This was an adventure: the first international sale for Norfolk Farm Shepherd Huts, an 800-mile trip by road to the south of France with a shepherd’s hut transported on a 15-year-old four-wheel flatbed lorry with our long-suffering Landrover bringing up the rear.
The Ardèche department is the southwest corner of the Rhône-Alpes region; where we were headed is an area of limestone hills and cliffs with many ancient villages and farms nestling in the valleys and perched high up on the hillsides. The population is sparse, but the area is full of history and tradition.
Our destination was a picturesque farmhouse situated high above the valley of the magnificent River Rhône – the flat river plain is famed for fruit growing. At the local market we found delicious jam: apricot, eglantine (rosehip) and peach, and juices: pear with vanilla or quince, apple with cinnamon or lemon, alongside wonderful lavender honey – we found beehives high on the hillsides. The Ardèche is also known as chestnut country and is renowned for the production of marron glacé.
However, our journey was not so much epicure as epic. We crossed to Calais by ferry – the loaded hut being too tall for the Channel Tunnel – and drove with one overnight stop down to the south. The hut, securely strapped to the back of the lorry, was protected on its journey by a layer of dense green netting and, having survived the speed of the Péage, negotiated the Lyon traffic, crossed the Rhône and just fitted under a very low railway bridge, it arrived in the village of Rompon at midday to park by the village cemetery and await the unloading deliberations.
We had the assistance of Thierry, a farmer neighbour of our customer, who arrived, smiling, with a small front-end loader. In order to lift the hut, Salle Farms had kindly lent us the extension lengths for the loader forks, but the first drawback was to discover that they did not really fit. A little improvisation interspersed with English frowns and Gallic shrugs and they were attached, albeit in a rather wobbly fashion and certainly not up to Salle Farms standards.
Thierry was a little doubtful that his tractor would lift the hut – and we should have listened. But (to use a terrible cliché) something got lost in translation. All went according to plan, the lorry pulled out, the hut hung in mid-air, Thierry began to lower… But then an almighty crash, a tractor precariously balanced on two wheels and a lot of dust and bilingual expletives filling the air.
Happily, after a short silence, we looked again to see the hut still intact and Thierry back on four wheels. Remarkably the only damage was a minor dent in the turntable and one plank with an additional “distressed” finish.
Once all had calmed down and sweat had been wiped from brows, Thierry leant down and picked up the customs ticket, which was blowing across the car park. He laughed, shrugged “Mon Dieu!”; there was its weight confirmed as1,500 kg. He had thought it was 1,000 kg and his tractor had a maximum lifting capacity of 1,200 kg – we really should have known better.
Once the wheels were back on the axles, literally, the last stage of the hut’s journey was a two-mile tow up the hill to a perfect pitch in a pretty orchard, enjoying wonderful views up and across the valley to Thierry’s farm, his buildings part of the narrow street and old stone houses of a now abandoned village.
It was soothing listening to the rumble of the iron wheels proceeding slowly up the hill, following the Landover smoothly round the hairpin bends, past the little chapel on the edge of the cliff to the heights of the old farmstead. A family of donkeys eyed us with some interest as we rumbled by – were we a gourmet meal on wheels?
Once the hut was settled in place, this time with the aid of Michel the gardener, his pruning saw and some railway sleepers, it looked great. Even better, Thierry’s sheep flock were grazing the hillside beyond, the gentle tinkle-tonkle of the bell attached to the lead sheep’s collar echoing across the valley as the sun set... cue for a well-earned glass of wine.
Norfolk Farm Shepherd Huts is a small business based at Park Farm on the Salle Park Estate, just outside Reepham. It is only this summer that we have swung the emphasis of our business from agricultural haulage to focus on the huts. We have sold several huts in this area over the years. They are all based on the original shepherd’s hut in use on our family farm at Heydon until the 1960s.
Large-scale woodwork and carpentry is second nature to Andrew Buxton; one of the first jobs he had on the farm aged 16 was making a dozen five-bar gates for the cattle meadows. He wanted to restore the old hut for our sons when they were young, but it was felt the hut should stay on the farm. So Andrew decided to make his own – and that’s how we got to the Ardèche.
For more information, contact: Andrew Buxton, Norfolk Farm Shepherd Huts, Park Farm, Salle, Norwich, Norfolk NR10 4SG. Tel: 01603 873220/07881 783425. Email