Deep in the heart of the Somerset countryside is an unassuming, highly organised group of talented individuals creating the most delightful Shepherd Huts; quite literally from the wheels up.
I met Will, Bridie, and Emma who, in their cleverly converted old dairy on Shrubbery Farm, told me how they began the extraordinary process of designing and making the most beautifully bespoke Shepherd Huts I have ever seen.
Will Vickery started Blackdown Shepherd Huts with his cousin, George, in 2011; at the time they were running a building company, but when the recession hit work became a little thin on the ground.
Will said a guy he knew was thinking of getting something to put on his land as a glamping site, and he and George quickly decided that they could do a much better job than the people he’d got to do it.
Will laughs as he is reminded of those early days; "Hey, it’ll be a couple of grand and a couple of weeks work to knock one up, we thought! But it wasn’t either of those - in fact it was a lot more of both!"
After they'd successfully built their first one, a local newspaper wrote a piece on them and that's when they met Emma. "Emma has been fantastic at giving marketing and business advice; she’d also won a business award, so we didn't want to let her go!" Will says, and judging from the swift development of the business, I can see why.
When Blackdown Shepherd Huts first started they brought four sets of reclaimed wheels and some old huts so they could get to know how they were made and essentially reverse engineer their construction. The Shepherd Hut chassis, for example, is unique in its own design and Blackdown make both metal and wooden ones.
"We took a lot of influence from older huts and looked at what other people were doing in the marketplace. We weren't the first people to do it, but we design and make the whole thing, so this process is entirely bespoke to us."
Blackdown Shepherd Huts began in Will's garage, which they quickly outgrew, and when they moved to new premises, the first six huts went out the doors. They quickly took on more barns to fulfil demand.
Emma reminded Will of their first attempts at fitting a roof onto a hut; 'they’ve used the roof of cars to stand on as scaffolding to get a hut roof on!" And Will admits that "it's certainly not the operation we have now." And he's right. The set-up they have now is a carefully maintained production line with every part of the process working to a scheduled timeline. When I toured their barns, not only was there a very productive workforce, all using their unique skills in design and engineering, but there was also a distinct feeling of the entire operation being tidy, calm and organised.
Bridie is the first to add that they've expanded beyond recognition. "We started in 2011 and we've just doubled, year on year on year. We started to employ people in 2012 some of whom are still with us, and now there are 16 people working here. The growth has been rapid."
Blackdown Shepherd Huts take pride in all their huts being right and being beautiful. "We don't cut corners," Will tells me firmly, "and we use quality material – it's what we're known for."
All their materials are sourced locally and the saw mills they use are local to them too. Carpentry is Will's love, along with good biscuits, and all the wood they use is oak and the finish is of the highest quality.
The glamping appeal is still as strong as ever and small glamping sites were Blackdown's main market to begin with. The very first huts they made just had a small sofa bed and log burner in them.
Glamping sites are still a huge part of what they do, "but now," Will explains, "we build them with bathrooms, fold down beds and kitchens; as the customers want more in them, we develop them accordingly."
The inside of the huts are a clever arrangement of kitchens and beds; Will showed me how he'd designed a pull down bed that folds up into the side of the hut. When the bed is down, it reveals two secret bookshelves. There are ingenious wooden levers and leather straps that result in one smooth engineered movement. Even the solid oak lid to the tiny butlers sink doubles up as a chopping board, and the proportions of the shower room are perfectly thought out. There's even a storage cupboard for clothes and bags and other things.
Emma explained how the uses for a Shepherd Hut is wide, and getting increasingly diverse! They've successfully made swimming pool changing rooms, offices, very luxurious garden sheds, an artist studio and even a library. They've had some great requests too – some that can be fulfilled, others that can't, and some that come to a clever compromise; "someone wanted the hut roof to open up. We haven't quite made that happen, that’s our next challenge, but we did install a glass roof instead."
The glass roof is certainly a compromise I'd be happy with; what could be better than looking up at a starry night sky from the warmth and comfort of a hut?
"Someone did ask if we could float them on their lake! But the huts weigh 3 tons, so we didn't quite get around to making that request happen!"
Emma told me how one gentleman brought a fully kitted-out hut for his wife for their anniversary. As the whole thing was a surprise, they delivered it whilst she was out and she rang us afterwards to say that she was delighted with it!" Everything's built for a customer and that sort of bespoke service is what sets Will and his team apart from the competition.
Land Rover Jaguar use two Blackdown Shepherd Huts for their experience days, and moving on from luxury glamping they're now selling to hotels; just recently, Michelin Star chef, Richard Corrigan, ordered 12 for his wedding and hotel venue in Ireland.
When visitor's pop in to look at the huts there are always handmade biscuits available – today, a plate full of sheep-shaped biscuits accompany my hot cup of tea made in a mug that even has a shepherd hut sketch on it. When this sort of detail extends to the tea and biscuits you know you've found something special!
Blackdown Shepherd Huts have sold 200 huts so far, and on average one hut comes out of the workshop every week. This isn't to say that that's their limit – Will told me that another hut went into the mix this week, and after a 4-week-roll, a total of 6 huts will be ready to make their journey to new homes this weekend, and that’s as a finished, fully assembled item.
Blackdown supply a self-build kit too which is really popular (especially among engineer-types) and they sell around 50 of those a year too.
I'm intrigued; as the Shepherd Huts are on wheels can you take them with you? "No," says Will, "they're static mainly, but we've been asked to come back and move a couple for people when they’ve moved house."
On the back wall in their offices is a map of the UK with an array of green and yellow pins. Bridie tells me it needs updating as their Shepherd Huts are delivered far and wide, from Cornwall to Yorkshire, across to Ireland and to many places in between. In fact, they really need a map of the world, because their expansion takes them as far as Kenya, Australia, out to Sweden, to France and Italy, and it seems that this will only result in a yellow and green pin in every continent across the globe. Whatever the climate, whatever the challenge, this close-knit family of Shepherd Hut makers seems to take it all in their stride.
For more information on Blackdown Shepherd Huts, visit their website here.
A magical world awaits!