Why Are the British Obsessed with Sheds?
Jun 16 2013
The finalist for Shed of the Year from the Workshop/Studio category and owner Luke Hollingsworth. All photos via readersheds.co.uk.
Remember when you were a kid and you went to your friend’s house and it was just different enough to be strange? There were couches and a dining room table and a bunch of drawers filled with miscellaneous junk, just like your house, but it was all in the wrong places and smelled different? That’s what UK culture looks like from my perch in the US of A. At times I’m like, “Oh, that place that my ancestors fled from and rebelled against? Seems all right. Lotta funny accents and slang. They’re basically Americans with fewer guns but more alcoholism.” Then I’ll come across something that reminds me that no, no, no—the Brits are different from us; there’s a gulf of understanding between the two cultures that will never be crossed.
That gulf opened up before my eyes when I found out about the Shed of the Year contest.
Here's what that contest consists of: A bunch of (mostly British) people send in photos of their sheds and descriptions of their sheds, and other people vote on which shed is the best shed in each category of shed. The winner of the final shed-off—the king shed, the shed of sheds, if you will—will be announced during Shed Week, which is the first week of July.
The shed that won the Unique Shed category, built by Alex Holland.
I don’t understand any of this. To me—and probably to most Americans—sheds are little crappy booths some people store firewood or tools in. Breaking sheds down into categories and spending money to turn them into replicas of boats (or building them out of boats, as shown above) and awarding prizes to them during a specially designated week makes about as much sense as spending similar amounts of time and effort on fences, or forks, or big piles of rocks. “Wow, what an AMAZING pile of rocks! Gonna get my vote in the ‘Eco-Friendly Pile of Rocks’ category in the Big Pile of Rocks of the Year contest!”
In the UK, though, sheds are important, I guess? From a Mirror article about the Shed of the Year contest, it sounds like every middle-class home had a shed and it was normal to just go and hang out in the shed for long periods of time: “Sheds were traditionally the hiding place for dads. A place of peace and quiet where they could stir paint with pieces of wood and listen to the radio.” (And probably masturbate too, right? Right?)
The shed that won the Eco Shed category and owner Marcus Sheilds.
Bruno Bayley, the European managing editor for VICE, clarified what sheds were traditionally used for in his native UK when I emailed him in what was the middle of the night his time demanding information about sheds:
"Sheds are magical places where dads go to drink lager and curse their wives while surrounded by power tools and broken deck chairs. Except in my case where my mum turned the shed into a studio with a bathroom and electricity—which we still call 'the shed.' It's basically a small garage you can't put a car in."
It sounds like sheds have that same kind of aura of sad, deflated masculinity that basements and garages do in the US—I picture a father endlessly polishing his boxing trophies and listening, very quietly, to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska on vinyl. They have the same connotations in Australia that they do in the UK. In fact, there’s an organization called the Australian Men’s Shed Association that’s devoted to giving men a shed-like place to work on handyman-type tasks while, hopefully, sitting and talking and maybe communicating something about their lives to one another. As the AMSA site says, “Most men have learned from our culture that they don’t talk about their feelings and emotions… [and] that means they usually don’t ask for help. Probably because of this many men are less healthy than women, they drink more, take more risks, and they suffer more from isolation, loneliness, and depression.”
The shed that won the Tardis category, built by David Lifton.
Judging by some of the more whimsical Shed of the Year entries (there’s a whole category for sheds that look like the phone booth in Dr. Who) sheddie culture is a little more upbeat than that Hemingway-esque portrait of men trapped in a shed-shaped prison of their own devising. That’s what they call themselves, sheddies. There’s a very long online dictionary entry devoted to the phenomenon. According to that entry, the permanent recession we’re living in has led to a lot of women building “garden offices” in sheds, “countering the rather hackneyed image of the shed as the last bastion of masculinity.” Treating sheds like extra rooms that just happen to be in the yard—as Bruno’s mom did—appears to be pretty common.
(This phenomenon isn’t limited to the UK. I’ve heard from Irish friends that building fancy sheds as status symbols was common during that country’s Celtic Tiger boom years, and there’s a company called Shomera that specializes in “home extensions,” a.k.a. sheds that are bourgey as shit.)
Garry Logan inside his shed, which won the Pub Shed category.
The idea of using a shed as an office or living room goes against the original purpose of sheds, which as this very exhaustive article on shed history points out, was to satisfy humans’ “intrinsic need for storage.” Sheds were originally used to keep farming implements and animals in—but of course, these days most people don’t have a lot of animals or farming implements. Most people who have sheds don’t really need them, which is why they can turn them into places to drink or monuments to sci-fi TV shows or whatever. In that respect, some sheddie projects resemble follies, which were expensive outbuildings rich people used to construct just because they could. The transformation of sheds from necessary storage facilities to spaces for hobbies or displays of wealth probably says something about how humans can devote more time to leisure, and less time to feeding themselves. As we evolve, so do our sheds.
That’s some good anthropological BSing, if I do say so myself, but the sheds featured in the Shed of the Year contest aren’t just displays of wealth. What strikes me is how silly many of the sheds are. If Americans got into sheds I imagine they’d be gaudy monstrosities with automatic doors and murals of bald eagles wielding machine guns and flatscreen TVs on every available surface. I try to imagine an American turning a shed into a colorful fake house called the “Hen Pen” and I just can’t. We take ourselves too seriously to ever call ourselves “sheddies.”
Clare Kapma atop her shed, which won the Normal Shed category.
I emailed Blake Holt, the owner of sheddies.com, to explain sheds and shed culture to me, and he told me about an impromptu event he and his friend and fellow shed enthusiast Paul threw around the time of the 2012 Olympics to celebrate everything good about sheds—masculinity, home improvement projects, and apparently a healthy dose of irony:
“Paul had constructed a monumental new shed (which rather stretched the definition of a shed because he had included a section for his wife—to grow stuff!) and wanted a memorable opening ceremony. We couldn't get the guy who did the opening ceremony for London 2012—he was busy apparently—so we decided to have a Shed Olympiad. Events included sledgehammer throwing, wood sawing, screwdriving, wiring a light fitting, and many more of the highly developed DIY (do it yourself) skills that we men develop and hone during our lifetime. A dozen teams entered (including an all-female team who managed to slip under the wire somehow), Gold, Silver, and Bronze medals were struck by the local potter, a keenly competitive atmosphere pervaded the garden. Medals were won (some by the women, alas) and the shed was duly declared open.”
The shed that won the Cabin/Summerhouse category, built by Abigail Walker.
That’s sounds like kind of an odd way to spend one’s time. So does hauling a boat up a hill in order to use it as the roof of a shed, or for that matter, pretty much anything sheddies do. Are Shed Week and the Shed of the Year contest and shed culture an elaborate joke that us Yanks are too dense to get? When a spokesperson for Cuprinoal, the wood preservative brand that sponsors Shed of the Year, says, “Sheds are vital to the British identity,” is that some kind of sarcastic remark wrapped in multiple levels of irony? It has to be, right?
The shed that won the Garden Office category, built by Jonathan Sullivan.
Even after all this research, I still don’t understand sheddies as anything other than a bunch of people who are slightly mad in a harmless, quaint way. Which doesn't make them so bad. It’s better they spend their days remodeling and re-remodeling their sheds than constructing pipe bombs or forming militias, which is what Americans with too much time on their hands tend to do. Sheddies have got a quiet insanity about them, and it’s sort of charming to see that craziness manifested in absurdist home improvement projects.
And hey, these guys built some cool sheds. What have you ever done that was so great?
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