The woman who has lived in a shed in Cornwall for a decade
PUBLISHED: 09:48 18 November 2020 | UPDATED: 09:48 18 November 2020
Photo: Mike Newman
Writer and musician Catrina Davies was longing to come home to the beloved west Cornwall of her childhood. But why did the Cambridge graduate take the radical decision to move into a dilapidated shed?
Catrina, now in her 40s, lives in a shed made of wood and corrugated iron measuring eighteen feet by six. It’s on the Penwith peninsula, 10 miles from the nearest town, with nothing but fields and sky to the south and west. (NB To protect Catrina’s privacy, please can we not be any more specific about where she lives.)
“I find comfort and security in nature. Ever since I could walk, I was allowed to run wild. I explored as far as my legs could carry me. By the time I was 12, I knew every inch of this peninsula,” she adds. “I had seen the sun rise out of the sea countless times, followed every river back to its source and worked out where to swim when the sea was rough and the wind was blowing a gale.”
“After an early morning swim with seals nearby, I love coming round the bend on my bike in the early morning and catching sight of my sea-coloured shed, nestling comfortably on its crossroads. I like the light and the solitude, and I like spending most of my time outside,” she explains.
Following her English degree at Cambridge University, Catrina had struggled with eating disorders and anxiety, spent a year busking from Norway to Portugal and done a variety of jobs. She found herself, aged 31, renting a small room in a Bristol house share for £400 a month. Despite teaching cello and writing for websites, worrying about how she was going to pay the rent was making her ill with stress.
She longed to get back to a simpler life in the Cornish countryside of her childhood but was priced out of the housing market. “If food prices had rise as fast as house prices in the years since I came of age, a chicken would cost £51,” she says. “Home ownership has become impossible for most people under 40.”
Feeling lost, she went onto Google Earth and zoomed in until she found the peninsula that still felt like home. “I found my old primary school, my secondary school and, about two miles from where our last family home was, the standalone, dilapidated shed which Dad had owned and used as his office before he went bankrupt.”
Catrina envisaged herself waking up in the shed, going outside, listening to the birds. She took the radical decision to go and live there. “I was meant to be a stopgap. There was no electricity, no toilet, no heating and no shower. The nearest public toilets were on the cricket field. It was full of mice and spiders and the remains of Dad’s business.
“I read by candlelight and washed under the outside tap. Which is not to say that I didn’t talk often and at length about the virtues of a hot shower. Doing without is the best way to ensure a good yield of pleasure from even the most mundane things.”
But over the last four years, Catrina has, piece by piece, rebuilt the shed and her own peace of mind. “I spent one whole weekend on the roof, putting new corrugated sheets over the old ones. I scoured the county for second hand windows and doors. A local boat builder made a new frame for an old glass door and hung it for me. The shed was transformed – full of light. I could lie on the floorboards in a patch of sunlight and read or watch the sky until it got dark.”
Catrina didn’t think she had a clue about gardening and could have felt defeated by the head-high nettles, thistle and brambles. But she discovered “an instinct for growing things, a sort of cellular memory that I suspect all humans share. I plant things I can’t afford to buy such as rocket, spinach and sugar snap peas.”
These days, she has a wood-burner fuelled with gorse she collects from the cliff tops and wood from skips, building sites and clients’ gardens. “When it’s on, the shed is toasty and my boyfriend has installed an electric shower in my lean-to.”
Now the shed has electricity (her monthly bills are still only £10), she really appreciates that she can “read without straining my eyes and type words on my laptop, instead of scrawling them in the half-dark with a pencil.”
“Homes aren’t just about aspiration, they’re about nest-building. Living in rented accommodation, on short-term tenancies, where there is no opportunity to invest time and effort in homemaking, means missing out on one of life’s great pleasures. It was hard work, but the satisfaction of creating a home for myself made up for the work a hundred times over.”
She makes ends meet through a combination of writing and manual labour: gardening, cleaning holiday cottages and working in a café. “I’ve swapped fridges and radiators for freedom. Although my lifestyle has its challenges, my shed represents freedom to spend time on things that matter to me: writing, surfing, singing, running and making music.”
She loves cycling (“I have a second-hand touring bike with two very good panniers and a rack for my surfboard,”) and only uses her old Berlingo van when she has to move heavy gardening equipment or bags of laundry.
Surrounded by nature, Catrina is witnessing the effects of climate change up close. “It’s easier to be insulated in a city. But living here in the shed, I’ve noticed fewer songbirds and fewer owls, fewer wildflowers and less variety. Winters are warmer and weather patterns seem to be disrupted. It’s harder to grow things. The fishermen say there are fewer mackerel too.
“I always thought of the sea as the one place where humans weren’t in control and I felt truly free. So the thought of plastic pollution and dead zones in the sea fills me with grief and rage,” says Catrina who’s a vegetarian and and refuses to buy plastic-wrapped fruit and veg.
Her stripped back, sustainable lifestyle has made her all the more critical of consumerism. “It’s a tragedy. The world is literally burning to service it. The Amazon rainforest produces 20% of the world’s oxygen but it’s being burned to the ground because of our desire for an endless supply of cheap burgers and cheap leather. I believe that the housing and ecology crises are both symptoms of humans’ underlying sickness: greed.”
“To save the planet, we all need to radically change the way we live. Many studies show that materialistic tendencies are linked to decreased life satisfaction. So, although giving up things like meat, flying and driving may seem like a sacrifice, it could actually make us all a lot happier in the long run. I rattled around rootless for years, feeling homesick. But I no longer feel homesick now I live in my shed. I have finally managed to carve myself a space for living. I am home. And it feels good.”
HOMESICK Why I live in a shed by Catrina Davies is a hardback, published by riverrun at £16.99