the museum.