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A temporary or woodland shelter

"A man's tent is like God's Temple"Kyrgyz proverb

All warm-blooded creatures need shelter from time to time, and mankind is no exception. In Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, (an analysis of human necessites), the requirement to have physical protection from the elements, safety and security are at the bottom level, and are therefore the most important to us. It comes as no surprise that the need for physical shelter is always of prime importance in the constant struggle to survive, and Man has been seeking or building shelter throughout his history.

This struggle to be protected and safe means that human beings will tend to construct shelters for themselves wherever they are, and for nomadic peoples, it is still vital, even though their housing may be of a temporary nature. The bender is such a construction, and the basic design is common to many cultures, all over the world.

In Britain, benders were traditionally used by woodland craftsman such as bodgers and woodsmen, as protection both for themselves and their tools. Romany people also used them from time to time, and indeed, George Borrow described many such constructions during his time travelling with gypsies. It is the bender which often forms the basis for shelters built by survivors (as in the typical Robinson Crusoe scenario), and often, they have been made more permanent by the application of clay or pitch to render them more weatherproof.

I will describe the type of bender that I am most familiar with – the design may vary from place to place, according to the nature of the building and the time and materials available, but the underlying principle is always the same.

At its simplest, a bender is built on a circular plan, from wooden poles that are secured to the ground, and bent over to meet at the top. This framework is covered with something to keep out wind and rain, and some form of doorway is created to allow access to the interior. The most straightforward designs use slender poles of hazel or ash, about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter at the widest, and around 15-20 feet (3-4 metres) in length. A 20-foot pole length allows you to build a bender of about 8-10 feet in diameter, so having procured your timber, dig pits wherever you need, for the number of poles required.

Benders have been seen at many festivals (including and especially Glastonbury), the Teepee Valley in Wales, and almost anywhere where travellers gather. Their history of many thousands of years is unlikely to come to a finish anytime soon.

The construction of a bender

Obviously, the number and length of poles you use will need depends on many factors - the nature of the hut (overnight shelter or semi-permanent occupation), the size needed, the weather conditions and the use to which you are putting it. A simple, small overnight shelter in good conditions may require only four 15-foot poles, but a sturdier long-term shelter would need more.

So, let us imagine that we are building a more substantial dwelling, which will contend with heavy weather for some time. We want a circular floorspace about 10 feet (3 meters) diameter, with enough room indside to be able to sit comfortably. The circumference will be about 75 feet (22 meters), and we want it to be strong. We select around twenty poles from young trees, or from coppiced stumps, and dig foot-deep pits around a circle, about 4-5 feet apart. The four strongest poles are placed in the pits at opposite ends from one another, and bent in toward the centre, and their tops secured together with twine or other appropriate material (young bark or vines).

Having secured the base and formed the basic framework, the slimmer poles are secured in between, and again, tied at the top. This gives maximum strength as well as flexibility. (One of the features of a bender is that, like a tent, it will flex in the wind.) This done, some lateral strength is given by attaching horizontal struts to the ribs of the bender to help make it more secure, and to provide some support for the covering material. In this case, one or two struts will be required, so weave thinner, whippy green wood in and out of the ribs, and tie them into place.

Our bender is almost complete – all we need to do now is cover it with something to keep out the elements! Nowadays, either stout canvas or tarpaulin is used, but the true woodland bender would use thinner leafy branches and twigs. Other traditional materials include animal hides, as in the Native American sweat lodge, and mud, clay or pitch are often used where available. Again, the covering material will depend on how well you have planned, or whatever materials are available (to create wattle and daub dwellings). I have seen overnight benders covered in plastic sheeting, although a good wind will certainly cause abrasion, leading to nasty holes in the fabric, which defeats some of the object. It has to be said, however, that partial shelter is better than none!