Poetic deacay within a shifting environmental and cultural landscape: The Lookers’ Huts of Romney marsh
An exhibition of photos showing the lookers’ huts within the landscape of Romney Marsh in different seasons and weather. It marks the building of a new lookers’ hut in the grounds of the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, a replica of the Cutter’s Bridge hut that was demolished about 5 years ago and the first entirely new hut to be built in many decades.
The exhibiton is at the Romney Marsh Visitor Centre, Dymmchurch Road, New Romney and runs from the 15th September until 9th October, overlapping with Art In Romney Marsh. Open from 9am to 5pm Thursday to Tuesday, closed Wednesday.
Where to find it – http://www.list.co.uk/place/20007699-romney-marsh-visitor-centre/
About the Romeny Marsh Vistor Centre – http://www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk/reserves/romney-marsh/
Art In Romney Marsh – http://www.artinromneymarsh.org.uk
I first became aware of the lookers’ huts 2007 when the one that was nearest to Hastings was suddenly knocked down. At the time I had no idea what it was but a bit of research revealed that it was a “sheephouse” or “lookers’ hut”… and there were more of them, perhaps as many as twenty still dotted around Romney Marsh. I decided to photograph the remaining ones before they too disappeared from the landscape and so began several months of searching that turned into four years of photography. Along the way I have discovered a love of the flat landscape where hidden pieces of history are only revealed when you chance upon them, the huge of sky and solitude that allow your spirit to open up and breathe in the tranquillity. But I also discovered that there were very few huts remaining. I came across the ruins of one that had recently been destroyed by vandals and later found out that it was not the first to go this way. If things continue as they are, then it will not be the last to go.
If these were obvious and well-highlighted historic buildings, such as churches, mills or other early industrial buildings, they would not be allowed to fall into ruin. But they are humble shepherds’ huts, small brick sheds that seem to have no great historical interest. What is not apparent, is that once they numbered hundreds and for around 200 years played an important part in the lives of the inhabitants of Romney Marsh — they were indispensable to the lookers who tended the sheep and needed to live on the Marsh, working round the clock for weeks on end during the lambing season. Through time people have lived in them, babies have been born in them and men have died in them. What the huts lacked in size or grandeur, they made up in sheer quantity and necessity. No great architect designed them, no famous person lived in them, but only the lookers in their hundreds, generation after generation…
For me, the lookers’ huts are a vital element of the landscape of Romney Marsh. Tiny under the vast sky, fragile and insubstantial when set against the forces of man and nature, they form a significant anchor point within the perspective of a photograph but also act as a cultural bridge, linking today with the heritage of Romney Marsh. Subjected to the whims of the weather, inevitable changes in farming and wilful destruction, year by year their numbers dwindle and we lose these irreplaceable pieces of the past.
The “Lookers” – Shepherds of the Marsh
Shepherds on Romney Marsh, and in some other parts of Kent and East Sussex, are often referred to as lookers, although the true looker has now virtually disappeared. While a shepherd was employed full time to look after one farmer’s flock, the looker was self employed and, at an agreed price, tended several people’s sheep. Some preferred to be paid by the acreage of pasture, yearly or half-yearly, and were known as “acre lookers”. A farmer or grazier who employed a looker would also, during the lambing season, engage a man or woman – often a retired looker – as a “lamber” because it would be impossible for the looker to be everywhere at once during such a hectic period.
One still finds a link with the old days of sheep farming in the “Lookers’ Huts”, or, to give them their correct title, “Sheephouses” which, like many other farm buildings, now have little place in modern agriculture. These small brick houses were the homes of Lookers for often up to six weeks during the lambing season.
The “houses” or “huts” were usually built of brick, and would be surrounded by sheep pounds or pens; within the pens would be the dipping tun. The hut provided the looker with shelter, it usually had a tiled roof and a fireplace. Here he kept his tools and belongings, and it was a “home from home” for many weeks while he carried out his duties for his lambing ewes.
Some of the larger huts had a stable attached to them where a milking cow was kept during the lambing season, to feed the weak or the sock (orphan) lambs. Most of the brick huts were single buildings with laid brick floors, one small window and a stove fitted in the fireplace. In remote areas of Romney Marsh the huts were fitted with bunks.
The majority of the huts had nine-inch walls, no cavity, no ceilings and the roof joists exposed. A lintel across the chimney breast was usually of oak and the stove was similar to a small bedroom fireplace, but fitted across the top was a small hot plate which was ideal for frying breakfast and for placing a saucepan to warm the sock lambs’ milk; there was often a hanging pot hook for the same purpose. Another important item of equipment was the oil lantern, lighting the small hut in the hours of darkness, and a must for lighting the way on the late night vigils in the lambing season.
Apart from a visit from the farmer, or a neighbour looker, it was a lonely life, the highlight for many being on the Sunday when his family came to spend the day, bringing with them enough food supplies to last another week.
Extracts from Romney Marsh Yesteryears and Sheephouses On Romney Marsh by Edward Carpenter, used with his kind permission.