Robert Somerville is unashamedly nostalgic. Yes, he admits, it might seem naive and romantic to look back fondly on a time when people worked by hand, when power tools were unheard of, and when it took a large team to build a reliable structure, but ‘perhaps we romanticise the things we really miss and yearn for,’ he argues. Perhaps. He is certainly convincing. His story of raising a barn using traditional methods and tools, surrounded by a group of volunteers (the Barn Club) who crave nothing more than to be immersed in nature and work with their hands, is immensely appealing. Even on the most practical level (using hand-tools rather than electrical ones means that co-workers can actually talk to each other throughout the working day) raises the logical-sounding possibility that modern carpentry is worse for the mental health of its practitioners than the old kind.
There is much to admire in this unassuming book. Part nature writing (Somerville spends much time among the elm trees he uses in his work, admiring their steady growth and the wildlife they harbour), part practical manual and part ode to the restorative potential of working with the hands, it is a soothing reminder that not everyone is in thrall to the fast-paced, impersonal nature of modern life. That there is a place in Devon where a team of carpenters work quietly together, using sustainable materials to create a beautiful and long-lasting structure.