“It really is something special and more than just a shepherd hut” - Barford engineer discusses Norfolk heritage site ahead of its first public opening
It was built more than a century ago to provide shelter and a home-from-home for shepherds tending their flocks in the fields, and a place to nurse sickly or orphan lambs back to health.
But, like many of its sister models that are now being pulled out of hedgerows up and down the country and restored, it is more than just a hut on wheels.
This shepherd hut, restored by Barford electrical engineer Ian McDonald, has a fascinating history literally crawling out of the woodwork and is bursting with Norfolk heritage.
From its years as a home for an Austrian prisoner-of-war to its status as a symbol of Norfolk's dominance in the world's wool-producing industry, for Mr McDonald it has proved more than just a trip down memory lane. It became the catalyst to begin the creation of a national archive of shepherd huts, to try and encourage other restoration projects and discover more about how they have been used over the decades.
Now for the first time the hut is opening to the public as part of the annual Heritage Open Days organised by Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (Heart).
Together with the 12th century St Botolph's church in the village of Barford on the Norwich to Hingham road, the hut in Mr McDonald's garden in Church Lane will join hundreds of buildings across the region taking part in events from Thursday, September 6 to Sunday, September 9.
And he hopes it will encourage other hut owners, restorers and enthusiasts to come along and share their hut photos and stories.
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He has also invited Nancy Clemance, from heritage lottery-funded project Hut Living, who aims to record memories of shepherds and hut-users and now wants to hear from Norfolk people to add to her archive.
For Mr McDonald the event is also the chance to celebrate the 10th anniversary of finding his hut, by chance, in a garden of an old farmhouse in Barford that he and his wife had gone to look at with a view to buying.
He recalled: 'The house was in a sorry state but as we were standing by the back door my wife, Carol, said 'if we can't have the house then I want to buy that', and pointed to a shed with a tree growing through it. She had realised it was a shepherd hut and wanted to convert it to an art studio.'
Luckily for the McDonalds the eventual developer of the property contacted them and gave them the chance to take it away before it was put on a bonfire.
Then began a two-year restoration project which saw the hut stripped down and rebuilt like a flatpack. As Mr McDonald was then chief electrical engineer at Lotus the rebuilding of the hut took place at a barbecue with colleagues who had come from around the world including Malaysia and South Africa.
'We put it back together in one day,' he said.
It was then that he realised there was an opportunity to share information about the restoration with other hut-owners and started a website. Photos and stories began to flood in and it was clear he had the beginnings of a national archive. He was even contacted by a Venezuelan TV company which had discovered one of the oldest buildings in its capital was built by Boulton & Paul, a well-known Norwich manufacturer and shepherd hut-builder that had featured on his website through a contributor and it wanted to know more about the company.
His research into his hut also brought him to the story of Hans Lenzen, the reason the hut had come to School Farm in Barford in 1945. He was one of two Austrian prisoners-of-war who were allocated to the farm to work from the nearby Kimberley POW camp. The hut was bought for �7 from Hall Farm at Rackheath, near Norwich, to house Mr Lenzen and he lived in it for two years. Amazingly Mr McDonald discovered that Mr Lenzen never went back to Austria and was still alive and living in Norwich having married a local girl. But two weeks after he contacted him Mr Lenzen died and never got to see the restored hut.
'It has had such a strong attachment to the village,' said Mr McDonald. 'It really is something special and more than just a shepherd hut. It has been part of people's lives and part of Norfolk's history.'
The shepherd hut and archive will be open between 10am and 12.30pm and 2pm to 4pm on September 6 and 7 and 10am to 4pm on the weekend of September 8 and 9. For younger visitors there is a competition to build a model shepherd hut from a card template with prizes for the best two. Admission to St Botolph's church and the shepherd hut is free, with parking at the church.
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