A West Country company specialising in creating an old-fashioned form of agricultural accommodation has been breaking its own amazing sales records – Martin Hesp has been to meet two men behind the success
When two Somerset cousins first looked at an old-fashioned shepherd's hut, they were impressed enough to try and make one – but little did they know that within three years they would have built a business that is now rapidly extending worldwide.
Shepherd huts came into vogue a few years ago in the UK when people began to realise the ancient agrarian form of camping out on the land offered a snug, practical and charming alternative to the ubiquitous plastic caravan or the garden shed.
The four-wheeled living accommodation once enjoyed – or endured – by farmworkers at lambing-time became all the rage… and cousins Will Vickery, 33, and George Bannister, 31, were there to realise the potential at exactly the right time.
Now their company, Blackdown Shepherd Huts, has entered 2014 with a 200 per cent increase in orders as global demand rockets for the high-quality, traditionally built units extends to Australia and, the pair hope, to the US. The huts are used for all manner of purposes – most common of all is as an attractive-looking, well-insulated home-office that is easily converted into extra bedroom accommodation for house guests. The "glamping" world also loves shepherds' huts and there is even a growing market in fully towable versions that are used for outdoor catering.
The cousins are based near Ilminster where they and their staff have developed new techniques in designing and building the luxury, hand-crafted, huts as well as self-build, flat-pack, hut kits.
They agreed that last year had been a momentous one for their company: "Australasian bookings are flooding in thanks to the exclusive licence that launched Blackdown Australia. This sees huts created for Australian B&B's and hotel chains, mining operations, healing retreats and vineyard wineries," the pair told me as we sat in a comfy shepherd's hut just outside their office.
"Also we've sold self-build hut kits to Scandinavia, Portugal, Ireland and the Channel Islands. We started off in my garage – that was smaller than our office," said Will who used to be a builder's chippy. "A guy I was working for in the Blackdowns was thinking of having some huts for glamping – he took me to see some that had been put up and asked me to make a copy. This was three years ago.
"He actually didn't want one in the end, but I was interested in the huts by then. When we started, we looked around the internet at what was already available and we found seven or eight companies with websites – but we got in at the right time when it was really taking off. We knocked the first one up in the garage, then we had to move to proper premises because we had several orders."
"It is all done by website," said George of the company's marketing. "The company is 99 per cent web-driven. The basic design of the huts hasn't changed that much – we've tweaked here and there, but it's basically the same. The research we did was to look at old huts and new ones – we thought: this is what we'd like it to look like – and we made it practical for modern-day living.
"The shepherds used them for lambing basically. They'd have a cage in the corner next to the wood-burning stove so if they had a lamb which was immature they'd bring it in. It would originally have been towed by horse to where they needed it."
"A lot of it is to do with the romance and nostalgia," said Will. "If you want a caravan in the back garden it is only ever going to be a plastic caravan. But the main selling point is the versatility. At the moment we are selling a lot as offices – someone will have one as a home-office which will pay for itself in two years compared to renting somewhere. Plus, you can have beds put in so when people come to stay you've got extra accommodation.
"We're also doing what we call complete-living-huts. So you've got a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen all in one space – you try buying a house or an extension for the price we charge."
George added: "Before we started, we thought it was going to be a luxury product for people who were super wealthy. But our second customer had an average job and we asked him why he bought it. He said it was for overflow accommodation – and he said he'd done houses up before and had all the aggro, all the disruption and so on of having the builders in.
"They're pretty much bespoke: we do three different sizes – 12, 14 and 16 foot long – they're all seven-feet wide – but the layout can be completely different. Basically, if it can go in a house, it can go in a hut. They come with a ten-year guarantee against water damage or failure. The wheels are made by a local foundry – and they're a copy from a 150-year-old hut. The huts are lagged with sheep-wool insulation – we do our very best to buy everything as locally as we can."
Because the huts are on wheels it is difficult for planning officers to regard them as permanent – so planning permission is not a hurdle Will and George's customers often face.
As for the burgeoning nature of the business, the pair told me: "We never imagined building so many so soon. It's the self-build that's really taken off – we've sold 57 so far, making it 94 units sold altogether. We've now got four members of staff – three in the workshop and someone in the office."
Now they've expanded far afield by selling the franchise to a couple in Australia: "We sell them the key components – all the metalwork and all the plans – so they can make exactly the same hut there that we make here, except they use different wood.
"It's the romance they're intrigued with," said George. "Our people there have got no competition, but their problem is that they've got to create awareness. Now we've got some other people interested in the USA – the deal is not quite signed yet but we think we're going ahead because the guy has paid the deposit.
"This has only just started as far as we're concerned. We're really pleased – we haven't borrowed a penny to do what we've done – when we started off we put in £2,500 each and now every thing you see, the tools, the vans, everything is owned by us. The thing about the huts is that, if you move house, you can easily take these with you. And they'll last you 50 or 100 years.
"At the moment it is a fairly domestic market – but one area we are pushing towards is the commercial sector. We're looking at bigger holiday parks – that's where we are going to pushing this coming year…"
If energetic Will and George continue in their present upward spiral, the once rare British shepherd's hut could see a massive renaissance in which even the West Country's seaside caravan sites might feature the charming homes on wheels instead of the boxes that we call caravans.
To find out more, check out www. blackdownshepherdhuts.co.uk.