Meet the master hut-maker shepherding success

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Tracie Beardsley meets Richard Lee, Dorset craftsman, founder of Plankbridge and pioneer of a global revival of shepherd’s huts

Richard Lee, founder of Plankbridge, inside his office – a 1921 Bournemouth tram
All images: Courtenay Hitchcock

In a moment of quiet reverie, she’s rolled out to greet the bright winter sunlight. A majestic diva, she is a super-hut – the shepherd’s hut equivalent of an executive home. This is a luxury lodge made from English oak, insulated with Lakeland sheep’s wool with very modern fittings.
Six weeks in the making from chassis to chimney, behind her stands a 37-strong ‘making team’ of skilled Dorset craftspeople – carpenters, joiners, painters, metalworkers and more.
This is the Plankbridge family; they are makers of fine shepherd’s huts, the only ones boasting the prestigious endorsement of the Royal Horticultural Society.
It’s a rural business that enjoyed a 30 per cent increase in turnover with the sudden growth of working from home during the pandemic. As well as garden offices, these shepherds huts are used for accommodation and treatment rooms by the upmarket hotel chain The Pig, by the National Trust for offices and visitor meet and greets, for glamping, as B&Bs, and they are sold to celebrities including TV’s countryside champion Kate Humble, a 90s rock star (whose name must remain a secret) and even, occasionally, to shepherds!

Plankbridge’s 50-strong team of crafts and trades people simultaneously works on a number of huts in various stages of build

Hardy country huts
At the top of the family tree are Richard Lee and his partner Jane, who started Plankbridge 23 years ago, initially working out of a converted chicken shed. By 2007, they had recruited their first employee, ‘part-time and a big step’.
With 37 employees including Richard’s brother, who makes the chassis units, plus a further dozen ‘crucial’ subcontracted electricians, plumbers and powder coaters, Plankbridge works out of a huge converted grainstore in Piddlehinton, deep in Thomas Hardy territory.. And it’s thanks to Dorset’s most famous author that the idea of building 21st century shepherds huts came about.
Richard says: ‘We live in the heart of Far From The Madding Crowd country. Waterston Manor, the inspiration for Bathsheba’s Weatherby Farm is just down the road. Smitten Farmer Boldwood was at nearby Druce Farm and Hardy’s own cottage at Higher Bockhampton is near us too.
‘Walking my dog near Hardy’s cottage I spotted a dilapidated shepherd’s hut and I started researching. I was self-employed at the time, making kitchen and garden furniture, but it wasn’t really satisfying my creative bent. Back then, lots of people were restoring old huts but I wanted to make my own from scratch, be true to the original style, but with all the modern qualities of a timber-framed building.’

The home of Plankbridge is a huge converted grainstore in Piddlehinton

Richard did just that; his first hut incorporated cavity insulation, a breather membrane and electrics. He kept and used the hut in his garden, and later advertised it and sold it easily. ‘Then a lady from Wells called me wanting to buy it. I told her I’d already sold it but could make her another one – and that’s how the business began!’
Plankbridge now ships much further afield than Wessex. The latest super-hut is bound for the Channel Islands. Huts have been shipped to America and across Europe. One customer, a real shepherd in Scandinavia, needed her hut as protection from wolves! Continuing the Hardy link, Plankbridge also worked on Gabriel Oak’s shepherd’s hut in the 2015 film of Far from the Madding Crowd. Look closely and you may even spot Richard Lee in his role as an extra!

With an on-site forge, even the hut wheels are made by Richard’s team of craftsmen
image Courtenay Hitchcock BV magazine

Sitting in the 1921 Bournemouth tram which is now his quirky office, Richard is currently planning his latest creation – The Gardener’s Bothy. Designs are under wraps until the big reveal at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May, but it will be made from home-grown ash, chestnut and oak.
‘The show is a great launchpad for innovation,’ he says.
Richard trained in woodcraft at Hooke Park in Beaminster, the brainchild of renowned furniture maker John Makepeace.
‘Makepeace was ahead of his time – he wanted to make us entrepreneurs in wood. You didn’t just learn to make things. You learned about British timbers, marketing, accounting, running a business. We used to get high-powered furniture designers from London to lecture us, which I found enthralling.
‘I’m really driven by the Arts & Crafts Movement and it’s incredible to think shepherds huts, which historians date back as far as 1596, are still evolving and are now a familiar sight. But now it’s not just in fields – they’re in many back gardens too.’

Richard’s tram-cum-office sits inside the old grainstore

Quick fire questions:
Dinner party guests around a campfire by your hut?
Musicians Mike Scott from The Waterboys and Paul McCartney, actress Kate Winslet, biological anthropologist Prof Alice Roberts, rewilding expert Derek Gow, American politician and activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and comedian Billy Connolly. That should be an interesting mix!

Current reading list?
A biography of Terry Pratchett – I’m not a particular fan of his work but I like finding biographies of people I don’t know much about. I’m also reading Lee Scofield’s A Wild Fell – Fighting for Nature on a Lake District Farm. Rewilding and nature books are a bit of a passion of mine.

Inside an original shepherd’s hut that the team is currently renovating.

See more on the Plankbridge website: plankbridge.com
Richard is on Facebook as PlankbridgeHutmakers and on Instagram as Plankbridge

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