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Me and my ‘she shed’: women on the joys of their garden retreats

Nell Card
·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Angela Benjamin

At the entrance to Angela Benjamin’s shed is a copper sign that reads: “She Cave”, and a deep purple clematis weaves its way through the letters. The shed is a simple wooden structure at the end of her garden in Ealing, west London that backs on to a cemetery – “so I don’t disturb anyone when I’m working!”

In here, Benjamin handmakes wearable, sustainable art jewellery. What began as a hobby has recently grown into a second career for her. “I’m a physiotherapist by profession but with the onset of the first lockdown, my full-time role was suddenly restricted to virtual consultations,” she explains. “While these were helpful to my clients, there were obvious limitations, so I found myself with more time available to make jewellery.”

Previously, Benjamin had only used the shed on weekends and occasionally during the evening. Post-Covid, she has used the space on a daily basis, often for five hours at a time. “Initially I was making as a means of distracting myself from pandemic-related news and being on my own,” she recalls. “However, as the months progressed, I started to get more orders via my website, so I found myself regularly making more jewellery to restock.”

This is a place for intense periods of hammering and polishing, so the space is purely functional. Last spring, Benjamin repainted the interior white and fitted a solid, purpose-built worktop. Her tools are stored on wall-mounted shelves and there is space for just one other person inside. (Pre-Covid, Benjamin offered one-to-one jewellery-making classes and she hopes to restart that soon.) Last summer she installed a mini-fridge to keep drinks cool; in winter, this was replaced with an electric heater. Her radio is a “constant companion.”

“I can honestly say that the She Cave has helped me get through this past year,” says Benjamin. “While I enjoy my own company, I initially struggled with the social isolation. I couldn’t sit still for more than 20 minutes, so going into the She Cave gave my days structure,” she says. “Having somewhere to ‘go to work’, albeit at the bottom of the garden, has definitely made the last 12 months more manageable.”

angebdesigns.com

Charlotte Philby

Charlotte Philby in her shed in her garden in Bristol
‘We are in the middle of the city, but in here it feels like you could be in another world’: Charlotte Philby in her shed in Bristol.. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

For writer Charlotte Philby, the spider-ridden, 20-year-old, slatted structure at the end of her garden has been nothing short of life-changing. Philby, her husband and three children all moved from east London to Bristol in September last year. They spent three months living in cramped rental accommodation, searching the city for a new family home. “One of the top things on my wishlist was a writing shed,” she says. “So when I saw this one, I was sold.”

Philby is quick to clarify: “There are writer’s sheds, and there are outdoor offices posing as writer’s sheds – this is very much the former. It’s replete with a remarkably high population of arachnids. The unintentional aesthetic is very much Beatrix Potter writing shed meets Camden Market stall circa 1994.” The interior remains largely unchanged: she’s kept the old sofa, soggy carpet and pre-existing wall hangings. “The beauty of the space is the simplicity of it and being immersed in the garden,” she says. (That said, she has added a couple of candles, some nice blankets, a lamp, a heater, a kettle and some books that she doesn’t mind getting damp.)

By day, this is Philby’s place of work. (“My children tried to commandeer it as a clubhouse,” she reveals, “but after I casually mentioned the quantity of spiders, they soon retreated back inside.”) By night, the shed becomes “somewhere to hide and have a drink – and maybe a scream.”

“We are in the middle of the city, but in here it feels like you could be in another world,” she continues, clearly still delighted by her new, overgrown, 300ft commute. “The relief, over the past few months, of having a proper working space away from the mess and the noise and the constant demands of family life has been life-changing.”

A Double Life by Charlotte Philby is out in hardback now, and The Second Woman is published in July by the Borough Press

Camilla Perkins

Camilla Perkins – an artist and illustrator living in East Sussex – quickly realised the need for a room of her own when her second daughter was born two days before the first lockdown. “The room I had been using as an office was quickly filled with baby stuff and I knew that my days of working from the kitchen table were numbered when the dog attempted to eat a painting I’d been working on.”

Her husband hurriedly installed a small corner shed in the garden. He painted the exterior off-white with teal blue windows. “I love how it reminds me of the houses and roadside shrines that you find on Greek Islands,” says Perkins. Inside, the pale blue wood-panelling creates a calming space for her to immerse herself in work.

