Plankbridge began with the discovery of an historic shepherd’s hut 20 years ago, which sparked a maker to create classic, elegant living spaces.
Now in 2019, hundreds of shepherd’s huts later, we visit Richard, founder of Plankbridge to answer some questions about his journey over the years. From studying at John Makepeace’s Hooke Park College, building his first hut, through to being featured in Hampton Court Palace, The Chelsea Flower Show and Homes & Gardens Magazine to name a few. Read the story of Richard’s passion and how Plankbridge has become so successful.
Carters Barn Farm
How did Plankbridge begin?
“Plankbridge began with the search for a repeatable design. I used to walk the dog around our local area near Thomas Hardy’s Cottage. One of the routes always led me past a hut on the top of a hill. One day that hut was sold and disappeared, so it was then that I decided to do a bit of research and make a copy of that hut, to keep the iconic structure in the local area. I kept it a couple of years and then thought I would advertise it to see if people were interested. The response from that was the trigger point to make me realise that I could continue making more. Plankbridge snowballed from there.”
What is your company ethos?
“It’s very much rooted in the arts and crafts movement, we’re very inspired by artists / craftsmen Ruskin and William Morris. We’re all about employing local people in a happy environment and making products that we make here on site and deliver fully assembled.”
How long have you been making shepherd’s huts and what was your mission at the outset?
“I made the first hut nearly 20 years ago. From the very first build I wanted it to be as useful as a timber framed house. Using the more modern materials like a breather membrane, a vapour barrier, and ensuring it was well insulated. To ensure it was usable as a room of the house all year round. I always knew I wanted them to be in the style of classic Victorian huts but made like a modern timber frame that you would see on grand designs.”
Where did the name Plankbridge come from?
“It came from the Cartoonist Norman Thelwell. He wrote a book about converting a watermill on the River Test in Hampshire. This book was called ‘A Plank Bridge By A Pool’ and I read it when I was 15. The book really stuck in my mind. It was about 1999/2000 when I was sitting in my armchair thinking, I don’t want to be ‘Richard Lee Furniture’, I want a name. The book ‘A Plank Bridge By A Pool’ was literally on the arm of my chair so I started sketching the word ‘Plankbridge’.
Whenever I come up with any idea, I am often more inspired when people tell me not to do it. Enough people said it didn’t sound right to make me realise that I was on to something.”
How has shepherd hut making changed over the years?
“They have got bigger, there’s more in them they are more like a self-contained house. We do still make traditional size huts but the modern needs of today means that they have got bigger. They were originally for one man and his dog. To fit with the needs of today they have had to get wider and longer. Wherever I can, I draw it back to the original format and make it smaller than people may think they initially want.”
What is your favourite aspect of the build?
“The most rewarding bit is when I sit here with a customer right at the start of the process. I have my pen and a blank piece of white paper. I like making it come alive with a black pen. It’s the early days of making it a reality.”
What is the strangest/most obscure request you have been asked to put inside a shepherd’s hut?
“We once made a terrapin house. A lady from Devon got in contact who rescues terrapins. There were enough in her house that she had to have somewhere else to move them.”
What is the most memorable place you have sent a shepherd’s hut?
“New York, Wisconsin, both in America. I have lovely pictures that always remind me of those. We have also sent huts to Portugal, Spain, France, Ibiza – many places. Hampton Court Palace is also a very special one.”
What’s the ideal location for a shepherd’s hut?
“They look good on grass but they sit well anywhere. They look like they have been there for years wherever you put them but yes, they look best on grass, it’s their heritage.”
If you had to pick your favourite shepherd’s hut build, which would it be?
“We delivered one next to the bridge on the lake by the River Test, the place that ‘A Plank Bridge By A Pool’ was written about. That was special.”
What is your all time favourite tool?
“A good block plane. They are used all the time. A more quirky answer is a pole rounder, which makes round tenons.”
From the start of the initial design to the end of making prior to shipment, how long on average does it take to make a shepherd’s hut?
“It could be a month and a half, it depends on lots of things.”
Have you made a shepherd’s hut for anyone famous? If so are you allowed to tell us who?
“Lots of famous people but my main answer to that is we did one for a prominent 90’s rockstar.”
Do you have a shepherd’s hut that you use or travel around in?
“I have a hut at home that we lent to River Cottage for a summer. We built an extra one for that back in 2010 It’s at home and I am now turning it into an office.”
What made you choose your current location?
“We were working from home just down the road and we just outgrew it. The owner of this farm at the time had an empty grainstore and they offered it to us. It had to be right, it wouldn’t feel right if it wasn’t in a rural location.”
Why do you shop at Axminster?
“I always have, when I studied at Hook Park a ‘thing’ we all used to do was to go to the Axminster shop. When we had a day with not much on, 5 of us would get in a car and head down to Axminster, which back then was the shop on the high street. That was around 1993/1994.
Rooted in that there is a loyalty. I like the idea that I used you from the beginning when you first started. It’s great to have a direct contact in Key Account Manager, Felicity who I can email when we need something. The business has grown so much but still has such a family feel to it.”
Do Plankbridge use any locally sourced materials?
“We always use home grown oak for our doors and windows. I also buy a kit of timber from a local timber company. There is lots of value in that, the fact that it will be delivered tomorrow by a friendly team.”
If you had one piece of advice for a hut maker just starting out, what would it be?
“There’s lots more people doing it now. When I started that wasn’t the case. I would say find something niche to do, it will make you slightly different.”
If you could pick anyone in the world to build a bespoke shepherd’s hut for, who would it be and why?
“Either Kate Winslet (I have always said I would always love to make a shepherd’s hut for Kate) or Paul McCartney – that would be amazing.”
More ‘Get To Know Your Customers’ Q&A’s coming soon…
Keep an eye on our Knowledge blog for future posts.