‘Cold enough to kill the Devil’
A century ago, shepherds would live in an iron clad wheeled hut in all weathers during the lambing season. Paul Vass reveals the thoughts of some of them, found written inside of one of those huts.
Published in February ’12
One hundred and five years ago this month it was cold. How cold? According to one shepherd, who scrawled his clearly unfiltered thoughts of the weather of 6 February 1907 onto the inside of his shepherd’s hut, very! He wrote: ‘This weather is enough to make a man swear black is white and red is blue and chills through the ass of his trousers and cut his throat with his shirt collar.’
The graffito – one of a number of weather reports covering a span of about a decade, was one of dozens discovered by carpenter Johnno Farrar, of Plankbridge Shepherd Huts in Piddlehinton, when he was restoring the hut. He said: ‘We have been commissioned to restore a lot of these huts that have been rotting away in the corner of a farm somewhere for the last 100 years. In recent years there has been a bit of a trend to turn these old wooden cabins into holiday lets.’
It is a far cry from their original use where these huts were mainly used for shelter during the lambing season, which took a few weeks and during which time the shepherd would have had to be close at hand throughout.
‘In one hut’, Johnno relates: ‘We found the walls covered in the most fantastic handwriting. Clearly these men used the wooden walls to write down their thoughts in the absence of a piece of paper,’ and also presumably with the lack of anything else to do.
‘There are,’ says Johnno, ‘simple observations like everyday tasks, such as “Walter Tucker hacking turnips” in 1905, but there is an awful lot of stuff about the weather. They must have suffered some very cold and harsh conditions judging by some of the notes.’
Two years after the rather colourful quote at the beginning of this piece, one shepherd wrote – on 12 February 1909 – that the weather was ‘cold enough to kill the devil,’ while another noted that it snowed on 8 May 1904. An earlier shepherd had documented the weather in a way that gives the impression that he had had enough of the changeable weather: March 1-7 1903 were recorded as ‘stormy, wet, fine, stormy, wet, fair, wet.’
Others took to doodling on the walls – one image shows a rather intricate end to a shepherd’s crook, another one appears to be a self-portrait – or recording matters of general interest like: ‘Trams running first day of May, 1905.’
Ironically perhaps, the shepherd’s lack of equipment has helped to preserve their historical records: ‘The pencil has lasted well,’ says Johnno, ‘and hasn’t faded with the years. It is fascinating to read after all this time.’
Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, Far From the Madding Crowd, contains a passage of shepherd Gabriel Oak looking out of his hut over his flock, albeit with less prosaic matters on his mind.
The Dorset shepherd hut is generally about 12ft long and 6ft wide and would have contained a bed, a dresser, a shelf and a wood-burning stove. The refurbished huts, now used as holiday lets, tend to be rather more grandly equipped and cost between £6000 and £8000 pounds. As well as being used for guest accommodation, the cabins have also been turned into offices and one has even been converted to be a sauna – rather different from the freezing ice-boxes of a century ago.
There is one, rather more poignant message inscribed in the hut. It reads: William Norman 3rd Bandsman of the new Salvation Army Corps. At Dorchester 4 Oct, 1908. God watch between our three while we are absent one from another.