All Perkins needs to create is here. “Most of my commercial work involves spending hours either sitting at my computer or drawing on an iPad, so my studio shed really is my creative haven where I can make all of my original drawings without having to worry about my toddler trying to ‘help me’ or the baby choking on an oil pastel.”

The space is furnished with a few inherited pieces – a simple, green wardrobe from her grandmother’s spare bedroom hides her packing material; spare pastels are kept in a bathroom cabinet that once belonged to her husband’s great-uncle. The curtains are vintage kantha quilts that her mum ran up for her, and there’s a small blue velvet chair with cushions and a throw for comfort.

Perkins’s husband is a gardener who has thoughtfully surrounded the shed with eucalyptus, tree ferns, hostas and a creeping jasmine. In the summer, the beds will be filled with lupins, roses and peonies, which Perkins uses as inspiration for her floral artworks that she sells online.

“To be honest, when you’re a mother of two small children, it’s hard not to feel like a nappy-changing, nose-wiping robot for most of the time – but especially during the past year,” Perkins admits. “During lockdown, I really needed an area of my own where I could just feel like a normal working woman again and my shed really did provide that escapism for me. Even if it is only a short amount of time before one of the children crawls out of the dog flap to harass me for snacks.”

partnershipeditions.com

Steph Keelan

Steph Keelan lives in northwest London with her husband, Olly Wiggins, and their two daughters, Maisie (17) and Minnie (23). When her eldest returned from university, they decided to remortgage their house and convert a dilapidated brick outhouse at the bottom of the garden into an architecturally designed, double-height, steel-clad “bunker”.

Construction began in 2019. “When it was being built, the concrete structure beneath the metal cladding was so brutalist we called it Brexit bunker, but when Covid arrived it got a rebrand,” says Keelan, a filmmaker and co-founder of S+O Media, a company that provides crew and equipment to the broadcast industry.

The shed has myriad uses. During the day, the clutter-free, ply-lined bunker serves as a workplace for Keelan and Minnie. During the evening, it functions as a place of study for Keelan, who is studying graphic design. It also functions as a yoga and Zoom fitness-class studio, as well as a much needed social hub. “In the summer, Olly and I would quaff a bottle of rosé in here while taking part in weekly family quizzes,” she recalls.

The bunker has also provided Keelan with a private space to grieve. Her mother passed away at the end of last year and, after she died, Keelan sat in the shed every night, using her newfound skills to design her order of service. “It was an excuse to indulge in tons of old pictures, while drinking wine and crying my heart out to my mother’s favourite songs… Just to have some privacy, or somewhere to walk to – even if only 10 paces from the kitchen door – was a godsend.”

Grace Alexander

Grace Alexander in front of her shed in Corfe, Somerset
‘Working surrounded by knobbly squash and dried seed heads has made everything that bit more bearable’: Grace Alexander and her shed in Corfe, Somerset. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Grace Alexander has two jobs: she is a consultant clinical psychologist who works as an expert witness for the family courts, and she is a cut flower seed merchant who runs the growing and gardening membership site Gather with Grace Alexander. Since March last year, she has carried out both jobs from the comfort of her garden shed.

Alexander’s husband built the shed five years ago, cladding it in aged timber and adding a reclaimed slate roof so that it gives the impression of having always been there. It sits at the end of their garden in south Taunton, where they live with their three dogs. “The cottage was built in 1589 and is a drafty as cottages get,” says Alexander. “But my studio has double glazing, a heater and its own wifi, so on a cold day, it’s better than being in the house. I’ve even moved a coffee machine in.”

This simple, shielded space has become vital to Alexander since the first lockdown, when her workload grew quickly. “Very sadly, child protection and safeguarding work increased, rather than decreased. At the same time, absolutely everyone was in their garden and wanted seeds,” she recalls.

Besides warmth, her shed provides a much-needed buffer between her home life and the demands of her profession. “Assessing people in the family court system is complicated and tricky,” she says. “I would have found doing it in my own home even more so. Hugo – our cocker spaniel – also shouts at Zoom, which makes things particularly awkward. Having a space that I can work in, then step out into the garden and breathe the fresh air, then return to my home is hugely important,” she continues. “It may be a distance of about 15m, but that is enough. Plus, working surrounded by knobbly squash and dried seed heads has made everything just that little bit more bearable.”

gracealexanderflowers.co.uk